It's hard to stage a winning concert when you start out with two strikes — even if you're blessed with some of the pop-rock world's most illustrious singer-songwriters, including Elvis Costello, Steve Earle and Beck.
By stretching from 8 p.m. to almost 1:30 a.m., the Harry Smith Project concert Wednesday at UCLA's Royce Hall felt far, far too long.
Earle had one of the best lines of the night: "I knew there were 84 songs on the album," the Nashville-based songwriter told the capacity audience, referring to the Harry Smith anthology that was the central theme of the evening. "But I didn't know there would also be 84 [singers] performing them."
Earle was exaggerating, of course, but not by much. The show's producer, Hal Willner, a visionary record producer and pop theorist, apparently invited every musician in his Rolodex.
By enlisting more than three dozen singers and instrumentalists to perform — in varying combinations — some four dozen songs, the event was not only bound to stretch to five hours, but would also be subject to unevenness.
The organizers apologized good-naturedly for the excessive length Wednesday and vowed at the start of Thursday's companion concert that things would move much more efficiently. There were even suggestions backstage that the show would be cut by as much as 60 to 90 minutes.
Despite the program revisions, the minute hand on the clock was edging toward 1 a.m. when Garth Hudson brought the evening to a warm, embracing close with an organ solo.
The remarkable thing is that, ultimately, the length didn't matter. Fresh, heartfelt music has a way of defying the odds, and there were so many inspired moments both evenings that the affair was a wonder in spite of itself.
The excessiveness of the shows, in fact, was a fitting salute to what someone described as record collector and filmmaker Smith's "obsessive tenacity."
The concept both nights was for contemporary artists to play vintage songs from Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, a landmark album first released in 1952 by Folkways Records. In the collection, Smith collected blues, gospel and country recordings from the 1920s and '30s — music that reflected a humanity and daring that he felt were becoming rare in the conservative social climate of the early '50s.
The album became a musical bible for Bob Dylan and other folk-oriented singer-songwriters of the '50s and '60s, and it caused a stir among musicians again when re-released on CD in 1997 by Smithsonian Folkways Records.
To offer the diversity that Smith valued, Willner this week drew musicians ranging from folk and rock to jazz, assembling the instrumentalists (from violinist Richard Greene and guitarist Bill Frisell to clarinetist Don Byron and bassist Percy Heath) as carefully as he did the headlining singers.
He even threw in some humor with the Folksmen, the Spinal Tap spin-off that captures superbly the nuances of the commercial Kingston Trio era. The cast was also wide-ranging enough to include composer-arranger-musician Van Dyke Parks, composer Phillip Glass and electronica marvel Adam Dorn.
The singers fit roughly into three camps: the traditionalists, the radical conceptualists and the classic singer-songwriters. But they didn't remain within narrow boundaries. Costello, for instance, teamed with the folk duo of Kate and Anna McGarrigle on one number, while Earle, Beck and pop-rock veteran Todd Rundgren all joined on backing vocals for Marianne Faithfull on another.
The singer-songwriter contingent served as the heart of the evening, with Beck offering a superbly tailored rendition of blues legend Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down," before turning to an equally convincing treatment of "Down on the Banks of the Ohio," a murder ballad recorded in 1936 by the Blue Sky Boys.
Costello and Earle also did songs from the anthology, though their own styles are so rooted in country-blues tradition that they could have passed as their own.
Of the conceptualists, David Johansen, the ex-New York Dolls leader and, in his Buster Poindexter guise, cabaret singer, brought a captivating, hard-edged presence to the evening, playing three songs with a startling rock 'n' roll vengeance. In the bitter but wry "James Alley Blues" he snapped, "Sometimes I think you're too sweet to die / Another times I think you ought to be buried alive."
There were so many tales of murder, sex and violence in the anthology songs that the FTC could have probably held hearings around the clock in the '20s if it was focusing on the negative influence of music on youngsters then as it is now.
David Thomas, the leader of the veteran experimental Cleveland band Pere Ubu, was another commanding presence. On his raucous version of "Way Down the Old Plank Road" he exhibited the full-blooded desperation and desire that characterized so much early blues and folk music. Eric Mingus, the son of jazz legend Charles Mingus, reached for the same kind of energetic explosiveness but was far less convincing. His best contributions were in his bass playing.
Irish singer Gavin Friday, by contrast, offered a fascinating music-hall rendition of the eerie "Fatal Flower Garden," which was recorded in 1930 by Nelstone's Hawaiians, and an equally theatrical treatment of "When That Great Ship Went Down," recorded in 1927 by William and Versey Smith. Things were on such a roll Thursday that even pop stylist Mary Margaret O'Hara, whose numbers seemed terribly unfocused Wednesday, connected with the material.
On the traditional side, singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth was particularly effective, offering very formal, unhurried treatments of two tunes. But the segment of both shows that probably came closest to the personal, evocative tone of the Smith collection involved Garth Hudson, keyboardist with the Band, and his wife, Maude.
After he introduced "No Depression in Heaven" (recorded by the Carter Family in 1936), with deeply soulful work on the accordion, she sang the tale of economic hardship and salvation with a tender ache that made the music seem touched by an angel. The captivating sequence made it fitting that Willner would again turn to Hudson to close the show both nights.
For all the talk about the excessive length, the Harry Smith Project was a memorable event in L.A. popular music. It's disheartening that there aren't more events like this in a city with such remarkable musical resources. One hopeful sign is that David Sefton, the new director of UCLA's Center for the Performing Arts, has a deep interest in pop culture.
Amid the competitiveness and hectic pace of pop music, it's easy to forget that musicians are members of a select fraternity. This week's event enabled them to celebrate some of their musical roots and allowed us the joy of watching in such a rare, relaxed atmosphere.