A backroom Stone slides into town

Robert Sandall reviews Ry Cooder

The Sunday Times (UK) 15th July 1990

Photograph - Simon Townsley

Ry Cooder's musical career has turned out to be rather like a typical Ry Cooder song; an authentic, idiosyncratic hard-luck story with an unmistakable lurching rhythm of its own. For the Californian guitar auteur and rock archivist who almost joined the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones died in 1969, played on classic albums such as Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers and who is believed to have invented the floppy slide guitar motif that drives Honky Tonk Women ("I took Ry Cooder for everything I could get," Keith Richards once confessed), business is not as brisk as it deserves to be.

Days after the Stones filled Wembley Stadium, their former mentor Cooder was back in the Hammersmith Odeon (from Thursday till tonight) playing as a duo with David Lindley, a fellow traveller on the road that bypasses stardom. That this proved to be one of the most invigorating displays of American roots rock we have seen since the last Cooder tour here in 1988 will have done little to upgrade the cult status of a man who can, it seems, do anything except sell large quantities of records.

Indeed, after 20-something years at it, he has virtually stopped trying. When his album The Slide Area failed to chart in America in 1982 Cooder lost heart. Since then he has embarked on only one genuinely solo project, Get Rhythm in 1988 (another commercial failure), and prefers to enter recording studios now at the behest of film directors. Wim Wenders, Louis Malle and Walter Hill have ensured that seven of Cooder's past nine albums have been movie soundtracks.

There isn't even a new one of these in the shops to justify his present visit. Lindley and Cooder, both graduates of the Los Angeles folk/blues scene of the early Sixties, have collaborated often enough in the past, notably on Cooder's 1979 masterpiece, Bop Till You Drop, and on the first of his film scores, for Walter Hill's 1980 feature, The Long Riders. But they haven't recorded a lot together since and last Thursday's concert was an unashamedly nostalgic trawl through the styles and standards of Cooder's ample back catalogue.

It was all a bit like Nigel Kennedy in reverse. While our "Nige" spikes his hair brandishes his violin bow and whirls excitedly about the stage making the classical repertoire seem frightfully contemporary, Cooder and Lindley treat pop performance with the more measured passion of a traditional recital.

There they sat at the front of the stage, surrounded by a small but impressive thicket of guitars, mandolins and other custom-built stringed instruments on stands, bathed in a pool of overhead light. An atmosphere of rapt concentration pervaded the stalls. The man sitting behind me was moved at one point to request, politely, that I stop fidgeting about in my seat. I tried to oblige, although Cooder himself is a tremendous fidget and the infectiously rhythmic swing of almost everything he played didn't help.

But this is the kind of intense reverence -- and the sort of studious white audience -- that the man inspires. His virtuoso feats on the slide guitar -- particularly well-exposed early on in the melancholy whine of the soundtrack to Paris, Texas -- had a deep, ghostly resonance that even cast a shadow on jollier tunes such as the gospel stomp Tell Him What You Want. Cooder might have been a shade academic in his choice of material at times but there was nothing dry or fussily note-perfect in the accounts he gave of Leadbelly's Good Night Irene, Woody Guthrie's Vigilante Man or the sparkling highlight of the night - Bobby Womack's It's All Over Now. He generally managed to sound as haunted as the old southern country blues men whose legacy he has for the most part chosen to guard.

And he looked it, too. His head and body merged with the music. Jerking and swaying in his chair, pounding his flip-flopped feet in time to the loosely syncopated weave of the songs, Cooder resembled a blind busker on a street corner in New-Orleans. His partner Lindley, a hairier character wearing a pair of sharply-creased red trousers and a Ioudly patterned shin, looked plain odd.

And the accidental quality of their grooming suited the unadulterated style of the way they played. However fashionable American roots music might have become in recent years, you knew that this pair weren't revivalists. They still remembered the stuff from the first time around.

You could also tell from this 2.25-hour show why the 43-year-old Cooder has never really hit the jackpot. Brilliant interpreter and sensitive embellisher of other people's material though he is, he has no memorable tunes to call his own. True, he played bits of his film scores, but for all their potent atmospherics they sounded bitty. The songs -- Born Free, Woolly Bully, Maria Elena and the rest -- were all on loan. Nigel Kennedy, of course, has managed to make a similar creative deficiency work for him in the market-place. But Ry Cooder, a rock classicist who avoids publicity, seems destined to remain the connoisseurs' choice.