Dispatches From Americana’s Pre-Grammy All Star Tribute To The Everlys

I wrote this review for the Bluegrasssituation.com:

On the eve of the Grammy Awards, the Americana Music Association hosted a concert at Los Angeles’ fabled Troubadour saluting various nominated members of the roots community while also honoring the passing of one of its own: Phil Everly. The show, which felt like a big family gathering, epitomized how Americana embraces a wide variety of musical styles while also spanning generations of musicians.

This sense of connecting the present to the past began in the opening set when the young bluegrass band Della Mae, after doing spirited, front porch renditions of the Everly Brothers’ hits “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love,” brought out fellow bluegrass nominee James King. The veteran, Virginia-based musician teared up reminiscing about growing up listening to the Everly Brothers’ music before performing the old murder ballad “Down In The Willow Garden” (which the Everlys did in 1958) with Della Mae.

Throughout the night, performers put their own personal touches to Everly Brothers songs. Willie Watson, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, made “Take A Message To Mary” all the more mournful with his solemn, solo banjo rendition. Double Grammy nominee Sarah Jarosz plucked a latter day Everly Brothers tune, “On The Wings of A Nightingale” (the first of two Paul McCartney-penned numbers done during the night), which the rising star performed with a smoky chamber folk arrangement. Another Grammy nominee, the ageless Chicago bluesman, Bobby Rush took the old Everly tune “Gone, Gone, Gone” and segued it into his own “Have You Ever Been Mistreated?” Resplendent in a sparkling black jacket, Rush entertained the audience with his playful stage banter and ribald blues tunes.

The evening’s first showstopper came with an unforgettable performance from Rhiannon Giddens. The Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder wowed the crowd with her powerful, soul-stirring versions of a two tunes the Everlys did: “Long Time Gone” and “Water Boy.” She shared that she learned the latter tune from an Odetta album and Giddens’ spiritual-like rendition had the crowd yelling for more.

The Milk Carton Kids, whose debut earned them a Grammy nomination for best Folk Album, joked about having to follow Giddens (indeed, a tough act to follow). The duo, however, certainly exemplified the continuing influence of the Everly Brothers in music today. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan craft their acoustic music around the type of harmony singing that the Everly Brothers made famous. Their pairing of their own “Hope of a Lifetime” with the Everlys’ “Sleepless Nights” also revealed the link between the Everly Brothers’ music and today’s Americana scene.

Not surprisingly, given the theme of the evening, several duo-centered acts performed throughout the evening. Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith from the L.A.-based band Dawes performed a lovely version of their song “Take Me Out To The City” (backed by one-time bandmate guitarist Blake Mills) before lending their brotherly harmonies to “Stories We Could Tell” (a particularly apt selection since the Everlys did this tune on an early ‘70s country-rock album that they recorded in Los Angeles). While the Jamestown Revival’s Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance aren’t siblings, they are childhood friends and displayed their fine harmony singing on “Kentucky” (from the Everlys’ great Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album). They maintained a geographic theme by launching into their breakout track “California”. Their rousing performance, backed by their band, energized the crowd on a night that favored acoustic music.

Another concert high point was Peter Asher’s appearance. While joking about being an “overdressed Englishman,” Asher (who was one half of the Sixties pop duo Peter and Gordon before becoming a star producer) talked about how the British Invasion groups all were trying to imitate American music and how influential the Everly Brothers were – although no one could top their harmonies. Asher first sang “Crying In The Rain,” (which he revealed was a song Peter and Gordon demo’d to secure their first recording contract). He also did the big Peter and Gordon hit, the Paul McCartney-penned “A World Without Love,” and noted the 50th anniversary of its recording was just days earlier.

Joe Henry kicked off the concert’s closing section, which brought its own memorable on-stage musical pairings. Living legend Bonnie Raitt joined Henry to the bluesy “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” a Henry/Loudon Wainwright tune she did on her Slipstream album. Rodney Crowell (whose Emmylou Harris collaboration Old Yellow Moon is up for best Americana Album) followed Raitt on stage. He read a letter from Don Everly, who said he was too heartbroken by his brother’s passing to attend but thanked everyone for this tribute, then launched into a slow and moving version of “Cathy’s Clown” with Henry by his side.

Crowell then brought out Americana luminary Jim Lauderdale, who mentioned George Jones’ death last year before performing his own signature tune “The King of Broken Hearts.” The renowned guitarist Ry Cooder sat down in the corner of the stage and added his sublime, subtle electric guitar playing to Crowell and Lauderdale’s dueting on “Let It Be Me.” Cooder flashed grittier guitar licks when Crowell sang the old blues nugget “Come Back Baby.” Joe Henry returned to the stage to do Woody Guthrie’s “Rambling Round,” which became both earthy and otherworldly in the hands of Henry and Cooder.

With the concert paying tribute to a sibling act, it seemed fitting that the show closed with a sibling act. In this case, it was The Haden Triplets. While Petra, Rachel and Tanya Haden are veterans of the Southern California music scene (and daughters of jazz giant Charlie Haden), they are just now recording their first album together (coincidentally produced by Ry Cooder). They wrapped their sisterly harmonies around the tunes “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Will You Miss Me” from the Carter Family songbook (another family in a concert populated with family ties) before concluding with a heart-aching rendition of the Everlys’ number “So Sad.”

The nearly 3-hour concert concluded with many of the show’s participants coming together on stage for a ragged but right version of the Everlys brothers hit “When Will I Be Loved.”

Well Phil, wherever you are, if there ever was a question, just know that last night proved you were very much loved and doubly missed.

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About Michael Berick

I am a longtime writer, and lover, of music and pop culture. I have written for Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Cleveland Scene and more places (that I wouldn't take up more of your time mentioning now).
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