Dynamic, legendary slide guitarist Ry Cooder’s older age has suited him well, as he’s arguably released some of his strongest studio material during the later stages of his career. Namely, Chavez Ravine, Cooder’s 2005 Grammy-nominated concept album that told the story of a Mexican-American community demolished to make room for public housing, and 2011’s amazing, politically-inclined Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down saw Cooder not just concentrating on great musicianship but flexing and building his conceptual muscle, exploring stories beyond his usual, more traditional troubadorial limitations.
Now, Cooder has released a live album in collaboration with Corridos Famosos: Live In San Francisco, recorded at the Great American Music Hall. And while evaluating a live album normally mostly depends on what you think of an artist’s studio material, Live In San Francisco allows any given listener to hear Cooder’s talents and collaborative spirit on full display.
The best performances on Live In San Francisco essentially fall under two categories: great songs from Cooder’s recent classics and songs in which Cooder prioritizes expressing the joy of playing rather than preaching his message. Primarily, El Corrido De Jesse James and Lord Tell Me Why are the standouts here; they fall under both categories, both originally appearing on Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down. On El Corrido De Jesse James, fun Parisian waltz instrumentation smartly backs Cooder’s sarcastic drawl. Two minutes into the song, the waltz flourishes from its basic structure, accordion and horns blaring and drums crashing, an effectively eventful soundtrack to the tragic story of Jesse James. Lord Tell Me Why, on the other hand, a song about white plight, manages to maintain the severity of the original song while stretching it out to almost twice its studio length, yielding a track that’s as musically impressive as it is important.
Where Live In San Francisco does not wish to make a statement and instead serves as an opportunity for Cooder and company to show off their instrumental chops are on its covers, many of which have appeared in studio form on Cooder’s older albums. From Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile (Every Woman I Know) to soul staple Dark End Of The Street and standard 12-bar blues classic Wooly Bully, originally recorded by Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs, all of the genre-spanning covers captured here are treated with grace, sophistication and undeniable skill. Whether it’s the delicate Spanish guitar twinges of Volver Volver, the uptempo, bluesy update on Woody Guthrie’s Vigilante Man, or more waltzing, as on Goodnight Irene, Live In San Francisco’s covers show just how versatile Cooder can be.
Ultimately, while not preferable to seeing a live Cooder performance in person, Live In San Francisco is a terrific encapsulation of an unlikely, remarkable career, one that has surprisingly only gotten stronger as Cooder has gotten older. To predict the studio direction in which Cooder might go after Live In San Francisco is not only fruitless conjecture but defeats the purpose of the album in general: living and taking in something enjoyable and impressive in the moment. That is, say, the Tex Mex of Woody Guthrie cover Do Re Mi, which first appeared on Cooder’s 1970 self-titled debut, will hardly influence Cooder on his next efforts. Or perhaps it will. The important takeaway is that you can now trust Cooder to adapt to whatever is thrown at him, personally or as a citizen of the United States. Because Live In San Francisco proves that he is up there with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, a master at telling others’ stories and telling the stories of our times.