It was a pretty nepotistic lineup. But when you've got this much talent in and around the family, who's gonna whinge? The captivating Juliette Commagere, (if I've my facts straight) highschool sweetheart of Joachim Cooder, Ry's son and drummer (who looks, at a glance, uncannily like Kram), opened the bidding, as early as 7.30, embarking on a set of her latterly legendary dreamy, darkly-coloured journeys, imbued with a not so fragile beauty, exemplified on her debut album, of late last year, Queens Die Proudly.
She's one of those overnight successes that's been kicking around for a while, as a keytar virtuoso, as well as popping-up on backing vocals here-and-there, whether on a Ry Cooder album, or behind enigmatic Inara George (daughter of Lowell), in the Bird and the Bee. She's opened for Foo Fighters and Kings Of Leon. Multi-instrumental folkster Robert Francis is her bro'. She's collaborated with Tool's Maynard James Keenan (Puscifer). You'll here her on Avenged Sevenfold's latest album. But she's probably best-known for her membership of Hello Stranger. She has form. And versatility. Her plumage alters dramatically, from project to project.
I can't pretend to be overly familiar with her material, but am now motivated to investigate and immerse myself in her very particular brand of quite upbeat, painterly power pop. Joachim is very much the backbone, with his punchy backbeats, bolstered by Ben Messelbeck's bass, Eamon Ryland's delicate guitar and Alex Lilly's equally measured keyboard contributions. Commagere plays keys and electric mandolin, too.
Her aesthetic is a rather melancholic one, her voice angelically floating over the top of lush, retro synth sounds that evoke progressive rock and even classical. The former, unsurprising, given her devotion to Tangerine Dream, et al; the latter unremarkable given her early training and the fact is a producer in that genre.
The whole effect is quite haunting and epic: the musings and rantings of a tortured soul. Whether truly tortured or posturing as such (as I suspect) matters little since, either way, it's artfully and convincingly achieved. Even amidst an underpinning wall of sound and song structures that tend towards the anthemic, there is a genteel sensibility. If I were pressed to position her in the contemporary canon, she would sit somewhere in the broad spectrum between Enya and Bjork. Put simply, it's uberpop art.
One of the standouts was Everything I Love (I Let Go), distinguished by a xylophonically percussive, tinkling instrumental backdrop; hypnotically spare, in the way of The Police, but with less drama. It gives way to an incisive lyric, a biography of helplessness, self-deprecation and serial loss, a grinding, inescapable groundhog not-so-merry-go-round: 'stuck here, with her arms up, she thinks she's lost herself'. Another notable was Overcome, with a heavenly vocal intro that explodes into a breathtaking ode to the restorative grandeur of nature and homage to the invaluable, incomparable pleasure of escape into her. It's like a prayer.
This leggy, raven-haired chanteuse is not only one to watch (enchanting enough, in black tights and lacy, sheer outside underwear), but one to listen intently to and be amply rewarded by.
Unfortunately, at the outset, my ears were assaulted by a surprisingly distorted, over-amplified, bass-heavy mix, which seemed to settle, a little, during the course of the evening (or, more likely, I became auditorily acclimated), but which distracted from and diminished much of the vocal and instrumental panache. But don't get me started on the parlous state of live sound engineering, or the cloth-eared gits that pass for sound engineers. But while on technical issues, the moody blue hue of the initial lighting state rendered the people on stage almost invisible. I'm all for ambience, but c'mon!
Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder might look, at first glance, like a couple of escapees from a gated Florida Keys retirement enclave (Ry, especially in his oversized, ill-fitting Hawaiian shirt and McEnroe-rejected headband), but looks can be deceiving. In fact, if it weren't for his shock (as much to him, as us, perhaps) of still-thick, white hair, which he humorously reminds us was once brown, crowning glory of a handsome, young man, he looks for all the world like a lithe, elongated rocker, clad in black trousers and polo, matched by thick-rimmed glasses in the (Elvis, not Lou, Peter, or Tim) Costello mould; fittingly, since he produced much of EC's early work, which beg's the question, so poignantly posed by Ackadacka, who made who? And his voice, if anything, has mellowed and warmed with the passing years; rich, ripe and round, in the way of the finest crooners, and satisfying, in the way of full-bodied red wine. His bass-playing, too, is taut and terrific, bound tightly to Joachim's kick-drum and always yielding to Cooder the elder's slithering slide. Cooder's guitars and the playing of them remain(s) utterly exciting, irresistible, visceral and distinctive, as does his rasping, gravelly, baritone-inclined voice, with its edgy, feintly comical quality. If there are dudes alive that bring more feeling or freshness to their craft, I'd like to hear 'em. With Jaochim completing the trio, they're capable of an incredibly phat, full-tilt sound: inasmuch, think Cream, The Police, or the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
It's fitting they should kick off with Fool Who Knows, since the two frontmen, especially, clearly are, fools for rock, and country, blues, soul, Latino, Hawaiian and, probably, other diverse infusions, to boot. I should quickly qualify that. By fools, I mean they know how to loosen the strings and have a good time. Better yet, they know how to get toes a-tappin' and shoes a -shufflin'. But they're fools who know, if you will, since they've always had, and still have, fingers on the pulse; they're acutely tapped-in to the tenor of the times, showing in their banter, asides and insightful lyrics. They share a rebellious, incorrigible punk attitude, but theirs are tempered with intelligence and maturity. They're seasoned, in every sense. Oenological analogies spring easily to mind, once again: they're aged in American (and British) oak.
These are giants of men, seemingly at ease with their abilities and limitations (which aren't really evident; I'm just endowing them with mortal foibles and fatal flaws, if only to console myself). The laidback vibe characterises the music they make together, and it's a veritable marriage made in rock 'n' roll heaven. And, perhaps, a surprising, transcontinental one. As the song says, 'a love won't last the night, if it's built on sand'. This one's built on solid rock and harks back to the Little Village days: Little Village being a quartet of rock's coolest 'aristocats'; drummer, Jim Keltner; bassist and vocalist, Lowe; pianist, guitarist and vocalist, John Hiatt; guitarist and vocalist, Cooder. This was a salutary reminder that Little Village remained all too small a town, with all too small an output: essentially, but one treasure of an album, from mid-'92. Though nominated for a Grammy, for Best Album, the 'heavily expecting' press and public was cruelly hard on the much-vaunted and highly-anticipated reformation of the group responsible for the success of one of Hiatt's finest, in Bring The Family. The rest is history, and history, if nothing else, has proven the intrinsic value and substantive nature of the LV material: never mind the width, feel the quality. For mine, Fool Who Knows deserves to mix it on a playlist with Marvin Gaye, or Smokey Robinson.
Cooder and Lowe took turns behind the mike; Cooder swapping guitars for almost every song. The songs were punctuated by Lowe's eloquent capacity for the anecdotal; he's a real raconteur, while Cooder remains somewhat more aloof, enigmatic, mysterious; the ol' crank and the affable Englishman even seems a bit back-to-front.
Next up, if my neurons don't lie, was Cooder's seamless medley of Fool For A Cigarette and Feelin' Good, a showcase for the two Cooders soul-deep blues roots. It was an especially chilled take; arguably, best ever. 'All the money in the world is spent on feelin' good': the man knows how, and how(!), to insinuate 'bite me!' political commentary into a humble tune.
Cooder has been doing Woody Guthrie's Vigilante Man (which harks back, via Gillian Welch and The Carter Family, all the way to Blind Lemon Jefferson's See My Grave Is Kept Clean) proud for donkey's years and this night was certainly no exception.
Lowe picked up an acoustic and returned to mike for pared-back Losing Boy, the ol' Eddie Giles (listen and you'll know what influenced Tom Jones) turn-of-the-seventies soul thang. Noice!
Lilly and Commagere reappeared as backing vocalists and contributed to something impossibly romantic and so, so Spanish (or Mexican) in flavour, you were gazing into deep, dark, twinkling eyes and stroking long, shiny, black hair. What was that masked song?
Crazy 'Bout An Automobile is, and was, classic, core-curricular, upbeat Cooder, with that characteristic echo of zydeco, the special sauce, and shoop-shoop backing vocals; the signature song of the down-at-heel, desperate and dateless. Lowe kept the momentum with the eminently danceable Pay It Back, written by EC, but produced by Lowe, for the seminal My Aim Is True set.
Back on acoustic, Lowe related a sadder tale of lovelorn mowing, also of Little Village vintage, the countrified, The Band-like, Crying In My Sleep. Soggy pretzels. Soggy pillows. Robust vocals. That's what happens when you see your main squeeze on the street with a beefy hanger-on. It ain't pretty. Or funny, at the time. But at least you can laugh about it later, as this does. Cooder's Down In Hollywood, which followed, explores the same territory, albeit in a much funkier, sassier way, not least by way of a surfeit of percussion and that raucous chorus. It's redolent of, say, Sam 'n' Dave. Cooder interpolates liberally, making various melodic allusions, and even sports some jazzy guitar inflections. No doubt about it, whatever you call it, he gives good groove.
