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Banded Together for a Friend

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

The first time I stepped into the Westwood Music store was early one Saturday morning in the mid-'70s--and I wasn’t too happy about it.

I was doing a story on singer-songwriter John Prine and had traveled with him overnight on his tour bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

I was exhausted from the trip and eager to get home, but the bus went straight from the San Diego Freeway to the Westwood store, where Prine and his musicians spent what seemed like an eternity.

They walked around buying guitar strings and examining vintage instruments, but mostly they simply visited with Fred Walecki, a jovial young man whose family has owned Westwood Music for half a century.

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After attending a benefit concert for Walecki on Tuesday at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, I realized that Chicago-based Prine and his band were in no rush to get to some anonymous hotel room because Westwood Music was in many ways their home here.

The store was a place where they and countless other musicians could relax in a warm, supportive atmosphere, mingle with Walecki and other customers and exchange hints about instruments and playing techniques.

That same warmth was showcased Tuesday as more than two dozen musicians--from Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt to Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris--expressed their thanks for all that Walecki and Westwood Music have meant to them over the years.

Highlighting the more than three-hour event was the first performance in nearly a decade by the surviving members of the Byrds.

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Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and David Crosby played “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” and the songs ideally defined the evening’s spirit.

Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” celebrates the power of music to lift one’s spirits, while “Turn!,” adapted by Pete Seeger from the Book of Ecclesiastes, is a wistful, philosophical statement about life’s inexplicable twists.

As such, “Turn!” served as a reflection of the anguish and blessings felt in recent months by Walecki, 53, who is battling throat cancer.

Walecki’s voice box was removed, but he has been equipped with an artificial larynx that enables him to speak, and he seemed in great spirits Tuesday as he watched the concert with his family.

Titled “A Gathering of the Clan” and produced by Tom Campbell, the concert was organized by Eagles co-founder Bernie Leadon and record producer Glyn Johns to help Walecki with his medical bills.

Unlike benefits where the performers don’t interact, Tuesday’s affair was enriched by the musicians’ teaming on various tunes. Browne sat in with Warren Zevon for two numbers, then with Raitt for a couple.

But the real sparks of the opening half came when Raitt and Ry Cooder, who was part of the house band, traded slide guitar licks during Raitt’s raucous rendition of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love.”

The second half began slowly with four songs by the team of Crosby and Graham Nash, but the energy picked up considerably with a wacky set by the satirical hard-rock band Spinal Tap, whose Harry Shearer (as the leather-clad Derek Smalls) was a delight with his rock-star posturing.

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After the Byrds reunion, which drew the evening’s biggest response, Hillman teamed with Harris on “Wheels,” a tune associated with his post-Byrds group, the Flying Burrito Brothers, another of the greatest bands ever to come out of Los Angeles.

After a Harris and Linda Ronstadt pairing, Henley closed the formal part of the show with a three-song set that included his new “My Thanksgiving,” whose positive sentiments spoke to the emotional heart of the uplifting evening.

More than two dozen cast members joined in the finale, which consisted of the fireball “Mercury Blues” and the winsome “Stand by Me.”

With a group so large and under-rehearsed, it wasn’t surprising that the renditions bordered on chaos. But the random way the various singers took turns at the microphone ended the evening on just the kind of informal note that seemed to summarize the musicians’ relationship with Walecki all these years.

It took them several minutes to coax Walecki to join them on stage at the end, and it was hard in the noise of the auditorium to hear what he was saying through the artificial voice box. But the smile on his face told it all.


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