If you treat yourself to a Ry Cooder show, you are in “national treasure” territory, in the presence of one of the most gifted and respected American roots musicians of the past half-century.
Cooder and his band will play Saturday and Sunday, July 21 and 22, at Napa’s Uptown Theatre.
Considered one of the great slide guitar players of all time, Cooder is a multi-instrumentalst, a compelling singer and a prolific composer of songs and movie soundtracks. He is a six-time Grammy winner with 17 studio albums to his credit and a list of collaborations that reads like a who’s who of rock, blues, folk and world music.
In a wide-ranging interview for American Songwriter Magazine early this year, Cooder talked about his approach to both composition and improvisational performance — basically, don’t plan it, don’t think about it, just do it. “If I feel a certain way,” he said, talking about songwriting, “I’m just going to capo to a certain key, and choose a key that sounds good. And then I’ll come up with something without planning it.
“As soon as I start thinking too hard about it, what happens is, that mysterious, unknown quality is gone pretty quickly. We don’t want that. We want a statement of pure intuition. It’s possible to make records that way when we don’t plan things and rehearse them. You rely on your own instinct. I’ve done this long enough that I can trust myself to do it. To try it, anyway.”
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He approaches instrumental soloing with the same spontaneity. “It takes a certain mindset,” he said. “I have to do something to my brain to calm myself down to do it. If I don’t, I can’t. Then I’ll overplay and play the wrong things, and it won’t be that. You’ve got to let it happen to yourself, if you can. Don’t be distracted.
“In other words, get into it, for Chrissakes. That’s what they always used to say. Get into it. You’re playing your instrument, so do it already. Or singing. Feel it. If you don’t feel it, don’t do it. Go do something else. Run around the block or get a sandwich. But I mean, if you feel it, then you will do that thing. It will be your expression.”
Cooder’s principal collaborator these days is his son Joachim, a drummer, percussionist, keyboardist, record producer and electronic maestro. They are a generational contradiction that nevertheless works —Joachim a digital inventor, the old man a staunch traditionalist.
Regarding his son’s musicality, Cooder is effusive. “Well, listen, he’s born in it. He heard so much music in the womb, I think he was born knowing. I’m convinced of it. He swings like mad. He’s got this nice easy touch. It’s what it has to be. It’s what it should be. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t do it. I really wouldn’t bother. I’d just sit home. Sit in my chair and play guitar. But when we get going, it’s pretty cool. It’s really good.”
Aside from father and son, the other band members at the Uptown will be Robert Francis (singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and Joachim’s brother-in-law), Sam Gendel on saxophone and the R&B/gospel vocal trio, The HamilTones. Judging from recent set lists, the Uptown show will be a balance of established Ry Cooder favorites and material from his latest album, 2018’s gospel-driven “The Prodigal Son.”
At this point in his career and life, Cooder sees the current tour as a family event for the fans. “I wouldn’t do it if Joachim wouldn’t do it,” he said. “We’re gonna do it. We’re going to go out there and try to handle it for the people. I know we can play well, it’s just a matter of having to do it. Anyone who’s trying to put a tour together at age 71 might be a little crazy.”
Saturday and Sunday, July 21 and 22, 8 p.m. $55-$75. Uptown Theatre Napa, 1350 Third St., Napa. 707-259-0123. UptownTheatreNapa.com.
David Kerns is a Napa-based freelance journalist. You can view more of his work at DavidKerns.com.