McCabe’s Guitar Shop’s back room, where concerts have been held since 1969, seats 150 people on folding metal chairs. UCLA’s huge Royce Hall seats 1800, including the balcony. But on the evening of October 2, Royce Hall became McCabe’s, its stage decorated with a wall of guitars, hanging chairs, and an old coffee machine, its seats filled with music lovers, and its atmosphere filled by the music of an all-headliner lineup.
The celebration of McCabe’s first 50 years as a Southern California musical landmark featured performers who have played McCabe’s and was hosted by past and present McCabe’s employees, like original concert director Bobby Kimmel, former concert directors Nancy Covey and John Chelew, and current director Lincoln Myerson.
“It’s a big family,” said Covey. She also gave an intro to “behind the scenes” employee Bob Riskin, who took his bow from the audience.
The four-hour-plus concert did not feel as long as it was, due to a parade of talent that included Peter Case, The Savoy Doucet Cajun Band, David Lindley with daughter Rosanne, Bonny Prince Billy and Matt Sweeney, Odetta, Ricky Jay, Van Dyke Parks, Peter Rowan, the Ditty Bops, Dan Hicks, Blind Boys of Alabama, Richard Thompson with daughter Kami, Los Lobos, Jennifer Warnes, Jackson Browne, and surprise guests Chrissie Hynde and Loudon Wainwright III.
It was a musical smorgasbord that felt like almost too much good stuff. Some highlights:
David Lindley played slide guitar while his daughter Rosanne sang and spoke of how she “grew up” at McCabe’s, seeing many great performers during her youth. The familial affection flowed between the two as they made music together, and the audience felt the affection, awarding the duo with great applause.
Magician Ricky Jay, “the first non-musical performer to play McCabe’s,” provided comic relief with his dry wit and sleight-of-hand card throwing, somehow managing to decapitate a plastic duck and gouge the hide of a watermelon with thrown playing cards.
The delightful “retro” duo The Ditty Bops sang two old-timey songs and then provided the “Hot Licks” backup to veteran old-time music maven Dan Hicks as he sang his “love” song, “I Scare Myself.”
The Blind Boys, who have been singing for almost 70 years, with various lineups, fooled the audience by singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”
But another rendition of “Rising Sun,” by Odetta, was the keynote event of the evening. The 78-year-old singer was brought on stage in a wheelchair, but her voice was as powerful as in her youth. At one point, her piano accompanist Dave Keyes stopped playing to let Odetta sing a capella. Her voice, full of sadness as she sang lyrics of regret, brought shivers to the spine and tears to the eye. For everyone present, it was a moment not to be forgotten.
There were also sets of beautiful songs by Rowan, Thompson, Savoy Doucet, Case, Los Lobos, and Bonny Prince Billy. Jennifer Warnes, who claimed that she doesn’t usually sing political material, sang Arlo Guthrie’s “When a Soldier Makes It Home,” about soldiers returning from Iraq. Jackson Browne wrapped things up with some heartfelt acoustic material, and was followed by a finale in which the whole ensemble of performers came on stage to sing classics “Hard Times” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
The McCabe’s 50th Anniversary Concert deserves to go down as one of those classic music events, like the Concert for Bangladesh. It was an evening of sorely needed optimism for the many boomers in the audience. With hope for change in the air, it was good to leave the hall with the observation of Van Dyke Parks in mind: “Since the days of Pythagoras, music has been the science of real thought.”