Living in LA is a mixed bag of good and bad, but if you are a concert goer, it's pure heaven. On any given night, there are many top-tier concerts to choose from and sometimes it's a headache just to decide where to go. But I had no such problems on April 18, 2008, when UCLA's Royce Hall hosted the first of two nights dedicated to the legendary Ash Grove, one of LA's most revered and now sadly-defunct concert venues. The event brought together a number of big names from different musical generations, many of them with some Ash Grove connections. Not unexpectedly, the evening turned out to be something truly unforgettable, for more reasons than just its nearly five-hour duration (the concert ended just before 1 AM).
Masters of Ceremony
Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen)
List of performers
Arlo Guthrie (surprise guest)
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
Ben Harper (surprise guest)
Barry Fisher’s Ellis Island Band
The flyer I picked up at the door did not mention Arlo Guthrie, so imagine everyone's surprise when he took the stage as the evening's first performer. We all screamed with excitement, then we watched him deliver his father's "This Land Is Your Land", a song that's far more common to hear as an encore rather than a show opener. Later in the show, San Francisco's Latino theatrical outfit Culture Clash performed the same song, but with a humorous and hugely provocative twist - their rendition had Woody's well-known words changed to "This land was our land, now this land is your land".
Accompanied by guitarist Greg Leisz and drummer Don Heffington, Dave Alvin sang and played "Shenandoah" and his own "Ash Grove", a perfect song for the occasion and - in my opinion - one of his best songs.
Wearing a cowboy hat and looking perfectly fit, Ramblin' Jack Elliott came out to a huge ovation. It was my first encounter with the legendary artist and he was great. Dave Alvin and his band stayed on to accompany him - together they sang and played two Woody Guthrie songs ("Do Re Mi" and "1913 Massacre") as well as Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues".
|Ramblin' Jack Elliott|
Ry Cooder teamed up with multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger and bluegrass master Roland White to play three old-time songs - "How Can You Keep On Moving", "Stolen Souls Of Africa" and "She's More To Be Pitied".
Little known Laura Love was the revelation of the evening. Accompanied by veteran guitarist and singer Orville Johnson, she delivered a fifteen minute set that brought us to our feet. Her soulful renditions of "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "Load Up" were two of the best songs of the entire evening.
|Laura Love and Orville Johnson|
Holly Near sang solo and also with the vocal accompaniment of Emma's Revolution, a young East-Coast duo. They left less of an impression on me. Likewise, Ashley Maher's dancing and singing was half-a-notch below the other performances.
|Holly Near (center) and Emma's Revolution|
Late in the evening, Taj Mahal came out to introduce Ben Harper, the evening's second surprise guest. Ben's all-acoustic set was exceptionally good. I had heard some of his earlier recordings and I wasn't expecting him to sound just like the classic blues, folk and gospel singers of yesteryear. But he did. Ellen Chase, Ben's mother, was there on the stage as well. I had known Ellen from Claremont's Folk Music Center, but had no idea how good a singer she was. Together, Ben and Ellen played five songs, including Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is A Long Time" and Ben's own "Spanish Red Wine". Taj Mahal joined in on guitar for the playing of the latter.
|Ben Harper and Ellen Chase|
The concert ended well past midnight. With many spectators having gone home, I moved up to the front row, from where I watched Barry Fisher’s Ellis Island Band and their guest vocalists, the final group of musicians to take the stage. Michael Alpert, John Bilezikjian, Ethel Raim, Stuart Brotman, Catherine Foster, Sal Mamudoski and a few others played a mix of Klezmer and Gipsy music that contrasted sharply with everything else played that night. It was my first time to hear Klezmer music live and I liked it quite a bit. John Bilezikjian, America's foremost oud player, impressed me enough to make me memorize his name.
Exhausted, but happy, I got home after 1 AM. I did not attend the second concert, which took place on April 19, 2008.