With his long stringy hair, nouveau wino polyester clothes and singular musical talent, David Lindley is often described as one of a kind.
In conversation, though, he’s more like 12 of a kind. Lindley’s skill on virtually any stringed instrument is matched by his flair for vocal imitation: In one statement he can switch effortlessly among such characters as a Jamaican Rastafarian, a mischievous leprechaun, a Hong Kong tough guy and--most impressive--a spot-on James Stewart.
Lindley’s music shows the same ear for dialect. The four albums he’s made since leaving his long-time role as Jackson Browne’s musical accomplice in the early 1980s are each lively party platters serving up a smorgasbord of rhythms and styles from every corner of the globe.
But when asked the number of styles of music he can play, Lindley, who headlines the Palace tonight with his band El Rayo-X, bristled.
“Only one,” the San Marino-raised musician insisted in his own sharp-edged voice, sitting in the Claremont house he occupies with his wife, Joan, and 18-year-old daughter, Roseanne (a budding musician herself). “Music is just one thing. It all comes from the same place, so I say one.”
That’s the philosophy that has been the core of a career that covers more than half of Lindley’s 43 years, highlighted by a founding stint with the heady mid-'60s psychedelic/bluegrass/Cajun/Turkish/rock band Kaleidoscope, arena-level visibility with Browne in the 1970s and his current status as one of the West Coast’s most popular club and small theater acts with El Rayo-X.
“I discovered that thing a long time ago about all music being the same,” he said. “Probably because different instruments made me feel the same way. It just grabbed me by the throat. It affected me dramatically. That’s really good. . . .
“I’ve always looked at a guitar player as a guitar player, whether he happens to play a million miles an hour or just plays one note and sings. Notes--when you hear notes on a stringed instrument that’s exactly what they are: Hand plays notes and ear picks it up.”
The arsenal of strings from which Lindley’s hands produce notes is truly impressive: the Turkish saz, Greek oud and bouzouki and Hawaiian guitar, as well as more conventional instruments like conventional guitar and fiddle.
And he’s just as likely to use the electric oud to throw a Middle-Eastern modal excursion into a reggae-fied version of the rock classic “Do You Want to Dance” (as he does on his latest LP, “Very Greasy”) as anything else.
It’s that kind of sensibility that formed the core of a working relationship with an unlikely collaborator: Linda Ronstadt, who produced the new album.
“Linda has the same disease I have,” Lindley said, pointing to the range of styles--from Broadway to country to mariachi--that Ronstadt has tackled. “We’ve been (sharing our musical discoveries with each other) for years. . . . She’s a fellow (music) junkie.”
Ronstadt, it seems, went to see Lindley and band at the Palace a couple years ago for the first time in a while. According to Lindley, the singer was surprised to find that the band was unsigned, having been dropped by Elektra--also her label--a couple of years before. She went to the label, which agreed to re-sign Lindley.
“It went real smoothly,” Lindley said of his relationship with Ronstadt the record-producer. “She’s one of the few people I can take advice from. I’m not really egotistical--yeah, I am egotistical, really egotistical. But I gave up a lot of that for this album. I accept her opinions, have a respect for them. Then when I got difficult, she’s one of the few people that can come up to my face and say, ‘Lindley, do you want to settle for that solo? I know you can do better.’ ”
And that suits Lindley just fine--getting better is something of an obsession for him. In fact, having the freedom to explore and concentrate on learning new styles and instruments is what makes him sure his decision to leave the lucre and luster of Browne’s high-profile band was the right one.
“It was definitely the right thing to do,” he said. “Not only do I do my own band, but I do stuff on my own, the stuff with the saz and other weird instruments. You got to eat and that’s like my food. If I can do that and drink a lot of coffee, I’m fine.”