By Randy Lewis
2:47 PM EST, December 21, 2012
The great thing about the living-room jam session is that there are no rules, no set lists, no worries about when things start and when — or if — they’ll end.
The potential downside? No rules, no set lists, no worries about when things start and when — or if — they’ll end.
The first Merry Minstrel Musical Circus on Thursday at the venerable Troubadour in West Hollywood was to be a public version of the jam sessions that L.A. guitarist, songwriter, singer and producer Jonathan Wilson used to hold regularly in his house in Laurel Canyon, before he relocated his home and studio to new digs in Echo Park.
So Wilson and guitarist-songwriter Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers cooked up a plan to stage a holiday benefit and invite along a bunch of their pals from those jam sessions. That turned out to include Jackson Browne, Grateful Dead singer-guitarist-songwriter Bob Weir, former ELO/Traveling Wilburys guitarist-singer-producer Jeff Lynne, Campbell’s fellow Heartbreaker keyboardist Benmont Tench, and a slew of associates whose names don’t necessarily make the marquee.
While there was expected raggedness and a damn-the-torpedoes attitude toward the show’s advertised 8:30 p.m. start time, the joy of sharing musicians’ own sense of musical celebration and camaraderie more than compensated.
The music careened from compact cornerstone rock songbooks of Chuck Berry and the Beatles to extended jam-band excursions led by Weir. Even quintessential sensitive singer-songwriter Browne joined in.
On a deeper, unspoken level it also strongly saluted California rock history with central offerings from Browne (“Take It Easy,” which simultaneously tipped a hat to the Eagles, and “These Days”), Weir (with such Dead standards as “Truckin’” and “Dark Star”) and one departed member of the Southland rock scene of the ‘70s, Warren Zevon. They delivered Zevon's “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and “Play It All Night Long,” a choice whose irony Zevon would have loved given his song's musical invitation to “play that dead band’s song”).
Even as fans were huddled in the cold outside the Troubadour waiting for doors to open, Browne, Campbell and Weir were still working up an intimate acoustic trio arrangement of the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” earnestly attempting to map out harmonies and figure on how they might all end up in the same place.
Lynne, the lone Brit among the rock stars on stage, chose two songs that not only worked pre-British Invasion American rock hits into the show—Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and Del Shannon’s “Runaway”—but which also had a connection to his tenure with Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and George Harrison in the Wilburys.
“Roll Over Beethoven” was sung by Harrison when the Beatles used to do it, and Shannon’s early-‘80s comeback album was produced by another Wilbury, Tom Petty. To take it one step further, Shannon was heavily rumored to step into the Wilburys after Orbison died, but then he died a short time later.
There was excited chatter ahead of Thursday’s show that Petty and perhaps even Stevie Nicks might drop in and ramp up the star quotient. That didn’t happen — at least, not before 1 a.m. When this reporter headed out, everyone was still riffing on the traditional folk tune “Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad/I Ain’t Gonna Be Treated This Way.”
The one nit worth picking is that this particular jam session was once again largely a boys' club. Bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, part of Jeff Beck’s band for several years, was the only female to pick up an instrument and join the fun, and she guested on just one number. Singers Leslie Stevens (of Leslie and the Badgers) and Jenny O. harmonized sweetly but remained far from center stage, swaying rhythmically and unobtrusively in the background, as women are too often relegated to do when guys jam.
If, as Wilson indicated, this is to become an annual tradition, it would be great to see more women included, especially given that one of the evening’s beneficiaries are Little Kids rock, the program that puts rock instruments into kids’ hands. In giving them lessons on what to do with those instruments, the ideal one should be that everyone is allowed to rock.
The other recipient of some of the show’s proceeds is the Tazzy Animal Rescue Fund, an L.A.-based organization that provides assistance to animals of advanced age or with serious medical problems.
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