In 1967 when he gained notoriety playing for one Captain Beefheart, nobody had any reason to believe that a kid from Santa Monica would go on to be a cross-cultural legend, and one of the most revered guitarists and musicians of all time. Despite fifty years of success as a sideman, an everyman, and master of soundtrack work, and a producer of a “small” film by the name of Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder’s music, much like the man himself, has seemingly existed out in the ether. Mysterious yet focused; always in the background yet still informing the larger musical canon. Touring behind his latest album The Prodigal Son, Cooder and his band (made up in part by Joachim Cooder (his son), and The Hamiltones) stopped by The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia and delivered a life-affirming set that satisfied old and new fans alike.
Ry’s son Joachim is pulling double duty for this show, taking an opening slot to feature songs from his official debut Fuschia Machu Picchu. Seated on a cajón (essentially a Peruvian box-shaped drum) and outfitted with a bevy of effects pedals and processors, the younger Cooder wrought entire landscapes from his electric mbira with saxophonist Sam Gendel coloring the sounds to provide an extra psychedelic boost to the set. On wax, these songs play as slightly trippy electronica, but let loose in the wild, they breathe with life, urgency, and a decidedly appealing weirdness.
For the elder Cooder’s set, the band expanded to a five-piece, with Ry taking the stage to the hazily looped doom soul of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” - one of The Prodigal Son’s strongest tracks – setting the mood for a set that celebrated not just The Prodigal Son, but the long road of Ry’s career to get to his latest LP. At seventy-one, Cooder is showing some cracks in the facade - slowing his roll a bit as it were (whatever we all get old.) But there is a palpable electricity that filled the room when he picked up a guitar and, as he ripped through a bevy of early career tracks “Tattler”, “Jesus On The Mainline,” and an updated “Vigilante Man,” you would swear that you’re looking at the same stoned cowboy that graced the cover of his 1972 classic, Boomer’s Story. If anyone needed proof that his joie de vivre lies not just with wound steel, but in song, they need look no further than the historical journey that Ry took the audience through.
Late in the set and assisted by The Hamiltones, Cooder and his band delivered a fiery version of “Get Rhythm,” the Johnny Cash classic that he covered on his 1987 album by the same name. In a brief peek behind the curtain, Cooder told the story of how he and a bandmate were at a festival after the show, and none other than Johnny Cash pulled up in a giant Cadillac, got out of the car, and proceeded to thank him for covering the song, before driving off back into the night. It was a magical moment, refracted by the years, but one that informed the “legend” of Ry Cooder just as much as the music he played.
As much as Ry Cooder seems to be slightly off (you should read the press release for The Prodigal Son in which, after searching far and wide, the author finally finds Ry sitting in some kind of cosmic church that is nowhere and everywhere. It’s heady stuff), one thing that is clear is that he believes in that same “magic” that the rest of us do despite being one of the guys who spin it. Whether you think of Ry Cooder as a legend, a virtuoso, a tall-tale, or just a guy who loves the blues – he is all of these things by the way – what ultimately defines Cooder and his music is a relentless commitment to the power and joy of that most mystical of forces: music.