Ry Cooder receiving Lifetime Achievement Award at Theatre Maisonneuve, Place des Arts, Montreal, Canada on June 29, 2018. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry
Performing as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival for the first time, Ry Cooder demonstrated why his presence was long overdue. It was especially appropriate that prior to start this concert he was recognized with the festival’s equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, apt recognition of his remarkably fluid 50 year career.
Following the brief presentation and Cooder’s humble acceptance speech, his son Joachim took the stage accompanied by saxophone player Sam Gendel for a brief set of songs that drew mostly on atmospheric ambiance and a droning sound derived from tapes, samples, and an electric autoharp which Cooder tapped to create the music’s undulating rhythms. His vocals sometimes seemed strained, but it was the intriguing approach that gave the songs both depth and distinction. Drawing the majority of the set from his recent release Love on a Real Train, Joachim stepped out from under his father’s shadow, with nothing less than riveting results.
After a brief intermission, the elder Cooder took the stage, starting out solo with the old Blind Willie Johnson’s old blues standard “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” “I’m back,” Cooder chuckled, alludingi to his earlier appearance before referencing a slight change in his wardrobe. “I had to lose the hat,” he teased. “I can’t play with a hat on anymore. It’s too much trouble when it’s time to switch guitars.”
The crowd got a kick out of the comment, and Cooder got a kick out of the crowd, likely due to the fact that his current tour marks his first solo outing in a decade. Cooder’s latest album, The Prodigal Son, was released a month ago, making for a timely return. Special guests The Hamiltones, a gospel-style, Grammy nominated trio from North Carolina, added their mesmerizing vocals and imbued the performance with both reverence and verve every time they stepped back on the stage.
Indeed, the group served an important role, given that most of the set was culled from the new LP, with songs such as “Straight Street,” In His Care,” “Jesus and Woody, ” “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right” setting a spiritual tone. Nevertheless, Cooder took center stage and even at age 71, he still has what it takes to make an emphatic impression. That was ably demonstrated throughout, given his versatile fret work, his wizened but expressive vocals, and a still-relentless rock ’n’ roll spirit. He found cause to share the latter in one of the final offerings prior to the encore, a spirited take on a song he claimed he hadn’t performed in 40 years, the sassy, sprightly vintage gem “Little Sister.”
Then again, after decades of working with practically every big name in the biz, Cooder comes by that timeless technique naturally. He’s one of those few individuals who proves that reverence and relevance can easily go hand in hand.