Eclectic performers -- even Spinal Tap -- sing '20s and '30s songs

By Chris Willman
Updated May 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Beck: Kelly Swift/Retna

Beck and Elvis Costello join a lively UCLA songfest

Forget about that whole ’80s revival thing you keep hearing about. It’s the late ’20s and early ’30s that comprise the real decade du jour, at least in some musical circles. The Depression themed, country / bluegrass ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” album continues, against all odds, to be the nation’s bestselling soundtrack. And this week at UCLA, an all star cast (well, an ensemble of all cult stars, at least) banded together to pay homage to the folk music of that same era. In a pair of epic concerts at the campus’ Royce Hall, a cast of dozens — including Beck, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Marianne Faithfull, Todd Rundgren, Philip Glass, Richard Thompson, Daniel Lanois, and even Spinal Tap — paid homage to the late Harry Smith, who compiled the Anthology of American Folk Music, a definitive canon of regional recordings from 1926 to ’34. You can almost hear the rallying cry of a new generation: ”Let’s go Dust Bowling!”

Introducing the vintage ”Down on the Banks of the Ohio,” a ditty about a man who drowns his best gal, Beck remarked, ”This next song is disturbing, very disturbing. I have to read some of the lyrics,” he apologized, pulling out his crib sheet. ”I tried to memorize them, but… they’re disturbing! I wasn’t sure I wanted them imbedded in my memory.”

Indeed, ”this next number is a murder ballad” seemed to be the catchphrase of the night. There haven’t been so many vivid descriptions of wife, girlfriend, or mistress homicides on one stage since Eminem’s last trip through town. ”This is another song about someone in the Appalachias getting knocked up… and killed,” said Kate McGarrigle, introducing ”Ommie Wise,” which she sang with her sister Anna. But there was at least an attempt at redress here. After the original tune’s abrupt climax in which the wife killer gets away scot free, Elvis Costello came onstage and announced, ”We didn’t think that was a very satisfying ending.” He then sang the ”lost” coda — actually, a whole new song he’d written — in which the murderer is so haunted by his evil deed, he goes to dig up his wife’s grave, only to find the coffin empty.

Another highlight was Irishman Gavin Friday’s rocking rendition of ”Fatal Flower Garden,” a 1929 tune about a boy who goes to retrieve his ball from a neighboring woman’s house and gets locked up and killed by the psycho lady. Let’s see Marshall Mathers write something that sick! (On Wednesday night, at the first of the two shows, Friday was cheered on by his Dublin pals Bono and the Edge, taking a night off amid their own series of L.A. concerts.) But apparently, in the 1920s, if there was no one around to kill you, you had to do it yourself — as with the lovelorn female protagonist of ”The Butcher’s Boy,” who’s so upset by her suitor’s infidelity, she hangs herself in her parents’ house. That song was irresistible enough to be performed twice, first by Van Dyke Parks with a string quartet, and later by Elvis Costello as a rock & roll scorcher.

Not everything in these concerts was quite so morbid. The three principals of Spinal Tap — Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer — donned striped shirts and a cheerful, Kingston Trio style demeanor to take on the guise of the Folksmen, a put-on that’s (at least in small doses) even funnier than the Tap. Their hootenanny version of the Stones’ ”Start Me Up” brought the house down. Also good for laughs was Todd Rundgren’s ”West Virginia Gals,” which he described as ”an admonition for West Virginia women to marry out of state. It must have been written by someone from a much more sophisticated place, like Kentucky.” Other bright spots included the usually dour Marianne Faithfull doing a kick-butt gospel turn on ”John the Revelator,” the Pere Ubu frontman howling through ”Fishing Blues,” and, in one of the best received minisets, David Johansen — formerly known as Buster Poindexter and now leading a band called the Harry Smiths! — singing a soulful ode to ”Old Dog Blue.”

These highly anticipated UCLA shows were the brainchild of producer Hal Willner, who’s previously put together star studded recorded tributes to Nino Rota, Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, and Walt Disney. We can only presume, or at least hope, that he’ll somehow make an album out of this homage as well. An album would certainly be more economical, by necessity: Both shows ran past 1 A.M., even after 15 numbers were cut from Wednesday’s set list, resulting in more jokes about the epic nature of the proceedings than you’d hear on an Oscar telecast. ”There was a lot of angsty talk last night about the length of the show, mostly out of my mouth,” Costello said at the second concert. ”I thought it wasn’t long enough. As someone wise said, there are no clocks in church or in Las Vegas. And this is somewhere in-between.”