The guitar wizard returns to front-man status to tour the politically tinged album “The Prodigal Son.”
Ry Cooder—the guitar wizard, songwriter, film-score composer, itinerant scholar and interpreter of soulful sounds from around the world and his own back yard—always disliked being the main dude onstage. “Being the front guy is a hard job,” he said the other day. “I’m still not sure about it. I’d rather be sharing the stage with other people.” And yet here he was in a midtown hotel lobby, the morning after a gig at Town Hall—a week into his first front-guy tour in six years. “Never thought I’d do this again,” he said. “Touring? Out of the question. Just not feasible. We had to start from scratch. I had nothing in place. No machine, like the big acts have, the country guys especially. Me and Joachim already got rid of all the stuff, sold all the cases.”
Joachim is his son, drummer, and right hand, who, along with the rest of the band and the crew, had retreated to Weehawken, New Jersey, for the night. Cooder and his wife, Susan Titelman, had opted for the Algonquin, in hopes of a decent night’s rest.
“I haven’t been sleeping,” he said. He’d had to leave a few balms back home in Santa Monica: his Lorazepam pills, which his doctor had un-prescribed, and a “multitudinous” stomach-soothing brew of seaweed, meat, and vegetables. “The broth didn’t make it on tour,” he said. “We didn’t have room for a broth tech.”
Cooder, who is seventy-one, had his hair in a ponytail, under a black watch cap, and was wearing a black drum-shop sweatshirt, black pants, and rubber sandals over white socks. He spoke with a kind of growling drawl—a grawl, maybe.
One corollary of Cooder’s reticence in performance has been his tendency, in the past dozen-plus years, to make ventriloquistic concept albums in the guise of fictional, historical, or extraterrestrial characters, starting, in 2005, with “Chavez Ravine,” a record of songs about the Mexican-American community that was displaced by Dodger Stadium. “It’s like being an actor. Or a novelist,” he said. “Wouldn’t you rather hear the stories of other people as opposed to your own? That seems so claustrophobic to me.”
Recently, though, Joachim, who is thirty-nine, suggested that his father do a straight-up Ry Cooder album like the ones he became known for in the seventies: “Go back to your American roots sound again.
Another friend told him, “Stop being other people.”
Once Cooder and his son had recorded the album, “The Prodigal Son” (the title track is a reconsideration of a recording from the nineteen-thirties by a quartet called the Heavenly Gospel Singers), the label started booking tour dates.
“I panicked,” Cooder said. The most pressing problem was that he had no one to sing the burly gospel parts that are so essential to his sound. Terry Evans, one of his longtime singers, had died in January; another, Arnold McCuller, was on the road with James Taylor. (Both of them had sung on the album.) “These guys, with that sound of the old gospel quartet—it’s an art form as obscure as scrimshaw, or duck carving. It’s hard to find young people who understand this style and can sing it.” McCuller twigged him to the Hamiltones, a trio in North Carolina. “They come from the real quartet families,” Cooder said. “That is the key to the whole damn thing. You gotta have lineage.” The Hamiltones found space in their schedule, and Cooder had the rudiments of a machine.
He went on, “Joachim tells me, ‘You don’t have to work so hard.’ He’s concerned. But last night I got with it.”
Cooder’s wife appeared. Time to rejoin “the cats” in Weehawken and catch the bus to Virginia. The tour rolls on. The lobby of the Algonquin began to teem, unaccountably, with elderly Vietnamese in silken ceremonial dress. “Look at that hat!” Cooder said, referring to a woman’s khan dong—a halo of layered blue silk. Curious, Ry and Susie followed her outside, where a throng of Vietnamese-Americans was mustering, to march up the Avenue of the Americas, in the Immigrants Parade. “Holy Moses,” Cooder said. “There’s this Vietnamese folk music called cai luong. It’s the wickedest, funkiest shit in the world. It’s impossible to learn.” ♦