Early in a thoroughly exhilarating performance Sunday in Escondido on his Prodigal Son tour, guitarist, singer, songwriter and keeper of the roots-music flame Ry Cooder performed “Straight Street,” one of the vintage gospel and blues songs at the heart of one of the strongest albums of his storied career.
The song, written by James W. Alexander and Jesse Whitaker, takes the perspective of a man who finds spiritual redemption.
“I heard the Lord when he spoke to me,” Cooder, 71, sang with convincingly assertive backing from his four-piece band and vocal support from the North Carolina gospel trio the Hamiltones. “And he told me to leave that place / So I moved, I moved / And I'm living on straight street now.”
After that singular expression of someone who has seen the light, Cooder introduced the next tune, saying: “This song’s about a fellow who hasn’t moved up to straight street just yet. In fact, so many of these songs are about people who haven’t made it to straight street.”
That’s the compelling crux of “The Prodigal Son” album and this tour: Cooder, now in his 70s, is not interested in simplistic messages of spiritual faith to share with the blissful faithful but honest music that addresses the struggles of being and all the suffering that can come with it.
He finds no shortage of that suffering in the world around him today, in the harsh rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration toward immigrants and the less fortunate, themes he addressed in one of the album’s four original songs, “Jesus and Woody,” his imagined meeting in heaven between the two champions of the downtrodden and the meek (the Woody is folk hero Woody Guthrie).
Cooder was at his most poetic, and most pointed, in that song that outlines how he thinks Jesus might assess the actions of the people of Earth these days: “Once I spoke of a love for those who hate / It requires effort and strain / Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice / Which leads to destruction and pain.”
And it wasn’t just a metaphorical finger Cooder wagged at his audience when he reached that song’s cautionary call to action: “You good people better get together / Or you ain't got a chance anymore,” taking his right hand off his guitar for a moment to wiggle his index finger in their general direction.
That followed his rendition of Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man,” which Cooder updated with a verse about Trayvon Martin that felt organically true on the heels of Guthrie’s verse that asks, “Why does a vigilante man carry that sawed-off shotgun in his hand? Would he shoot his brother and sister down?”
In that respect too, Cooder projected the fire of a man on a mission, this one late in life preaching the gospel of love and charity to one’s neighbor, but in no-holds-barred language common to the most powerful gospel and blues songs, which historically have warned of the price to one’s soul of greed and enmity toward others.
And somewhere in the midst of all that, he made room for the music of another king with a radical reworking of Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister,” which made the most of his call-and-response dialogue with the Hamiltones.
Cooder’s digging in on this rich vein of human experience with the most guitar-centric tour in decades, and his first solo tour of any kind in nine years.
It’s a testament to the skills he’s honed over decades that it mattered not whether he was using a six-string acoustic guitar, one of his modified Fender Stratocasters (known as Coodercasters) or an eight-string Frankenstein Vox electric bouzouki, all instantly came alive with his distinctive musical signature, crying and sighing under his pinkie-finger slide, growling and biting in taut finger-picked passages.
His chief collaborator on this outing is his son, percussionist Joachim, who anchored most of the songs with unfussy but deeply musical grooves in tandem with bassist Robert Francis.
The Hamiltones added old-school gospel harmonies and phrasing, while saxophonist Sam Gendel — with whom Joachim delivered an atmospheric, exploratory 20-minute opening set of the younger Cooder’s soundscapes — provided processed wind parts that added a symphonic chorus element to many of the arrangements.
The gospel trio also shared a couple songs of their own, including “74,” a travelogue of North Carolina’s Highway 74.
Twice during the show, Cooder advised those in the 1,500-seat performing arts venue to “avoid the TV news when you go home,” recommending instead that they “use your laptops or computers or whatever you have and look up the original versions of these songs on YouTube.”
It was a fitting benediction for a utterly convincing musical sermon.