Ry Cooder in Montreal

Philip Booth on August 5, 2018
Ry Cooder in Montreal

Ry Cooder receives lifetime achievement award prior to concert–photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Guitarist and singer-songwriter Ry Cooder, touring in support of the well-received The Prodigal Son, turned in a Montreal Jazz Festival performance that came off as a handcrafted, homemade celebration of roots music, led by a revered journeyman musician who is as amiable as ever, but remains politically conscious.

Cooder’s set, with superb young North Carolina singing trio The Hamiltones in tow, and son Joachim Cooder on drums—who also led a duo with avant-garde saxophonist Sam Gendel during an opening set—wasn’t an exception.

The eight musicians and singers established the tone for the show—laid-back, bluesy Americana, if spiked with several high-energy moments—with an opening volley of Blind Willie Johnson covers, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right.” On the latter tune, built on a swampy groove, and throughout the set, the Hamiltones’ Tony Lelo, 2E and J. Vito provided sublime, soul-rich harmonis that were often call-and-response rejoinders to Cooder’s warm, folksy vocal lines.

Cooder largely showcased The Prodigal Son, his first album in six years, airing it out with inventive arrangements and several extended jams featuring his exquisite bottleneck slide playing. In addition to the Johnson tunes, they brought new life to the vintage title track and others from the disc, including the Pilgrim Travelers’ ‘50s gospel gem “Straight Street” and the Stanley Brothers’ “Harbor of Love.” On his “Jesus and Woody” (alone except for keyboardist Glenn Patscha), Cooder offered one of the more politically pointed lyrics of the night: “I like sinners better than fascists, and I guess that makes me a dreamer, too.”

There were other highlights too including, “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor),” featuring Gendel’s long, rambunctious bass sax outing and Woody Guthrie’s stinging “Vigilante Man,” updated with a reference to Trayvon Martin.

The sold-out show, at the plush, 1,450-seat Theatre Maisonneuve, peaked with several old-line Cooder favorites—the exuberant gospel rock of “Jesus on the Mainline,” Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm,” bolstered by Patscha’s extended piano solo, Elvis Presley hit “Little Sister,” and the Invincibles’ “I Can’t Win.” Cooder’s music continues to resonate after all these years. Sounds like winning to me.