Guitar legend and American roots-music champion Ry Cooder is elated. Here’s why.
Ry Cooder has a new lease on life, musically speaking, and the legendary guitarist and roots-music champion couldn’t be more delighted about his first album in six years and his first concert tour in a decade.
“I’m happy to say things have brightened up,” said Cooder, whose past collaborators range from the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart and Neil Young to Emmylou Harris, The Monkees and Cuba’s all-star Buena Vista Social Club, whose Grammy Award-winning 1997 album he produced. His credits also include the musical scores for 24 feature films, including “Paris, Texas,” “The Long Riders” and “The Border.”
“I’m having more fun than I used to,” Cooder continued, speaking from his Santa Monica home. “I don’t know exactly why, but I can guess at it, although ‘fun’ is a funny word. Anybody who says (being in the music business) is a bowl of cherries is lying. But it is more fun now.”
True to his word, Cooder sounds better than ever on his 17th and newest album, “The Prodigal Son.” He and his new band will promote it with a rare San Diego area concert next Sunday, Aug. 19, at California Center for the Arts, Escondido, whose 2018-19 season opens with his performance.
“The Prodigal Son” follows Cooder’s five most recent releases, which were all expertly crafted and had overt political and social themes. They range from 2005’s “Chavez Ravine” and 2007’s “The Grapes of Wrath”-inspired “My Name Is Buddy” to 2012’s “Election Special,” which skewered that year’s presidential campaign, Wall Street subterfuge, the Koch brothers and more.
Ten songs strong, “The Prodigal Son” celebrates Cooder’s roots in early blues, gospel and spiritual music. With supremely soulful vocal support from Terry Evans, Bobby King and Arnold McCuller, Cooder — who sings and plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and keyboards on the album — puts his distinctive stamp on any array of classic songs. That these songs have new resonance in these troubled, politically polarized times is more than coincidental.
“I’m not any kind of pop (music) guy,” Cooder said. “I’m not good at that, so go get somebody who is good at that.”
Highlights on “The Prodigal Son” include his versions of earthy gems by Blind Willie Johnson (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right”), the Pilgrim Travelers (“Straight Street), the Stanley Brothers (“Harbor of Love”), William Dawson (“In His Care”), Alfred Reed (“You Must Unload”) and Blind Roosevelt Graves’ (“I’ll Be Rested When the Roll Is Called”). The album also features three Cooder originals, including “Jesus and Woody,” which chronicles what a chat between Christ and folk-music pioneer Woody Guthrie might entail.
Weathered songs with subtle modern twists
Yet, despite the weathered vintage of these songs, there is a subtle — and decidedly modern — twist. While focusing on Cooder’s rustic singing and masterful bottleneck-guitar-playing, many of the album’s 10 songs are built on electronic soundscapes and loops created by Cooder’s son, Joachim. He has become his father’s closest artistic collaborator in recent years and is also the drummer on “The Prodigal Son” and in Cooder’s new touring band.
“Having my son on drums has made a huge difference,” Cooder, 71, said.
“I can’t stress this strongly enough, in terms of the groove space and style that Joachim gave me to instinctively play what I felt in a more free way, rather than feeling constricted. That’s true on record and on stage. Playing on stage used to be such a problem for me. I had so many problems on stage that I had to give it up (10 years ago). With Joachim on board, it’s a whole different deal.”
To hear the elder Cooder tell it, “The Prodigal Son” wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for Joachim having implored him to make a new album.
“I asked Joachim: ‘Make a record? ’A record of what?’ ” Cooder recalled with a chortle. “And Joachim said: ‘You did all those real hardcore political songs — don’t do that anymore.’ I said: ‘Well, what am I supposed to do?’ He said: ‘You’ll figure it out.’
“Then, because he had these fluid ambient tracks that he came up with, I thought: ‘I can hear (doing the Stanley Brothers’ 1954 classic) “Harbor of Love” over that.’ And, as it turned out with the gospel songs on this album, I was watching for an opportunity to utilize these (soundscapes) and invoke something the songs are saying — some people would say it’s the message. But it’s more than that — a feeling, an idea.”
