- 16 Oct 18
The Roots Maestro Returns To The South Circular. Pat Carty Looks On In Wonder.
The more mature rock n’ roll fan will gladly talk the ear off you about the National Stadium and its place in Irish rock history – Rory, Lizzy, Horslips, Zeppelin, etc, etc - but it hasn’t been at the centre of things lately to say the least. I go to the odd gig and I haven’t been at a show here, at least not one where two fellas weren’t trying to box the heads off each other in a canvas ring, since the Black Crowes in nineteen hundred and ninety-one. Go even further back and the most handsome and erudite magazine editor of all time, Mr Niall Stokes, will whisper to you over a glass of good wine, in that honeyed accent that could launch ships, about how Ry Cooder’s show here in 1977 was one of the best things he’s ever seen, and he’s been known to go out of an evening too.
I missed the opening set from Cooder’s son, Joachim - more of whom later - due to an important meeting down the road, so I had some time before the main event to venture into the stadium bar, which is still reassuringly reminiscent of the village halls I used to do the Scór na nÓg in back in the seventies. They’re selling cup-a-soups and club milks at the concession stand too. I was introduced to Dave McCartney, who looks after the venue. He seems genuinely delighted to have rock n’ roll back in the building, telling me a story about the might Bryan Adams who, upon seeing the venue, couldn’t believe it was the National Stadium as he’d warmed up in dressing rooms that were bigger. Taking our seats, you can kind of see what he’s on about, but it’s is perfect for this type of show. There aren’t really any bad seats and the feeling is intimate, unlike other branded venues in the city where, if you’re unlucky with the tickets, you might as well be sitting in the car park. Let’s hope this is the start of something on the South Circular.
As an augur, the most recent album, Prodigal Son, boded well. After several, at times patience-testing, concept albums, this was a return to what most of us think he does best – panning the various streams of American roots music for gold. Cooder walks on carrying a MacBook but just in case anyone thinks he’s about to throw down a set of banging techno he opens with ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, a song that stretches all the way back to Blind Willie Johnson 1927. With just a few ringing slide notes, he evokes his incredible soundtrack recordings for Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, recordings based around the main motif from Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’ which Cooder has referred to as “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music”. As you read this, Johnson’s recording is spinning through the vastness of space, waiting to be discovered again on the Voyager 1 golden record. All that in the first song.
“I’ve been here a couple of times. Nice to come back to the old joint” Cooder says, under bobbled hat and behind darkened glasses before welcoming the Grammy nominated singing trio, The Hamiltones to the stage to help with ‘Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right’, another Johnson song. The playing is masterful, and Cooder’s solo of course, but it’s carried by the rolling shuffle groove laid down by “no. 1 son” Joachim behind the kit. Cooder Jr has been on the road with his father for decades, and it shows. It’s not flashy drumming, it just serves the song perfectly. “I assume y’all like Blind Willie Johnson, right?”, Cooder more demands than asks at the songs end. If anyone in the room didn’t before tonight, they most assuredly do now.
‘Straight Street’, a gospel hit for The Pilgrim Travellers back in 1950, is played at a slightly slower pace than the album version, with a casually brilliant strummed solo from the maestro. There’s another Mexican-flavoured one during ‘Go Home, Girl’ from 1979’s celebrated Bop Till You Drop, The Hamiltones echoing the heartbreak of Arthur Alexander’s original, although it must be said Cooder’s in good voice too.
You can see what that MacBook is for on ‘Harbour Of Love’. Combined with the various treated saxophones played by Sam Gendel, his “brass multiplicitude” as his boss will call it later, it becomes this ethereal sequencer upon which the rest of the song floats, the lyrics about the river Jordan combining with the dim stage lights to transport us all somewhere else. During ‘The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)’ Cooder Jr’s drums and Gendel’s honking sax duel for the main man’s attention, before Cooder Sr goes off for a “hit of oxygen” and lets The Hamiltones take over.
Their “Highway 74” and ‘Gotta Be Lovin’ Me’, during which Cooder is back on stage, playing along on a double necked monster with more strings attached than a bad contract, are a beautiful update of The Impressions by way of a hint of The Isley Brothers, it would be nice to see them do their own show at some point.
Picking up his acoustic guitar, Cooder introduces this solo section by promising one song from Woody Guthrie and one about him. ‘Vigilante Man’ takes swipes at the weak minds of Trump, recent Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh, and the shooting of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. When it ends, we get a rambling story about how steel guitar players – from Ralph Mooney To Sneaky Pete – have a special place in heaven where Jesus finds Guthrie listening and they go for a walk. This leads into a heart-breaking rendition of ‘Jesus And Woody’. It’s a truly great show, but this acoustic set is the highlight.
A note here on the guitar playing, although it’s hardly needed. The Crossroads movie from 1986, to which Cooder contributed, is a bit hokey to say the least, but the scenes where Ralph Macchio’s blues disciple has a guitar battle with Steve Vai in front of the devil for his mate’s soul (or something) are kind of relevant. Vai plays all sorts of ridiculous, over the top shite, but soulful playing, and a bit of Paganini, wins the day. Cooder is a bit like that. His career, ranging from Captain Beefheart to Ali Farka Touré To Cuba, has been a testament to good taste and restraint. He could quite easily do all that fancy stuff, one assumes, but there's no need when he can say more with one note than most musicians can say with one hundred.
He’s playing what might be an electric bouzouki for ‘You Must Unload’ and ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, and make it chime, but both songs feature Gendel’s sax just a tad too much, his sound sometimes drifting a little too close to that made by the lad you used to see charming snakes out of baskets in old Ali Baba movies.
Cooder considers passing round the hat before a relaxed take on ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?’, after which he explains, alongside another dig at Trump, that a song like that could be written by someone like Blind Alfred Reed back in 1929 because people had time to cogitate, before everyone was running around with a cell phone. The solo he takes during this song is a thing of wonder altogether, stretching from Blind Willie Johnson all the way to Hawaii and Gabby Pahinui, and all points in between.
‘Down In The Boondocks’ promised the young Cooder a better world beyond school when he heard Billy Joe Royal sing it back in 1965, and ‘The Prodigal Son’ breaks down into a staccato solo, the song carried by the Hamiltones vocals, who take over for the set closing gospel of ‘Lord I’m Running/99 ½ ‘. The band barely manage to clear the stage before they’re back on for a crowd-pleasing Bop Till You Drop encore of ‘Little Sister’ and an absolutely gorgeous rendition of ‘I Can’t Win’. Cooder closes this last song by thumbing the low e string, hitting the tremolo bar and letting the harmonics chime as he grins - it's a casual signature to close out a master class. The real thing.