Souther Rises Again

J.D. Souther
Studio 201
July 21, 2012

Fans of '70s rock know John David "J.D." Souther's work even if they don't recognize his name. Linda Ronstadt, always good with a bittersweet ballad, made several of his highlights of her mid-decade LPs. Fellow Detroiter Glenn Frey and Souther hooked up again after both had moved to Los Angeles, and this eventually led to Souther co-writing several of the Eagles' biggest hits.

Those who do know his work swear by his output for the talented if commercially unsuccessful supergroup Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, and his occasional solo LPs offered his own versions of his songs made familiar by others plus plenty of "deep tracks." But after his fourth solo LP in 1984, he didn't release another one until 2008' If the World Was You. Fortunately he's kept his comeback going, and the opportunity to hear him in a very intimate setting arose thanks to a friend of his owning the unusual concert space Studio 201, on the far West Side in a building of art studios.

I'd been hemming and hawing about going; it was a pricey ticket ($50 plus fees) for an underemployed wretch such as myself. Then my friend Davie Kaufmann, who'd bought a ticket, was unable to go and gave me her ticket on the condition that I tell her about the show. So Davie, this review's for you.

The intimacy of the setting (around a hundred capacity, I'd guess) was matched by the band: Souther on amplified acoustic guitar, with pianist Chris Walters and double bassist Jerry Navarro. No drums, no lead guitarist, no electric bass. And, unlike the comeback albums (there's also 2011's A Natural History, which revamps songs from across his career), no horns. Stripped down like that, his many classic songs could be heard independent of the production contexts where they were first heard, whether on his records or others'.

The first song he played, "Go Ahead and Rain" from his 1984 album Home by Dawn, was a prime example of this effect. There's nothing inherently wrong with the slick, shiny production of the album version, but as played on Saturday night, it had greater intimacy, and sounded a bit less obviously like a plea for sex -- or, at least, a sexier plea for sex.

Then, in case that song had been a little too obscure, he hit us with a biggie: "New Kid in Town." He didn't mess with the arrangement too much, but obviously it was more sparely presented in this setting. Most notably, Souther, even at age 66, is a far more subtle and expressive singer than his old pal Glenn Frey, the Eagle who sang it on Hotel California.

Then, in case that song had been a little too famous, Souther switched gears and played the rocking "House of Pride" from If the World Was You. When its more rhythmic sound inspired audience clapping over the intro, Souther quipped, "It's like a square dance, only fucked up."

Before the next song, he said he was "basically a saloon singer, like my dad." Then he launched into Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear from Me," delivering it with elegant wit. We are by this point jaded by the jazz moves of '70s rock stars, but Souther is far better versed in jazz style than the likes of Rod Stewart (more on this later!) and his rendition of this classic from the cusp of jazz and R&B was charmingly understated, phrased slyly in perfect accord with Souther's image as self-confessed womanizer.

He then surprised the band, and perhaps even himself, with a mostly solo rendition of The Fleetwoods' hit "Mr. Blue." Though it was very sweet, he fumbled a few bits and said afterward, "I haven't sung that song since eighth grade." He'd essayed it, he revealed, because the intro of the next song reminded him of it. The next song? Another of his Eagles co-credits, "The Sad Café." And, again, he's a better singer than the Eagle who first sang it, in this case Don Henley on The Long Run. Souther made the emotions behind it sound more personal.

It wasn't until the seventh song of the set that he played something from one of his own '70s albums, in this case 1976's underrated Black Rose. "Bang My Head Against the Moon," the LP's funky opening track, here was combined with a song we'd heard in the pianist's opening set, Walters's own song "A Denser Roux," played instrumentally as the introduction. (Walters plays piano in the style of the New Orleans native he is, and writes songs that recall the humor of another Big Easy product, Randy Newman, crossed with Mose Allison; though the unannounced opening set was initially irritating because it was unexpected and meant I wouldn't be able to make it to another show I wanted to go to later, Walters won me over.)

The beautiful "I'll Take Care of You" (another from Home by Dawn) was accompanied only by piano until Navarro bowed one bass note under Walters's coda. Souther then told us that it was his mother's favorite song of his, and that he'd written it for his little sister. This led into a series of comments about his family, and how if he hadn't had a career in music, he might have become a teacher, but after getting tenure at some college, he probably would have gotten fired for "having an affair with a co-ed," so it was probably for the best that music had worked out for him. Then his love of classic jazz brought a fine rendition of Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," with a Gershwin quote inserted by Walters in his solo.

We were returned to Souther's songs, and his more recent work, with "Journey Down the Nile," which he introduced as "a history lesson," but as has probably become clear by now, he was carefully and effectively alternating several strands -- favorites from his old albums, his Eagles co-writes, his comeback material, and jazz standards -- so of course a very familiar song came next: He introduced "Faithless Love" (another one from Black Rose) by noting, "This song just got its thirtieth recording." After listing a few of the others, he said, "I'm glad Linda made me finish this song." She'd walked in when he was halfway through, stuck figuring out how to get out of its "weird little bridge."

"For All We Know" -- the 1934 ballad by penned by J. Fred Coots and Sam M. Lewis and known through versions by Billie Holiday, June Christy, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, etc., not the 1970s Carpenters song written by members of Bread -- returned him to the jazz vein he'd been mining so successfully tonight. Its lyrics (for example, "For all we know this may only be a dream / We come and go like a ripple on a stream  / So love me tonight; tomorrow was made for some / Tomorrow may never come for all we know") fit snugly with the themes and moods of Souther's many own fine ballads, and his delivery was especially touching, the best of his jazz excursions this evening.

At its conclusion, he quoted Duke Ellington's famous quip, "There are only two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind." He then thanked us for listening to a set that was probably not what we'd been expecting , and talked in depth about his music education. There was a lot of jazz love in there; clearly the evening's setlist was not the result of some recent affectation. That's probably why his jazz singing is so good, and sounds so natural: it's been part of his soul for so long that he's not self-conscious about it and doesn't have to overthink it. Some fans might complain that the set didn't include "Prisoner in Disguise," "White Rhythm and Blues," "Silver Blue," "Trouble in Paradise," or even more Eagles songs than it already had. But hearing his distinctive voice unleashed on jazz favorites was not just a pleasant surprise, it was stunningly effective.

However, it was back to the '70s for the rest of the set. First came his biggest hit from his own albums, "You're Only Lonely" (from the 1979 LP of the same name). This was another example of welcome contrast with the polished production of the original leading to an impression of greater emotional depth. In particular, the '79 rendition's arrangement and style paid homage to Roy Orbison, but I prefer the less melodramatic approach he takes now, which sounds more sincere.

After a bravura finish to the set with another Eagles tune, "Heartache Tonight," sounding more aware of the tragedies portrayed than in Frey's vocal on The Long Run. After its conclusion and the well-earned enthusiastic applause that followed, Souther skipped the hollow formality of exiting and making us beg for more, instead declaring, "I don't wanna walk all the way back there. You wanna hear another song?" Of course we did. And not only did we get it, we got more amusing reminiscence: "I used to be a clarinetist. And a saxophonist, and a drummer. Then some damn fool left a guitar at my place. Now he's managing a drugstore in Texas. Shit happens."

After that bit of irreverence, he made a 180-degree turn and played the sweetest and best song from If the World Was You: "I'll Be Here at Closing Time." It's as good a song as anything from his long and productive career, aptly closing the show with a reminder that for all the famous old tunes, by himself and by jazz giants, he's not living in the past. He's reinvented himself with a new angle on the old tunes and with new tunes that both uphold and extend his legacy. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.