Joachim, 40, was not yet a teenager when he made his San Diego concert debut as a drummer at the Belly Up, where he accompanied his celebrated father and fellow guitar great David Lindley on their unplugged encore of the garage-rock staple, “Wooly Bully.” It was easy for Joachim to collaborate with his dad on “The Prodigal Son,” since — at the time it was made — he and his family lived right next door to his parents in Santa Monica.
“It was all very natural,” said Joachim, whose atmospheric new EP, “Fuchsia Machu Picchu,” features his dad on guitar on several songs.
“I’m constantly playing my electric mbira (African thumb piano) and making these soundscapes in my free time. My father heard some of them, and asked: ‘Can I take this? Can I use this one?’ Or, he’d sit in the corner of the studio and start singing something over it. And I thought: ‘Wow, he’s got a whole other thing going,’ so I told him: ‘Yeah, it’s yours.’
“That’s always a fun process, hearing what somebody else hears. Because a lot of times, when you loop things up, you hear things other people don’t hear. That’s how a bunch of his songs got made and the rest were done in the studio. Everything was just different this time than on the last bunch of records that he made.”
New band brings new musical vistas
It was at Joachim’s suggestion that his father hired saxophonist/guitarist Sam Gendel for his new touring band, which also features keyboardist Glenn Patscha and bassist Robert Francis.
The far bigger challenge, Cooder noted, was finding qualified vocal support.
Terry Evans, who had been singing with Cooder for the past four decades and is featured on “The Prodigal Son,” died shortly after the album was completed. Arnold McCuller, who is also on the album, was already committed to a summer tour with James Taylor.
“I told Arnold: ‘I have nobody to sing with!’ It’s a whole different world now with all these young guys,” Cooder recalled. “Arnold said: ‘There’s only one thing to do. Get The HamilTones.’ Well, it wasn’t so easy to do, but fate worked out.”
Best known for their work with R&B vocal star Anthony Hamilton, The HamilTones’ three singers — Corey Williams, Tony Lelo and J. Vito — are based in Charlotte, N.C. Lelo and Vito both grew up performing gospel music, while Williams has worked with Jodeci and K-Ci & JoJo.
Cooder effusively describes The HamilTones as “the last of their kind on the planet.” He also raves about the keyboard-like effects saxophonist Gendel can get by using harmonizers and other electronic gear.
Asked about his musical role, Cooder replied: “All I know is, I play the guitar, beat it out, and sing a song that has some damn resonance, that we feel as musicians. We send it out and people get it, and that’s a good thing.”
With the mid-term elections coming this fall, followed by the 2020 presidential election, might Cooder consider making a sequel to his 2012 “Election Special” album?
In a word, no.
But based on the audience response to his current concert tour, he senses his listeners are hungry for vital music that addresses these turbulent, troubled times.
“I can tell you this,” Cooder said. “Lately, doing these shows, I do a version of (Woody Guthrie’s) ‘Vigilante Man’ and my song, ‘ Jesus and Woody.’ And when I get to the ‘Jesus and Woody’ verse — I like sinners better than fascists — that gets the biggest applause of the night. And I throw in a verse about (the murder) of Trayvon Martin in ‘Vigilante Man,’ and that gets a big hand, too. …
“People respond to any good you can do in music. And, these days, I would say people are anorexic for these things, whether it’s by me or anybody. This has to be the reason they come to the show; not just to get a beer and make cell-phone calls like the young do — God help them. These people we’re seeing now who come to hear us are mostly all 50 and up. They know we’re living in a certain time and they probably have a pretty good idea of what the circumstances are that people and society find themselves in. ...
“But we don’t have to harp on that. It’s the musical context you put it in that has some power, something to offer — a good feeling — rather than just (singing): ‘My baby done left me.’ ‘My baby done left me’ is OK. But it can’t compare to (Blind Alfred Reed’s 1927 classics) ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’ or ‘You Must Unload’ — songs that can never be written again, and never will be.”
Ry Cooder, featuring The HamilTones
When: 7:30 p.m. next Sunday, Aug. 19
Where: California Center for the Arts, Escondido, 340 North Escondido Blvd.
Tickets: $35-$70, plus service charges
Phone: (800) 988-4253
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