Country singer George Jones gathered up some friends last Tuesday night at the Country Club in Reseda to tape a pay TV special. However, unlike the usual celebrity-stuffed snoremonger, this event was worth the drive up to the Valley. Jones assembled an awesome lineup of performers — in order of performance the 1,000 people who crowded into the facility saw Tammy Wynette. Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello and Tanya Tucker.
Though the technical logistics involved in videotaping all these artists caused numerous delays that disrupted the flow of performances, the opportunity to see half the royalty in country music on one stage was a potential treat that proved enjoyable and at times fascinating.
Jones proved that the fealty being paid him by his associates was deserved. While his sales have never really reflected the level of his talent, his onstage solos Tuesday left no doubt about his abilities. Jones' husky voice is so rich that one starts reaching for metaphors to do it justice — perhaps something ludicrous like "a feather being dragged over crushed velvet" comes close.
Jones alternately sang duets with the other performers (his tandem efforts with Jennings and longtime partner Tammy Wynette were the best) and acted as emcee through the long evening, but it was his own solo performances that were the most striking. Though rehearsals had started as early as 10:30 a.m., Jones was still going strong after midnight with brilliant renditions of emotionally charged ballads like "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me Her Memory Will."
In reality, though, Costello's appearance made perfect sense. In the few interviews he's given during the past five years he has inevitably raved about country music in general and Jones in particular. His infatuation with Jones' artistry was confirmed in 1979 when he sang one number in duet with Jones on the country singer's star-studded but largely disappointing LP My Very Special Guests.
Costello's appearance Tuesday night ensured a rather interesting audience mix. The long line of people wrapped around the Country Club prior to the show was about four parts Valley cowboys to one part teenage trendies. Adding an extra twist to the odd assortment was the fact that neither faction knew all that much about acts the other group was there to see. With a cowboy hat firmly planted on his head and a can of beer in his hand, Jerry Paulsen was waiting to see "George, Tammy, Waylon and whoever else shows up," When asked about Costello he said, "I've never heard of the guy to tell you the truth. However, if he's playing with George he's gotta be OK."
About 20 people further back in the line, 19-year-old Terry Ross from Canoga Park was waiting with two of his friends. All of them were sporting Costello T-shirts obtained at his recent Sports Arena concert. Ross and company had a vague idea who Jones was (only because Costello had sung with him on record), but when it, came to names like Jessi Colter and Tanya Tucker, they retreated back to "we just want to see Elvis."
Costello himself left little doubt as to his own happiness in being part of the show. In spite of battling the mumps he was unusually animated and enthusiastic, pausing at one point to say "I wouldn't have missed this occasion if I'd been on my deathbed."
The band Costello brought with him added to the unprecedented feel of the performance. In addition to Costello regulars Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Hart on piano, Costello had in tow his producer Nick Lowe on bass and local artist John Hiatt on lead guitar. With or without Jones it was quite an ensemble.
Costello and Jones teamed up for three numbers, and even with a swollen throat Costello delivered emotionally packed vocals as his part of the duets. After breaking the ice with a quick run-through of Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," Costello and Jones next went through a couple of wonderful takes of Patsy Cline's "He's Got You," They finished off with Costello's own "Stranger In The House."
All the numbers received big responses, but perhaps the most memorable part of the duo's stagetime came during a break between the second and third numbers. Jones started to fool around and sing Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman," and the band immediately jumped in. Though brief, the impromptu jam was one of those magic moments that transcend the usual course of things.
There was a lengthy break after Costello's stint and as the evening went on and on much of the audience drifted away. The atmosphere in the Country Club seemed to alternate between bouts of lethargic boredom and sporadic pleasure — the feeling seeming to be that the constant retakes which kept the evening going until 1:30 a.m. were a little too much.
The format of constant flub-ups and retakes proved to be an intriguing and enjoyable departure from the usual canned, predictable structure of concerts. First off, it was a treat to see people like Jennings, Costello and Jones in such a small room. Also, it was very interesting to see such normally slick professionals in a situation that exposed their humanness rather than their star qualities.
The chance to reshoot material clearly threw a number of the artists off base. Under normal circumstances, live singing is a one-shot deal, and people at this level of talent are capable of responding in the clutch with flawless performances. Here the rules were changed — it was like doing studio work in front of a thousand people.
The various artists each reacted differently. Where Wynette was cool and self-assured, getting each number right the first time out, Jennings was clearly uneasy in having to read "amusing anecdotes" about Jones off of cue-cards to the cameras.
Perhaps the contrast between Tucker's performance and Harris' provided the biggest contrast. In addition, this contrast pointed out the differences between entertainers and artists.
Tucker came on late, but her rendition of "Pecos Promenade" and duet with Jones on "Together Again" bristled with energy and stage professionalism. Attired in an outfit that seemed more lingerie than clothing, Tucker danced through the choreographed solo number and read her lines with a minimum of fuss.
On the other hand, Harris had difficulties pleasing herself. Bothered by inoperative sound monitors and the technical requirements of the taping, she tried to do her songs over and over, growing more unsettled every time things went awry. On her try at Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind" she stopped and simply said, "I can't do this one again."
Superficially, one might suppose that Tucker was the one who proved herself. However, Harris' inabilities seemed more important than Tucker's success. While some performers are capable of cranking it out on cue, Harris simply can't perform by rote — the music has emotional meaning and an artist like Harris can't respond like one of Pavlov's dogs. While Tucker was charming and frisky, one guesses that she would have no problems skipping from "Amazing Grace" into "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On the Bedpost Overnight."
Things like this made the evening so interesting, and while most of the kinks and nuances will doubtlessly be ironed out by the time the show airs on Home Box Office (date as yet undetermined), it should be worth seeing. While the intimacy will be lessened on the screen, the edited performances by talents of this caliber should be memorable.
One final note from the Jones affair. Good news for Rockpile fans, The rift between Dave Edmunds on the one side and Nick Lowe and manager Jake Rivera on the other would seem to be closing if not completely healed. Edmunds made the trek out to L.A. with Lowe and Costello, and though he didn't participate in the evening's taping, the Welsh singer (a known country fanatic) was seen at the Country Club watching the proceedings.