Review of concert from 2001-04-25 and 26: Los Angeles, UCLA's Royce Hall; Harry Smith Project
Surf Santa Monica, 2001-05-04
- Tomm Carroll


UCLA's Harry Smith Project a Star-Studded Distillation of American Folk Music

by Tomm Carroll

Wow. What a couple of fascinating, insightful, historical and looooong evenings at UCLA's Royce Hall this past Wednesday and Thursday. Music's master mix-and-match-maker Hal Willner's two-night tribute to folk song archivist Harry Smith was the concert event of the season, if not the year. The set lists and artists for each night were similar, but not identical. The performances may have been rambling and a bit ragged, but they were always right on.

A mega-hootenanny featuring nearly 40 diverse musicians performing (mostly) the largely obscure pre-Depression hymns, blues and murder ballads from Smith's collection (originally compiled as The Anthology of American Folk Music for Folkways in 1952 and released as a CD box set in 1997), the two evenings of The Harry Smith Project were exhaustive -- and not a little bit exhausting. But even as the running time slipped past five hours, many die-hard fans found it difficult to leave. How could you? You didn't know what you might miss!

Akin to a live version of Willner's multi-artist tribute albums to Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk, Disney songs, etc., the band members and lead singers shifted from song to song to provide an ever-changing musical mosaic, most of it marvelous with only a few missteps.

Among the many varied highlights: Beck getting back to his roots on Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down," Todd Rundgren and Eric Mingus leading a gospel sing-along of the Fugs' "River of Shit," Marianne Faithfull scraping her sandpaper voice against "Spike Driver Blues" re-born country folkie David Johansen(!) voicing a gritty, baritoned ode to "Old Dog Blue," Steve Earle singing a knowing "Prison Cell Blues," and Van Dyke Parks, with a string quartet led by legendary fiddler Richard Greene, concocting a pop operetta out of "Butcher's Boy."

Also, Kate and Anna McGarrigle were joined by Elvis Costello (who contributed a lyrical coda) on the lovely murder ballad "Ommie Wise," clarinetist Don Byron lead the band through an avant-jazz take on "This Song of Love." portly Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas performed a wacky, absurdist "Fishin' Blues," Eliza Carthy warbled and fiddled "99 Year Blues" and assisted Richard Thompson on "The Coo Coo Bird," Philip Glass provided live piano accompaniment to Smith's experimental film shorts, and Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer tapped into some comic relief as the Folksmen with their Kingston trio-ish take on the "Flashback" theme.

Band members included such luminaries as guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Larry Taylor, percussionist D.J. Bonebrake, keyboardist Garth Hudson (who performed the post-1 a.m. exit music on Royce's pipe organ both nights), multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney and guitarist Smokey Hormel, who also did a gargantuan job as music director.

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