The name Fred Walecki might not mean much, if anything at all, to music fans, but on Tuesday at the Santa Monica Civic, Walecki was responsible for a night of music history that saw two different eras of the L.A. singer-songwriter community come together on one stage. David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn played live together in an impromptu Byrds reunion for the first time since their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
The owner of family-run music equipment store Westwood Music, Walecki was recently struck with throat cancer, resulting in the loss of his vocal cords. To help him pay the costly medical bills, his friends — including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Don Henley, Warren Zevon, Crosby, Graham Nash, Emmylou Harris and Spinal Tap, among others — arranged to play a two-night benefit. The nearly four-hour show, broken down into two halves, had each segment featuring a mainstay to tie it all together. For act one, the unifying thread was, not surprisingly, Jackson Browne, who clearly remains the dean of Seventies singer-songwriters. After brief sets by former Eagle Randy Meisner and one-time Men at Work frontman Colin Hay (definitely the odd man out in this lineup, but who gave a valiant performance), Zevon took the stage, accompanied by Browne.
In addition to being the first performer to really energize the crowd, Zevon stood out for being the first artist of the night to present new material, as opposed to obvious back catalog hits. He turned to his excellent, and grossly underrated, new album Life’ll Kill Ya’ for the moving “Fistful of Rain,” with Browne providing harmonies. They then teamed up for a rambunctious version of “Johnny Strikes up the Band,” which Zevon introduced by saying, “This one’s for Fred especially.”
Zevon then left the stage, leaving Browne up there for his solo set. Immediately, some buffoon from the audience called for “Late for the Sky,” but Browne ignored the calls, as he would throughout his too brief three-song set. Instead, he focused on more recent material, such as Looking East‘s “Baby, How Long” and “The Next Voice You Hear,” the title track from his 1997 greatest hits collection. Interestingly, the two most popular Browne songs of the night were both sung by other people, with Raitt taking “My Opening Farewell” and Ronstadt booming out “For a Dancer.” Displaying his musical generosity, Browne constantly forsook the spotlight to let other musicians have their moment. In particular, he pointed repeatedly to the dazzling Ry Cooder, whose guitar prowess left even Raitt speechless. After she and Browne did an acoustic version of “My Opening Farewell,” she closed the first half with a gritty set that included “Thing Called Love.”
Crosby, Browne’s counterpart in the second half, kicked off his round in style with longtime collaborator Nash. The duo weaved its way through a pleasing four-song set that culminated in a forceful “Wooden Ships.” The show-stealing Spinal Tap cranked it up to eleven for crowd favorite “Big Bottom.”
Putting the show back on its musical course, Hillman and Herb Peterson came out for a guitar and mandolin duet. And when Hillman was just about to introduce Harris, McGuinn and Crosby came out unannounced. In what to had to be the least amount of fanfare ever witnessed for a reunion of a band of this scope, McGuinn took the mic and announced, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Byrds.” The trio, backed by Ethan Johns on drums, cranked through beautifully harmonious versions of hits “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The presence of McGuinn, Hillman and Crosby together electrified the crowd, resulting in multiple standing ovations and cries for more.
To the audience’s credit, they showed no disappointment when Harris (who gave a rousing set) took the stage, though their requests for more from the Byrds went unheeded. And any post-Byrds letdown was avoided when Ronstadt made her first appearance of the night. The possessor of one of the most powerful voices in music, she rarely performs live anymore, which added to the “event” feel of this show. She was surprisingly timid though, limiting her set to two songs, one of which was a duet with her niece Mindy.
Don Henley, in the unofficial role of headliner, closed out the individual portions of the show with a credible three songs, including a slowed-down version of “Boys of Summer” on acoustic guitar. The requisite all-star finale was all that was left, though this one was memorable for its intriguing song selection. Instead of going for an obvious Byrds’ song, “Take It Easy” (which Browne co-wrote with members of the Eagles) or even a sing-along of Zevon’s hit “Werewolves of London,” the musicians cranked through a rocking take on “Mercury Blues.” By the time they wrapped up the evening with “Stand By Me,” closed out by a thundering ovation reserved for Walecki (goaded out on stage by Browne and Co.), the amount of love and affection on stage and in the audience was almost overwhelming.