For those that don’t know, J.D. Souther (sometimes credited as John David Souther) is primarily known as a songwriter. He co-wrote a number of huge Eagles hits (“The Best of My Love,” “The Sad Café,” “New Kid in Town,” among others), and wrote a number of other songs, most notably for Linda Ronstadt (“Faithless Love”). He also had a brief but notable solo career. In 1979, his nod to Roy Orbison, “You’re Only Lonely,” was a Top 10 hit, and in 1981 he collaborated with James Taylor for the hit single “Her Town Too”. He also recorded several duets with Linda Ronstadt (including “Hasten Down the Wind” and “Prisoner in Disguise”). His solo recordings have also resulted in successful covers, such as the Dixie Chicks‘ version of Souther’s “I’ll Take Care of You”. In 2008, JD Souther made an unexpected return with If the World Was You, a surprising recording that saw the artist most known for country-rock ably tackling more jazz oriented songs of his own writing. And this year he released Natural History, where he recorded versions of a lot of the songs mentioned above in loose and stripped down arrangements.
I’ve looked around McCabe’s at their guitars and done plenty of drooling but I’d never seen a show there before. It’s a great venue, intimate with a rustic feel thanks to the wood beams and aged building. The walls are all adorned with amazing guitars. The only downside is one of column nearly in the middle of the room that won’t be transparent no matter how much you wish it. And NOTE TO PERFORMERS: The room is deep. Your speaking voice, even when miked, does not make it to the back of the room. I was sitting by the aisle across from the main entrance to the room, the one further from the stage, and had trouble making out what was being said if someone moved away from the mike while speaking or if their voice dropped. That aside, great venue with a great vibe and a lot of history.
Jill Andrews was the opening act. She was accompanied by Josh Oliver on piano, electric guitar and backing vocals. The two used to be in the alt-country band The Everybodyfields. Jill’s lovely voice eased us into the night. The word “lovely” can sound kind of quaint, but I mean that in the most beautiful way possible. Opening acts are always a bit of a gamble, but she was fantastic. Great songwriting and great performance. The importance of a strong opening hook gets overlooked. Jill Andrews seems to realize this in her song “The Mirror,” which opens with “You broke a mirror, but I will get the bad luck”. Her arrangements were also refreshing, with lots of color that took advantage of Josh Oliver’s accompanist skills and her own precise guitar pick-and-strumming technique. The trick was that she didn’t overload or overwhelm the songs with these colors or levels. She intuitively served the songs. She also charmed the audience both in song and with her conversing with the audience between numbers, a seriously undervalued skill for musical performers. Anyway, to the say the least, we were impressed and left with a copy of her new CD The Mirror. Seeing her brought the thought that all acts like JD Souther, people who have a legacy and a following like he and those of his generation, should always have an opening act of an up-and-coming singer/songwriter that they believe in. JD Souther had Jill Andrews come out for an encore and it was clear that he was proud to have her on the tour. What a great way to pass the torch and introduce audiences to new music.
On to the main show. After a slightly long intermission, JD Souther and his two bandmates, pianist Chris Walters and an upright bassist whose name I never caught due to it getting drowned out in applause, provided a very jazz-tinged set reminiscent of the meditative Natural History and a smattering of the more vivacious If the World Was You. As a result, almost all of the songs Souther is known for get their moment and it becomes startlingly obvious that he has created some fantastic songs, and his performance of them brings out their strengths more than any Eagle ever did.
Unfortunately the set started off a bit tentative. Souther had apparently lost his wallet at a restaurant before the show and a frenzied search either cut into sound check or otherwise rattled the top of the show. Understandable for anyone whose been in a similar situation, but the first several songs were affected. Then “New Kid in Town” clicked things into place. Suddenly, performer and music connected, and the two connected to the audience. JD Souther became a funny storyteller between songs instead of a silent brooder, and the show really came to life. Souther’s voice has always been unique but age has sprinkled it with silver dust that adds such great character to his songs with occasional shades of Art Garfunkel and David Lasley at times. Sometimes fingers weren’t quite holding a string down but considering the crazy jazz chords he often uses, when it worked the pay-off was fantastic.
“The Sad Café” was completely reborn for me. He performed it with a restrained longing that gave it new depth. I never really heard the lyrics “We thought we could change this world / With words like ‘love’ and ‘freedom'” until this show. He also did a fantastic cover of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” (the only cover of his show) that I really wish was included on one of his albums. His lesser-known “Little Victories” was also a stand-out.
JD Souther has been reborn as an intriguing artist, a singer/songwriter worth tracking down. I think he’s going to be heading back out on the road in the Fall. Check out his website for tour dates. I feel lucky to have caught him.