A couple dozen members of the Americana music community descended on the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Saturday, the night before the Grammy Awards, to demonstrate the ongoing influence of the music of the Everly Brothers while paying homage to singer Phil Everly, who died three weeks ago.
In many respects, it was the antithesis of music mogul Clive Davis’ glitzy industry pre-Grammy bash going on simultaneously a few miles away in Beverly Hills, but the absence of show-biz production elements only served to concentrate attention on the considerable emotional impact of the songs and performances.
The American Music Assn. puts its Grammy eve show together each year to recognize nominees among its often far-flung members, and organizers quickly decided after Everly’s death Jan. 3 at age 74 that the broadly influential music he made with brother Don should be the focal point of this year’s gathering.
“Every duo that came after them tried to sing like the Everlys, but none of us could match them,” said Peter Asher, half of the British Invasion duo Peter & Gordon, and who became an esteemed producer and manager after his run at pop fame in the '60s faded. “It remains everyone’s idea of the ideal duo.”
Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Rodney Crowell, T Bone Burnett, Joe Henry, Asher, Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens, Jim Lauderdale, blues singer Bobby Rush, the Haden triplets, Sarah Jarosz, members of L.A. roots-rock band Dawes, the Milk Carton Kids, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Willie Watson and several others used Everlys music not as the alpha and omega of the show, but as its musical anchor.
Among the many highlights was Cooder’s collaboration with Petra, Rachel and Tanya Haden, the triplet daughters of jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who grew up immersed in country music before becoming one of the world’s most acclaimed jazz bassists. Cooder has produced their forthcoming album of old-time country songs, including “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)."
That was one of three songs they sang with Cooder supplying his richly distinctive guitar work. The inclusion of his son Joachim on drums provided a dual family facet to that portion of the show.
Henry deviated from the Everlys’ songbook with a couple of his own songs: “Eyes Out for You,” which nevertheless evoked the spirit of the struggles of the South and Appalachia, out of which the Everlys emerged. Then he introduced “You Can’t Fail Me Now” as a song he consistently instructs audiences when he plays it to imagine hearing Raitt singing it, before bringing Raitt out so they wouldn’t have to imagine.
She sang it with his guitar accompaniment, bringing out the profound angst of being emotionally, inescapably tethered to another human being in a way that seemed reflective of the bittersweet relationship Don and Phil Everly had.
Crowell read a letter from Don, who did not attend, with his first extensive public comment on his brother’s death.
“I’m sorry I can’t be there in person,” Everly wrote, “and really appreciate the recognition. Right now, I’m mourning the loss of my little brother and suffering from a broken heart. His death has saddened me profoundly. I love him very much. He will always be missed.
“Phil was a great singer,” Crowell continued reading. “It’s nice to see how his, and our, legacy is being honored. Thank you for the tribute. Phil would have been proud.”
And for good reason. Performances were predictably inspired, mindful of the unique harmonies the Everlys brought to their music, and to the spirit of invention the siblings displayed in bringing country tradition together with a rock attitude in the mid-'50s.
“You just realize when you start digging that there is so much,” said Giddens, who mesmerized the crowd with her commanding version of “Long Time Gone,” which the Everlys recorded in 1958 for their album “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.” She added an equally captivating rendition of the traditional folk song “Water Boy,” accompanied on both by her Chocolate Drops band mate Hubby Jenkins, that unleashed the evening’s first standing ovation.
The audience had also dropped to a whisper a few minutes earlier when Watson sang an especially aching version of "Take a Message to Mary," with his high, quavering otherworldly voice and spare, raw banjo accompaniment.
Emphasis was on the material the Everlys recorded during their creative heyday in the '50s and '60s, but some artists reached further forward in the brothers' long, fractured history together.
Jarosz offered a sweet rendition of the Paul McCartney-written “On the Wings of a Nightingale,” off their 1984 reunion album “EB ’84,” although she and her cellist and harmony vocalist Nathaniel Smith couldn’t replicate the shimmering blend of the original, underscoring the point Asher made later.
The Milk Carton Kids, the L.A. acoustic folk duo consisting of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, injected some welcome humor into the evening when Ryan deadpanned, “We just found out it was going to be an Everly Brothers tribute, and we were worried about what to do, because that doesn’t really fit into the format of our band.”
They could joke about it because they showed themselves to be fully capable of stepping into the world of seamless harmony singing with a three-song set highlighted by their haunting rendition of “Sleepless Nights.”
“You’re probably wondering what an overdressed English gentleman is doing at an Americana show,” said Asher, who with British schoolmate Gordon Waller rose to fame on the coattails of the Beatles. “But when we were growing up, all we wanted to do was play American music.”
Asher and his duet partner for the evening, identified only as “Jeff,” served up the Carole King-Howard Greenfield-written hit “Crying in the Rain,” followed by the Lennon-McCartney song that Peter & Gordon put on the pop chart, “World Without Love.”
Among the celebrities spotted in the audience: Steve Martin, Jack Black (Tanya Haden’s husband) and actress-singer Mary Kay Place.
“What a night,” singer and songwriter Lauderdale said, before he and Crowell paired up for a deeply moving performance of “Let It Be Me.” “Let’s keep this our little secret. If the rest of the world finds out about this…”
He also voiced a sentiment that could serve as an epitaph: ”The great Phil Everly hit the sweet spot, and he rode the world sweetly.”
The finale with everyone onstage fittingly finished with the Phil Everly-composed “When Will I Be Loved,” during which virtually everyone sang Phil’s high harmony rather than Don’s melody, giving the impression that at that moment, all aboard had opted to channel Phil.
A visibly moved Patti Everly, Phil’s widow, stood in the foyer of the Troubadour waiting for her car to pick her up. With a tone almost of victory in her voice, she crystallized the impact for herself and many in the house on hearing so many musicians pay heartfelt homage to her late husband: “I only cried twice.”
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun