The reminiscences, stories, and songs about the original Ash Grove flowed easily at Royce Hall Friday night. So easily that the first of two concerts — the centerpiece of UCLA’s three-day celebration/tribute of the club’s 50th anniversary — ran more than two hours over schedule, amounting to a full five hours of music that didn’t let out until 1 a.m. But no one complained as the show, which often felt more like a reunion/testimonial dinner than a concert, reflected the loose, if not anarchic, spirit of the club, a small room on Melrose Avenue by Crescent Heights (now occupied by the Improv) that was a center of Los Angeles’ folk scene from 1958-74.
Nearly every musician and presenter on the Royce Hall stage had something to say about Ed Pearl, the club’s impresario, or how a night at the Ash Grove had changed their lives. Surprise guest Arlo Guthrie, who gave his first West Coast perf at the club, set the tone when he claimed he was “roped into” opening the show with his father’s “This Land Is Your Land” (the song was slyly reprised at the start of the evening’s second half by the local theatrical troupe Culture Clash, who gave it a Chicano accent).
Dave Alvin called his band the “Ash Grove Babies,” noting that the musicians (including drummer Don Heffington and guitarist Greg Liesz) spent their teens learning about music there, and his intensely emotional perf included not only his tribute to the club, but “Shenandoah,” which he dedicated to Chris Gaffney, his longtime friend and bandmate who passed away a few days earlier.
Ry Cooder, who made his debut at the club when he was 16, remembered meeting giants such as the Stanley Brothers, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Clarence White and how they sometimes ignored the club’s ban on promoting records from the stage.
M.C.s Barry Hansen (better known by his radio name, Dr. Demento) and Anna DeLeon, both former Ash Grove employees, filled the breaks between the music with, respectively, droll or earnest behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Pearl also made an appearance, but his comments looked more to the future than the past — for him, “There has to be another Ash Grove,” a place for music that provides what the original club offered: an “escape valve” for the sorrows, joys and emotions of the outside world, with a mission to present and preserve American and international musical traditions.
And, for the most part, the music heard at Royce Hall did just that. At times the sets felt like old field recordings come to life. There was straight reportage, tall tales, work songs and spirituals. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot rasped his way through Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre” and Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues”; Laura Love, whose adamantine voice and thrummed bass made her sound like a more traditional Ani DiFranco, was haunting on the holler “Load Up.” But the highlights came from the tribute to Old Time Music featuring Cooder, Mike Seeger and Roland White and a surprise appearance by Ben Harper.
Re-creating the sounds of early 20th-century string bands, Cooder, Seeger and White were ragged by right. Seeger and White kept the sounds traditional, but Cooder’s angular slide playing nudges things forward; the abolitionist anthem “Stolen Souls From Africa” is beautifully otherworldly — its spare drone and mournful melody makes it sound like the work of an Appalachian Velvet Underground.
Appearing in a portmanteau band that included his mother, Ellen DeVries, on vocals and banjo and Mike McClelland on autoharp and accordion, Harper offered what was easily the most impressive set of the evening. As was the case at last year’s “In the Attic” show with Pete Townshend, being forced to play an acoustic, low-key set brought out the best in him. It’s possible that this prodigiously talented musician needs constraints to sound most like himself. Impassioned, tender and focused, Harper may well want to repeat this format; it has the potential to be his “Seeger Sessions.”
There were moments that didn’t work as well. Holly Near has a fine, dusky voice, and the duo Emma’s Revolution supported her with lovely harmonies, but her folk-cabaret was afflicted with an unappealingly hermetic moral certainty and self-righteousness. Ashley Maher’s mix of folk and African styles at first sounded like Joni Mitchell singing Paul Simon’s “Graceland”; it was fine, but when she joined her African dancers, the effect was like something you’d see at an elementary school’s diversity night. World music was better served by Ellis Island, which hitched Klezmer and Romany sounds, but the Black Sea jam session that ended the evening never quite gelled.
But even these longueurs felt part and parcel of the Ash Grove experience.