For the final encore of the first of two Southern California tribute concerts for late alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons, a grunged-up Dwight Yoakam hesitantly approached the microphone before beginning the chords to Parsons’ offhandedly upbeat “Ooh, Las Vegas.” By the end of the song, a gospel choir was choreographing hand-claps, Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams were swing dancing together, and My Morning Jacket singer Jim James was harmonizing with former X guitarist John Doe, while Keith Richards (who had just finished singing “Wild Horses”) filled a sideman role, picking at the back of the stage. It was a near-perfect rock ‘n’ roll moment, when what could become a train wreck instead becomes something beautiful; in a way, it occupied the position Parsons did during his brief life.
Parsons, on his own and with the Flying Burrito Brothers, the International Submarine Band and the Byrds, was among the first to meld the sound of country music with the attitude and distortion of rock ‘n’ roll guitars; unlike other icons like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, he didn’t live long enough to see his influence resonate to the current generation of twang-rockers. His daughter Polly, one of this event’s organizers, managed to finagle a group of musicians as credible and diverse as her father’s pull allows, giving the evening a “special” aura unusual even for a one-off show.
The artists took advantage of their positions. With the help of house band the Sin City All Stars — led by bassist Dusty Wakeman, who’s played on many of the other performers’ records — there was very little straight-up hero worship and much more influence-rendering. Norah Jones demonstrated where the bits of twang come from in her music while fronting the band for “Streets of Baltimore” to start her three-song set; Rolling Stones guitarist Richards gave “Love Hurts” a bit of attitude in his.
Most of the artists had just two songs to show how Parsons had influenced them, and many — including Yoakam, Steve Earle, and ex-Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt front man Jay Farrar — exploited different sides of Parson’s repertoire, choosing a blues and a ballad or a barn-stomper and a slow burner for range. Others, notably Lucinda Williams, opted for one part of the Parsons’ canon, in her case, warbling “Sleepless Nights” and “A Song for You” in her trademark gravel-croon.
Through it all, the revolving-door members of the Sin City All Stars played the songs as if they lived in them, souping up solos with sizzling slides or simmering down the slow songs with actively tasteful plucking. It was apparent their professionalism put the other performers at ease.
Polly Parsons stood sidestage for most of the show, visibly moved by some acts, dancing for the others. At the end, during an emotional speech, she said, “Let’s do this every year.” Though it may have been a spontaneous outburst, it is definitely a great idea.