Those acts and others shared the bill at this weekend’s Across the Great Divide charity concert in Los Angeles. The show — staged by philanthropic-minded event producers Upperwest Music Group, and benefitting the Americana Music Association and the Blues Foundation — was a powerhouse revue of Americana usual suspects and strange-bedfellow collaborative performances, as backed by a house band led by Conan musical director and guitarist extraordinaire Jimmy Vivino.
The night’s many highlights included Prine serenading with a solo acoustic “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967” and Womack bringing the house down doing her best Nina Simone with a pin-drop take on “Trouble in Mind.” Then there were the wonderfully weird moments, like Weir leading Larkin Poe (who’d earlier honored Leadbelly with an electric, raucous romp through “Black Betty”), the exceedingly slick, not-exactly-psychedelic house band, through Dead jams like “Ripple” and “Truckin’ ” that loosed noodle-dancers from their seats across the auditorium. Or when the long, strange three-hour-show ended with an all-star jam of the Band’s “The Weight.” One look at the elbows-rubbing cast of characters, which included Slash, a Grateful Dead member, a podcast star, a laughing Lucinda Williams and former Tonight Show band members, and it was clear just how hard Americana is leaning into its Big Tent philosophy for defining itself.
“This isn’t a Western shirt, it’s an Americana shirt,” Maron cracked wise to a chuckling crowd of erudite fans, music industry types, and multi-generational Deadheads gathered at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, where the raised index fingers of a dozen or so unkempt miracle-seekers loitering outside the venue was the first giveaway that Weir was on the bill. Weir, an American musician who has transcended the decades, and his many open-minded, musically adventurous followers are actually a perfect fit for a genre collection heavy with folky songs and bluesy guitar solos.
“Has Lucinda already been on?!” one fan, seemingly a little lost in his own world, was overheard asking another in a back-alley smoking section behind the venue, about an hour after Williams closed her three-song set with a seething, angsty run through her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road classic “Joy.”
“You missed it, bro,” the other fan replied.
“It’s a little campfire,” replied one Weir-anticipating Deadhead when asked if he was enjoying the show so far.
But is high-quality campfire sing-alongs to Dylan covers delivered by blues ripper Doyle Bramhall II anything to complain about?
“I’ll roast a fuckin’ marshmallow to it,” the man replied.
Maron — serving as master of ceremonies— hardly missed an opportunity to regale with anecdotes of his misadventures dropping bad acid at Jerry Garcia Band shows, or to salt the characteristic wholehearted earnestness that’s part and parcel to roots music reverence with a little Hollywood cynicism. The juxtaposition was especially jarring when, just after the applause died down for vaunted blues vocalist Shemekia Copeland singing her four-on-the-floor-stomping scorcher “Ain’t Got Time for Hate” — an optimistic recent single calling for coalescence in Trump’s America — Maron popped the posi-vibes balloon with a rant riffing on just how deplorable America’s Basket of Deplorables really is. “We’ve got a lot of shitty people in this country,” the comedian deadpanned.
And they had a lot of great guitar players under one roof at this gig. Even musical hobbyist Maron tried on his slow hand, trading licks with Slash and Vivino on a rendition of Memphis Slim’s “Steppin’ Out.” But it was during a guitar-off between Slash and virtuoso Joe Louis Walker, on a rendition of “I Got a Mind to Give Up Living,” where the GN’R icon busted out some serious blues chops.
As much as it surprised many in the crowd — Deadheads especially — to see Slash appear as an unannounced special guest at an Americana event, even more shocking was how well relative newcomer Tash Neal (formerly of rockers the London Souls) rose to the occasion when it came to the unenviable task of following the Walker/Slash performance. But Neal more than held his own on a shred-heavy cover of CSN&Y’s “Ohio.” It’s a song choice that would’ve seemed a little on the nose in another era. But in the these times, not so much, earning Neal a massive standing ovation.