Ry Cooder plays the kind of soulful and uplifting music that sounds best in cantinas, honky-tonks, roadhouses and Pentecostal churches. In a pop-rock age increasingly preoccupied with overtly commercial and homogenized music, that approach makes him an especially valuable and liberating performer.
At the sold-out Palace on Thursday night, the veteran guitarist-composer attracted a diverse audience of musicologists, film-score enthusiasts and, most of all, fans who love unpretentious, roots-conscious music.
There are, in fact, two branches of the Cooder fan club. One wing is attracted by Cooder's "regular" albums, which since 1970 have explored various facets of the earthy, grassroots side of American pop--from Cajun and blues to hillbilly and storefront gospel.
Since 1980, however, Cooder has gained increasing respect for his deeply personal and influential film scores. Building upon his interest in blues and country, he has introduced a lonesome, guitar-oriented style to sound tracks (from "The Long Riders" and "Southern Comfort" to "Paris, Texas") that echoes the contradictions and desires in the American character in a haunting, even eloquent manner.
At the Palace, Cooder's reluctance to showcase the latter, largely instrumental side of his work was the only disappointment in an otherwise stimulating two-hour affair. Cooder may sidestep the film scores because he thinks the compositions are too moody for the Palace's somewhat noisy concert atmosphere or he may simply prefer the more robust side of his music on stage.
It's that film music, however, that may well be the most enduring and original aspect of Cooder's pop vision and it's a shame he doesn't find a way to better incorporate it into the concerts--even if just a 30-minute segment at the beginning or middle of the show.
If Cooder neglected his film side Thursday, he and an all-star cast of 11 musicians and backing singers (including drummer Jim Keltner and keyboardist Van Dyke Parks) showcased the livelier side of his repertoire with considerable energy and style.
While the music itself is a delight, there is a deeper message involved in Cooder's application of such diverse styles as Tex-Mex border music and Mississippi blues. A ragged, but increasingly effective singer, Cooder leans toward songs that reflect on the innocence and conceits of people and their leaders; the way people rally against their fears and frustrations; the conflict between spiritual guidelines and just another good-time Saturday night.
While pointing a finger at greedy preachers and corrupt politicians, Cooder seems just as interested in the everyday struggles of the individual--viewing problems with the humor and exaggeration of blues and country writers. A favorite target is the battle of the sexes. Cooder turns the old Jim Reeves' hit, "He'll Have to Go," into a maudlin expression of jealousy and has even more fun with the colorful, bluesy "If Walls Could Talk"--a raucous statement of romantic paranoia.
These songs express a compassionate, even loving view of man--weaknesses and all. But Cooder may come closest to defining human ideals and frustrations with simply his guitar work. During a solo on "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," he played with a soulful, show-stopping intensity that asserted an almost spiritual, cleansing aura.
It's this integrity and purpose in tracing the back roads of America's country and blues heritage that makes Cooder's rare local appearances genuine events. The show was opened by the Mums, a mime trio that went through the usual magic and juggling tricks with considerable vigor.
GRAMMY FALLOUT: Unlike the movie Oscar, a Grammy victory does not generally translate into added sales. But Paul Simon's Grammy victory in this year's best-album category has helped revive interest in his "Graceland" LP. The album, which fell from the Top 10 in January, re-entered the Top 10 the week after the Grammy ceremony in February and is now at No. 3 in the Billboard charts. Noting the turnaround, Warner Bros. Records has re-released "You Can Call Me Al," the original single from the album. And, the second time may be the charm. In its second week on the Billboard singles chart, the good-natured "Al" jumped a snappy 23 places--to No. 69.