Thursday, 12 April 2018

From Chavez Ravine to The Prodigal Son: Ry Cooder’s late-period renaissance

Speak to the more casual listener about the work of Ry Cooder and they are most likely to cite his extraordinary collaboration with Cuban musicians in the Buena Vista Social Club project, or his evocative 1980s soundtracks for directors including Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) or Walter Hill (Crossroads). The more well-informed might also refer to his brief tenure as a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, or his productive sideline as a session guitarist for Randy Newman, Little Feat, James Taylor, The Rolling Stones and countless others.

Mentions of his post-2005 solo career renaissance are likely to be fewer and farther between, but it’s surely only a matter of time before that changes. Having busied himself with soundtracks and collaborations since the 1987 release of Get Rhythm, Cooder’s return to solo formation in the Noughties with Chávez Ravine was as delightful as it was unexpected. Like many of his contemporaries, Cooder had succumbed to the overly bright and somewhat synthetic production tropes of the era on some of his later 1980s albums, but here he was fully restored with a live, organic, warm sound that put his instrumental skills – and those of his distinguished guests – to the fore.

Drummers Jim Keltner and Joachim Cooder (Ry’s son), trumpeter Jon Hassell and vocalist Lalo Guerrero were among the contributors to an album that told the story of Chávez Ravine – a Mexican-American community demolished in the 1950s in order to build public housing. Rapturously received upon its release in 2005, it proved to be the first instalment in a loose trilogy about America past and present that subsequently took in My Name Is Buddy (2007) and I, Flathead (2008). Each new release found Cooder revelling in various roots music styles – from fairly straight-ahead blues to country-folk and bluegrass – to frequently devastating effect. After years of serving other people’s artistic visions, it was wonderful to have Cooder back in full effect.

But although this trilogy continues to win new fans – and reward repeated listens by those who have already been converted to its eclectic charms – I would argue that the pick of Cooder’s late-period is his next release, 2011’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down. In the wake of the 2008-10 economic crisis, I can clearly recall anticipating the release of some incendiary, Woody Guthrie-esque musical statements about the local and regional misery unleashed by the failures of global capitalism. From the younger generation of performers, these were almost entirely unforthcoming, so it was with some relief that Cooder tackled them with no little force on the 61 scorching minutes of Pull Up Some Dust…

There is rage, frustration and a desperate desire for the whole-scale return of empathy and other core human values writ large throughout these 14 songs, with the titles themselves – ‘No Banker Left Behind’, ‘Quick Sand’, ‘Humpty Dumpty World’ and ‘Lord Tell Me Why’ – generally being an accurate indication of the lyrical contents therein. Musically, it’s perhaps the most direct of Cooder’s late-period works, with the blues influence more discernible than at any time since the 1980s. There are also fewer guests, with Cooder and his son Joachim handling the majority of instrumental duties – no bad thing given that Cooder’s guitar parts on the likes of ‘Humpty Dumpty World’ and ‘I Want My Crown’ are some of the finest and fieriest of his career.

Ultimately, the tone is of sadness and resignation at the then-current state of affairs – but still with the small, distant hope that the tide could yet turn in favour of the many, not just the obscenely wealthy few. It could be compellingly argued that subsequent events have finally extinguished that hope, and in light of the damning comments made about the Republican Party on both Pull Up Some Dust… and its 2012 follow-up, Election Special, one can easily imagine Cooder’s sense of horror at the possibly terminal catastrophe of the Trump regime.

We may soon find out for sure given that Cooder’s forthcoming album is being trailed as “a deft commentary on our ailing moral state”. Due for release on May 11, The Prodigal Son will feature a mix of Cooder originals alongside interpretations of songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Roosevelt Graves, the Stanley Brothers and others. The two tracks to have been released at the time of writing, ‘Shrinking Man’ and ‘The Prodigal Son’, both strongly indicate another blues-infused classic; a extended live-in-the-studio version of the title track posted to YouTube in March (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEUIZWyieAk) is utterly spellbinding.

On a path that is very much his own since the mid-Noughties, but one which holds the promise of a greater communal future, Ry Cooder shows no signs whatsoever of going gently into that good night. Now in his early ‘70s and with his first major tour in many years taking place this year, Cooder remains a master composer and performer, and we should throw every plaudit we can in his direction while we still have the opportunity.

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