Picture this: T-Bone Burnette, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Richard Thompson, Warren Zevon, David Lindley, Jennifer Warnes, John Hiatt and Nicolette Larson, all gathered in a small, crammed room, bashing out spirited versions of songs by Hank Williams, the Isley Brothers and the Byrds, in an effort of real cooperation. Sounds a little unlikely, doesn't it? Sort of like a haphazard update of Bob Dylan's mid-70s touring folk-rock fantasy, the Rolling Thunder Revue? Well, just such an improbable cast came together this last Saturday at the tail end of an evening of solo, duet and trio performances at the Santa Monica guitar shop, McCabe's. The event was ostensibly a celebration of the store's 10th anniversary as the most imaginative folk venue in Los Angeles, though as it developed it was also a farewell tribute to concert director Nancy Covey, who leaves the shop later this month to produce a film documentary of 92-year-old black folk artist Elizabeth Cotten.
Clearly, that so many diverse pop artists gathered amiably for such a once-in-a-lifetime occasion was a fine testament to how Covey — and her assistant Tracey Strawn (who is also leaving the venue, to pursue a singing career) — have managed to reinvigorate the once-dormant folk scene in this city. But it was also something more a sign of the new openness that is beginning to shape pop at large. That Elvis Costello and Jackson Browne can share verses on "Why Don't You Love Me," "Twist and Shout" and "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" proves that such socially and culturally diverse artists have something more in common than a mere flair for artful-usage-conscious songwriting.
L.A. art-pop prodigy Van Dyke Parks opened the program (following a pleasant one-song, Mel Torme-style jazz-folk number by McCabe's owner, Bobby Kimball). Accompanying himself splendidly on piano, Parks (who has arranged many of the best works by the Beach Boys and Randy Newman, and also played keyboards on the Byrds' "Eight Miles High") performed numbers from his recent Charles Ives-influenced musical about Brer Rabbit, Jump, as well as a terrifically moving song about how America seems to be turning its back more and more on its dispossessed populations.
Parks also later played accordion with British guitarist and singer/ songwriter Richard Thompson, who is as close to an overlooked equivalent of Bob Dylan as the U.K. scene has ever produced. A good-humored, beguiling man who sings transfixing songs about spiritual desolation and plays guitar with the visceral force of Neil Young, Thompson performed such haunting songs as "Withered and Died" (beautifully covered recently by Elvis Costello) and "Shoot Out the Lights" on Saturday. He then invited the excellent LA country-pop singer Jennifer Warnes on-stage for a few numbers, including an outstanding new song, "The Heart of the Matter."
But despite Thompson's stirring set (and despite an earlier, graceful performance by Jackson Browne and David Lindley), the Most Valuable Performer of the show was T-Bone Burnette, the Texas-born rocker who has been making moral-minded American music for over a decade now, and who Warner Bros. Records — in a textbook example of corporate stupidity — just dropped from their roster. Burnette (accompanied by guitarist Ry Cooder) made some joking references to Warners' decision during his solo set, just before performing a forceful cover of John Fogerty's "Lodi" — a song about rock destiny as a vision of recurrent, mundane bell. Beyond that, Bone performed mostly new material, which, with Cooder's embellishment, had more emotional wallop than anything else in the evening. Indeed, such songs as "Having a Wonderful Time (Wish You Were Her)" and "Hawaiian Blue Song" had such tremendous appeal, and such a resonant sense of loss and yearning about them, one can only hope he takes them in the studio soon and records them in the same direct, sparse manner that he brought to them on Saturday.
Burnette later performed in a duet with Warren Zevon (the elusive hard-boiled rocker debuted a magnificent new song about "Boom Boom" Mancini), and then appeared with Elvis Costello for a rendition of George Jones' "I'm Ragged but Right," and with Costello and John Hiatt for Hiatt's "She Loves the Jerk" and George Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care." Burnette worked so effectively with so many artists because be has an unerring sense for the heart of a song, and a knack for making that sense into a credible, affecting performance that lifts music above technical prowess or emotional showiness, and instead makes it seem a work of heartfelt communication. Whether performing folk, country or rock, whether singing of a lost love or a lost America, Bone brings the gift of belief to his work — and that is clearly an attractive trait to artists as intelligent (and intractable) as Costello and Zevon.
But then Burnette — who played extensively with Dylan's Rolling Thunder troupe — has had plenty of experience at this kind of roughhewn communal stuff. For hint, and indeed, for everybody who appeared at McCabe's on Saturday, the best rock or the best folk isn't music that is simply a statement of ambition or arrogance or outrage, but a method of communicating one's most strongly held dreams and convictions to a real community of fellow travellers — both fans and performers Perhaps that's why, when the evening's stars came together at the end to sing a few country and R&B gems, Costello seized the impetus to close the night with a rave-up version of the Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" Maybe it was just a joke or maybe just a reassertion of a restless dream, but Costello, Burnette and the rest were simply affirming that certain ideals die hard.
In a way, that's what the current folk-rock resurgence — which McCabe's and Nancy Covey have helped make not just possible, but also more open-minded and newly meaningful — is all about. We are very fortunate to have such a consequential venue in this city, and, of course, that is exactly what every performer on Saturday was attempting to tell us.