Early on during the 50th anniversary celebration of McCabe’s Guitar Shop (the opening concert of this year’s UCLA Live Season), Nancy Covey — who booked the room from 1974-84 and (with current concert director Lincoln Myerson) put together the evening’s line-up — noted that the Santa Monica venue made everyone who worked or played there feel like family. And family was a theme that ran through the concert, both musical (there was much intermingling between the 17 acts) by marriage (Covey met her husband, guitarist Richard Thompson at the club) and blood (the daughters of Thompson and David Lindley, Kami and Rosanne, performed with their dads). The result was a warm, generous and engaging night of music.
It definitely reflected McCabe’s eclectic bookings over the years, from the California folk of Jackson Browne (performing with multi-instrumentalist David Lindley), the spookily abstract songs of Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham), the fleet-footed Cajun sounds of the Savoy-Doucet Band, the gospel harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama, winking Western swing from Dan Hicks, Los Lobos’ rootsy rock, and magician/actor Ricky Jay, whose wise guy patter while turning a deck of cards into deadly weapons linked modern humor to old fashioned carny traditions. It’s a testament to the high level of performances that the evening never lagged, with every act performing two or three songs and often introducing the next act up, keeping the show moving as swiftly as a five-hour (including intermission) show could move.
There were too many highlights to mention. (Any concert that includes Richard Thompson as house guitarist, snapping off lines out of the Scotty Moore and Cliff Gallup textbook, is going to provide it’s own highlight reel). But it was hard for anyone to top the emotional impact of Odetta. The 78-year-old folk music legend is now in a wheelchair, and when she spoke, her voice betrayed the weight of age. Accompanied by David Keyes on piano, she sang with a quiet, steely dignity. Her version of “House of the Rising Sun” bristled with pain and sadness, while a modern civil rights ballad was willful yet optimistic.
It was also a kick to hear Peter Rowan lead the house band (which included Michael Jerome on drums, Debra Dobkin on percussion and Taras Prodaniuk on bass) in a Bill Monroe tune, the Ditty Bops dance and sing beside Hicks, and special guest Chrissie Hynde, looking lean and sexy, admitted she never actually played McCabe’s, but was so jazzed by the line-up she “blagged” her way into the show. Using an acoustic guitar, she performed two motor-mouthed, Dylanesque songs from the Pretenders’ new album “Break Up The Concrete” that would have sounded right at home on McCabe’s stage.
As the evening ended, Van Dyke Parks dancing up the aisle with his accordion while the ensemble sang “This Land Is Your Land,” there was no doubt that McCabe’s remains a vibrant and welcome presence on Los Angeles live music scene and, with any luck, will continue to squeeze auds into uncomfortable folding chairs for another half century.