Lowe lapsed into a very amusing rave about the 70s, and his short-lived success on the Belgian and Netherlandic charts, with Half A Boy, Half A Man culminating in the number one slot for a full 3 & 2 weeks, respectively; toppled by Joe Dolce. It's was a charmingly self-mocking prelude to the partying, rockasillybilly Creole of this track which, at least on record, leans strangely towards Stockholm, production-wise. Yep, it's Lowe's nod to Benny & Bjorn. What I'm really curious about is the backstory to the lyric, which could've been written about any old tool, but which seems well-fitted to a couple of contemporaries, be it Dubya or, on a local (or should that be loco) level, Ironbar. Anyway, it rocked out, sounding meatier than the original, not least thanks, again, to Ry's slippery slide.
Ry announced a new song, in Shrinking Man, a schizophrenic, agoraphobic document of an individual's retreat from the wider, ever-scarier, shapeshifting world. Compelling and ample proof there's plenty of life left in the ol', sly, wry dog.
The there was some kind of swingin' hipster blues a la Zappa, before, in pronouncing Hank Snow as a boyhood idol, they launched into Across The Borderline, a TexMex country-blues lamentation which, I believe, Harry Dean Stanton had a hand in. The grass is always greener and this is as fine a farewell as once could hope for, in preparing to depart this mortal coil.
Nick jumped back to acoustic for Raining Raining, another of his witting or unwitting homages to Motown's finest moments. An exquisite song, divinely-voiced, with pitter-patter electric trickles from Ry. The epitome and quintessence of bittersweet sadness: 'dry, without a cloud in the sky, but, in here, it's cold 'n' raining'. Beautiful!
A shoutout from the audience was roundly met by the Nick, the quick: 'so many songs, so little time'; too true.
The tongue-in-cheeky gospel of Jesus Is On That Mainline was next up: 'just tell him what you want'. If only it were that easy LOL! Stock-in-trade, Cooder 101. Great stuff!
And at last, Ry on acoustic, with an antique calypso; FDR in Trinidad. Again, I haven't glimpsed behind the curtain, but lyric seems like it was taken, more-or-less verbatim, from an effusive, sycophantic news report. In any event, it powerfully juxtaposes and sets in stark relief the image of the great man and the tiny nation; innocence and worldliness (not necessarily in that respective order), head-to-head. And the guitar is especially enticing, treading the line between the earthiness of African-American and sweetness of Afro-Carribbean musics. This segued into Jim Reeves' country 'n' western poem of longing, Put Your Sweet Lips. Ahh! And, mmm, was Chinito Chinito in-between? Or was it another implausibly romantic something, in Spanish? I can't quite recall.
The flavour of New Orleans was evoked by Joachim's plodding march time, which introduced Chuck Berry's 13 Question Method. This abiding affection for old-school, roots rock 'n' roll is a fertile meeting-place for the sensibilities of Lowe and Cooder. This really sets the winklepickers a-wobblin'. Then, it was all over, bar the shouting and encores; well-chosen, in Lowe's superb Peace Love & Understanding (made famous by EC & The Attractions and particularly moving, and heartening, on this occasion, by Lowe's sincerity), stripped of its pop production in deference to its essence, as a refined ballad, and Cooder's contagious, trademark Little Sister. In fact, it's so trademark, I wonder how many know of Elvis' (that's Presley, this time) verzh.
The closer was the cajunesque How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live. In introducing it, Cooder even made nostalgic reference to when concert tickets were cheap.
I hope he, Lowe, JC, Commagere, Lilly and co made a pretty penny from this night, for they gave a fortune.
Going by his sharply-creased trousers, Lowe might obviously own an iron and, going by Cooder's relative dishevelment, Cooder not, but they're nonetheless cut from the same cloth; musically, the molecules are arranged in if not similar, then very much compatible fashion.
Which is more than I can say for the third-world, banana republican standard of public transport, which I foolishly relied upon to take me there and back. Get a dog up ya, Sydney Buses!
RY COODER & NICK LOWE
Venue: State Theatre, 49 Market Street Sydney
Dates/Times: Monday, 23 November 2009 to Tuesday, 24 November 2009 at 20:00
Tickets: A Reserve $139.90, B Reserve $99.90
Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100