Ry Cooder has apparently only released one live album previously in his career, 1977’s Show Time, which was recorded 35 years prior to this set, at the exact same venue. San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall is like Dublin’s Olympia, only glitzier. Jonathan Richman described it as “my idea of a great room”, and it does lend itself to a convivial atmosphere and audience participation, which this record captures perfectly.
Cooder reprises four songs from that first live set here, Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds’ ‘School Is Out’, the Chips Moman/Dan Penn-composed cheating classic ‘The Dark End of The Street’, Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl warning about California as a supposed promised land, ‘Do Re Mi’, and the beautiful Mexican ballad ‘Volver Volver’, sung here by his daughter-in-law Juliette Commagere and given the full mariachi treatment by ten-piece Tex-Mex brass and percussion band, Le Banda Juvenil. Cooder is also reunited with accordion player Flaco Jimenez and vocalist Terry Evans, from the previous outing, the former contributing mellow lines to ‘Do Re Mi’ and ‘Dark End’, the latter joined by Arnold McCuller to duet on ‘Dark End’. The remainder of the band includes Ry’s son (and Juliette’s husband), Joachim, on drums, and bass player Robert Francis.
The rest of the set consists largely of a trawl through Cooder’s back catalogue. He has always chosen his heritage favourites sagaciously and eclectically, and here we are treated to readings of ‘Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile’, ‘Why Don’t You Try Me’, Sam The Sham’s ‘Wooly Bully’, the makeover of another Guthrie folk standard, into the vicious slide guitar blues of ‘Vigilante Man’, and a tender, soulful rendition of Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’ as closer, with Jimenez’s accordion and Cooder’s guitar answering each other consummately.
It’s not all nostalgia, however, as there are two Cooder originals from his then-current album, Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down, the intentionally absurd inverse racism of ‘Lord Tell Me Why’, and the politically charged yet humourous ‘El Corrido De Jesse James’, a song that finds the erstwhile outlaw looking down from heaven at Wall Street bankers and brokers, and asking God, ‘con permisso’, for his old .44 so he can do a Robin Hood and “put the bonus money back where it belongs”.
For those fans who have longed for a document of the looseness and intuitive interplay of Ryland’s live performances, which occasionally got lost amid the fussiness of some of his studio fare, Live in San Francisco is just the ticket they’ve been waiting for.