March 29, 2014

Concert #247 - Hal Willner's Harry Smith Project at UCLA's Royce Hall (April 25, 2001)

Clocking in at over five hours, this star-studded show was one of the most unforgettable events I have ever witnessed. Also one of the most exhausting ones. Shows that start at 8:00 PM don't normally end after 1:00 AM, but that was the case on April 25, 2001, at UCLA's gorgeous Royce Hall. Not that I minded.

Conceived and produced by Hal Willner, the event was dedicated to the work of Harry Smith, the compiler of the much-acclaimed "Anthology of American Folk Music", a collection first released in the 1950s, then reissued in 1997.

The house band had the tough task of supporting a large variety of styles, from blues to folk to gospel and more, performed by artists from all over the musical spectrum. Lead by two world-class guitarists, Smokey Hormel and Bill Frisell, the band did a great job adjusting from one performer to another. D.J. Bonebrake played the drums, Richard Green fiddled with the violin, while bassists Percy Heath, Larry Taylor, Adam Dorn and Eric Mingus all pitched in at different times. Ralph Carney handled the wind instruments.

Harry Smith

The evening's first song was "The House Carpenter", performed by Todd Rundgren and Robin Holcomb - she sounded great. They were followed by an endless avalanche of top-notch performers, most of whom I enjoyed very much. Unavoidably, though, there were also a few artists whose avant-garde style did not connect with me at all, as was the case with Canada's Mary Margaret O'Hara and David Thomas of Pere Ubu fame. Accompanied by Van Dyke Parks and Richard Greene, the latter sang "Way Down The Old Plank Road" and "Fishing Blues", two songs that the audience seemed to have liked more than I did.

Of all the many artists who took the stage during this marathon event, no one impressed me more than Marianne Faithfull. Her stage entrance gave me the goosebumps and the power of her personality stayed with me long after the show ended. Accompanied by Steve Earle, Todd Rundgren, David Johansen and Beck, Marianne sang "John The Revelator", "Shine On Me" and one other number.

Assisted by Britain's Eliza Carthy on fiddle and Garth Hudson of the Band on accordion, Richard Thompson sang "The Coo Coo Bird" and "Dog And Gun". He sounded great, as he always does.

Assisted by Kate and Anna McGarrigle and singing in his inimitable vocal style, Elvis Costello performed "Henry Lee" and "The Butcher Boy", then closed his set with a sequel to the traditional "Ommie Wise". Earlier, Elvis helped out the McGarrigle Sisters when they sang their version of "Ommie Wise".

Beck sang Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down", "My Name Is John Johanna" and the traditional "Down On The Banks Of The Ohio", a song I first heard with Joan Baez.

Steve Earle's performance sounded a lot better to these ears than his studio work. His short set consisted of "Country Blues" and "Prison Cell Blues", two songs taken from the Harry Smith Anthology.

David Johansen of the New York Dolls was one of the revelations of the evening - he surprised me with a voice and style that were miles away from "Hot, Hot, Hot", his much-heard radio hit released in 1987 under the Buster Poindexter pseudonym. David sang "James Alley Blues", "A Lazy Farmer Boy" and one other number.

The Folksmen, who happened to be none other than the legendary Spinal Tap, raised the evening's levity level to 11 with their hilarious parody act that loosely reminded us of the Kingston Trio. Dressed up as folk musicians, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean played "Eat At Joe's'', "Blood On The Tracks" and "What A Feeling", the mega hit from "Flashdance", the movie - no obvious Harry Smith connection there.

Ireland's Gavin Friday delivered two songs in a style that had little to do with the original intent of their respective songwriters - his theatrical interpretation of "Fatal Flower Garden" and "When That Great Ship Went Down" did not connect with me. Gavin received support from composer, fellow-countryman and long-time collaborator Maurice Seezer.

Eric Mingus, the son of jazz great Charles Mingus, sang "Death Where Is Thy Sting", "John Henry Was A Little Boy" and "Mean Old World".

Singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth sang "Little Moses" and one other song whose title I do not have. He was accompanied by Eliza Carthy and Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Unlike most of the other performers of the evening, Bob did speak about Harry Smith and his place in American music.

Accompanied by an all-female mini-choir, Richard Greene, the well-known bluegrass fiddler, delivered a great rendition of "Indian War Whoop".

Somewhat unusually, the show included a few short movie clips, with live music accompaniment provided by Adam Dorn and Philip Glass, the classical composer. 

Martha Wainwright joined Kate & Anna McGarrigle for the singing of a song or two. Martha is Kate's daughter.

My concert notes also mention the participation of Steve Young and Daniel Lanois, but I have absolutely no recollection as to what they did.

U2's Bono and the Edge were spotted among the concert attendees. 

The lights were turned on at 1:15 AM, and, as the last remaining folks were filing out, Garth Hudson played an unidentified tune on the venue's organ. I got home after 2:00 AM, totally exhausted and thoroughly happy.

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