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.