When Eliza Carthy announced sometime after 1 a.m. that the selection she would be performing during this tribute to Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music was entitled “99 Year Blues,” it was hard for the few die-hards left in the audience to keep from smirking at the irony.
The jokes about the length of the marathon concert came fast and furious. But two stand out in hindsight: Early in the five-hour-plus Wednesday night event, Elvis Costello quipped, “I hope you realize we have the entire history of American folk music to get through tonight.” And later Steve Earle, after explaining how he had to learn another song because one of his selections was already taken, said, “There’s eighty-five songs on the collection. I just didn’t realize there would be eighty-five performers here tonight.
While Earle was exaggerating, it wasn’t by much. At what other event would you have Steve Earle acoustic followed by New York minimalist composer Philip Glass accompanying three short animated films? Probably none, and probably with good reason. Hal Willner, the mastermind behind this ambitious event — as well as behind such albums as Disney’s Stay Awake (which featured the likes of Tom Waits and Suzanne Vega doing their favorite Disney numbers) — put together a show with many highlights. However, this show should’ve been a week’s worth of separate concerts, rather than packed into one middle-of-the-week gig.
With word-count in mind, here an hour-by-hour look at the night that was Hal Willner’s Harry Smith Project:
8:00 Show starts a few minutes late. Sitting in the section reserved for people with press tickets, I can’t help but wonder how many people bought tickets to this show and how many are press. It looks to be about even. Hal Willner comes out for a short speech (the last thing tonight which will be described by the adjective “short”). “I promise you we’ll have you out of here by Chanukah.” Should’ve known then we were in trouble.
Todd Rundgren and Robin Holcomb lead an all-star band that includes Eric Mingus on bass, Bill Frisell on guitar, Van Dyke Parks on accordion and Smokey Hormel as musical director.
8:30 The great Marianne Faithfull lends her trademark throaty vocals to “Spike Driver Blues.” Early on, we were promised an event. When Faithfull brings out Beck, Rundgren and Earle to be her back-up singers on “John the Revelator” and the hymn “Shine on Me,” that promise looks like it will be fulfilled. That starts a game of true musical chairs, with different combinations coming out by the minute. Among those in the next few minutes: Beck with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, accompanied by Steve Earle on guitar for the bluesy “Down on the Banks of the Ohio,” and the McGarrigles and Elvis Costello, making his first appearance of the night, on “The Coo Coo Bird.” Elvis introduces Parks, who leads a string quartet through a couple of numbers.
9:00 A very cool jazz instrumental by Don Byron on horns, Percy Heath on stand-up bass and Frisell on guitar, followed by one of several films. This leads to a rush to the bathroom.
9:20 David Johansen brings the house down with three authoritative, commanding folk/blues songs. Who would’ve thought the New York Doll and latter-day Buster Poindexter would turn into the great American folk singer?
9:40 The Folksmen, a.k.a. actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer (known to music fans as Spinal Tap). “You can find folk music anywhere,” Guest proclaims. They then prove their point with a hilarious acoustic version of “Flashdance (What a Feeling).”
Word count running out and it’s only halfway through the first act: Richard Thompson, joined by Eliza Carthy (those words will be uttered many more times by morning), wows the crowd with “Dog and Gun.”
10:00 Adam Dorn, better known as Motion Worker, brings some electronica to the show. Great beats, mixing and scratching . . . wrong show. Eric Mingus does some bizarre performance art/Tom Waits-esque gravelly voiced numbers while pacing the stage like a caged animal. May very well be the highlight of the night.
10:45 Irish crooner Gavin Friday woos with a couple of charming numbers.
11:00 Intermission. Hallelujah, we made it through the first act. In the stampede for the bathrooms, Bono and the Edge walk right by me. Off-night, knew they’d be here.
11:20 Intermission ends. Only slightly more than half made it back.
11:35 More performance art/singing, this time by David Thomas. “Fishing Blues” is awesome.
11:45 Earle for two traditional folk songs. Followed by Glass and fast-moving animated films. Uh-oh./
Midnight Hour five: No offense intended, but Mary Margaret O’Hara has just been voted off the show.
12:45 Daniel Lanois appears to be singing in French. Must be dreaming.
1:00 More jazz instrumentals. Great stuff, but by this point I’d pay $200 for Amber Brkich and to be home in bed (oh wait, two separate dreams).
Cell phone battery is dead, can’t tell the time anymore: Costello does beautiful version of standard “Henry Lee,” then thanks crowd for coming. “We’ll end it the only way we could. With Garth Hudson or organ.” What? No all-star finale, no Bono. This is what we stayed here until 1:30 in the morning for?
There were a number of high points, especially Johansen and Mingus. But the experience was kind of like when you’re a kid and you eat all of your Halloween candy at once — eventually it loses all taste.