Belting has mostly gone out of style among today’s rock singers, but even if it hadn’t, trying to beat or even resemble Linda Ronstadt at her own game would be a fool’s mission. So it was just fine that the slew of performers at the Ronstadt tribute show Sunday night at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles mostly put their own stamp on the songs.
In spirit, the night was a loving homage to one of the most powerful voices rock has ever known. But in practicality, the night was also a tribute to the great songwriters of the 20th century. And in a couple of cases, those writers showed up to lovingly reclaim their own material.
One of the night’s surprise guest stars was Don Henley of Eagles, closing the main set down with “Desperado,” introducing it as “the first song I ever wrote with an extraordinary guy named Glenn Frey.” Henley recalled the song “didn’t get much love or attention when it was released on [Eagles’] second album back in April of 1973. In fact, the executives at the record label freaked out: ‘Oh God, they’ve made a fucking cowboy record.’ And then Linda Ronstadt recorded the song and put it on her album Don’t Cry Now that came out in September of 1973 and everything was different.”
“She not only knew what was a great song, she knew why it was a great song,” said J.D. Souther while introducing his song “Faithless Love,” which Ronstadt first recorded and made famous. He added she was “instrumental [in] incentivizing the careers of Lowell George and Warren Zevon and myself.”
Sometimes those incentives were very direct: Souther remembered having puzzled over a bridge on the song for quite a while, “trying to figure out how to modulate it back to the original key in four beats,” when he found himself at Ronstadt’s house one night, playing her the incomplete version. “She said, ‘It sure is pretty. I’ll sing it if you finish it.’ It was finished by morning.”
Although Jackson Browne‘s connection with Ronstadt had to do more with sharing a bed-less bus on their first co-headlining tour than it did sharing material, Browne lauded “her incredible, uncanny ability to find songs and breathe new life into them.” As proof, he sang Lowell George’s “Willin’,” which Ronstadt recorded in 1974, describing it as “one of the greatest songs anybody ever wrote.”
You could sense a moment of hesitation in some of the introductions as the artists caught themselves seemingly wondering whether to refer to Ronstadt in the past or present tense. Due to advanced Parkinson’s disease, her concert career ended almost a decade ago and she now rarely travels nowadays and did not attend. But even in her absence, given the many losses the music world has experienced this year, it felt good to honor such a great while she is still with us.
“I’m thankful that we were on the planet at the same time,” said Aaron Neville, chuckling to remember that the first song they ever sang together was the slightly demanding “Ave Maria,” before he launched into a solo rendition of the duet “Don’t Know Much” that put both of them back on the pop map in a major way.
Even as he put his finger to his ear in a seeming attempt to better hear himself, Neville delivered a three-minute master class in vocal reinterpretation, earning the night’s most spontaneous standing ovation.
While no one else rose to that level of heart-stopping mastery, no one else really tried as the other performers offered more modest takes on classic or occasionally obscure material. The interpreters were all well-chosen, to a man or woman, each representing some splinter of Ronstadt’s shifting persona over the decades.
Gaby Moreno was the strongest possible pick for “Rogaciano El Huapanguero,” a cut from Ronstadt’s original smash 1987 album of traditional Mexican material, not just because the Guatemalan singer is one of the most promising bilingual talents, but because in a certain light there was something about her look that made her a momentary dead ringer for Ronstadt at her curliest-haired in the late ’70s.
The Trio segment that paid tribute to Ronstadt’s collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris was spotlighted by the actual trio I’m With Her, comprised of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins, delivering a delicate take on “Lover’s Return,” a song originally made famous by The Carter Family. Contemporary Nashville heroine Brandy Clark also paid tribute to the tributee’s country-rock salad days, reviving “Crazy Arms” from Ronstadt’s self-titled 1972 album with some harmony help from Souther.
It seemed like Ronstadt’s brief quasi-new wave moment as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s might not come up for such obvious celebration, but Dawes proved unafraid to step in for power pop and brought it to the plate with the underrated “Mad Love.” The bigger hits had some serious rock-chick representation, with guitar-wielding Grace Potter doing both “You’re No Good” and “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” The two female lead singers of Lucius, who dress like identical twin sisters but aren’t, may have been paying tribute to the sibling harmonies of The Everly Brothers as well as Ronstadt on “When Will I Be Loved.”
Actual contemporaries of Ronstadt’s recurred as Maria Muldaur sang “Heart Like a Wheel,” the McGarrigle sisters’ song and David Lindley stepped into the spotlight for Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” telling his own lengthy stories before getting to work on the lap steel.
Is there such a thing as an adorable perfectionist? Multiple testimonies made the case that, Ronstadt was just that. In a taped message, Dolly Parton talked about being challenged beyond her usual limits: “She rode our butts into the ground when we were going the Trio projects… I would say, ‘Linda, I’m gonna sing it the same way every time.’ She said, ‘No you’re not, you’re gonna fix that right there, or we’re not doing it.’”
Lindley was also willing to take some guff: “There were no better ears ever than Linda’s ears. She was one of the only people that could tell me, ‘Lindley, you can do better. Go down and do it again,’ when I thought that it was fine. And she was absolutely right.”
There were no do-overs necessarily with the all-star band assembled for the occasion under the banner of the Watkins Family Hour, the loose community led by sometimes Nickel Creek-ing siblings Sarah and Sean Watkins, featuring players as ubiquitous and rootsily pitch-perfect as Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, drummer Don Heffington and steel master Greg Leisz. If only Ronstadt’s voice (and maybe the country-rock side of her sensibility) had endured long enough to record with this crew, but hearing them support such an able cast was the next best thing to an eternal spring on the blue bayou.
The evening’s beneficiary, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, made out almost as well as the audience, presumably, with tickets in the sold-out movie palace topping out at $250 and a healthy silent auction of handsome Henry Diltz prints in the lobby. The mix of old and young in the audience as well as on stage suggested an intergenerational yearning for a time when “Different Drum” was contrarian only in its lyric and not in its enchanting, standard-setting musical sensibility.
Different Drum — Watkins Family Hour
You’re No Good — Grace Potter
Rogaciano El Huapanguero — Gaby Moreno
Mad Love — Dawes
Crazy Arms — Brandy Clark & JD Souther
Faithless Love — JD Souther
Lover’s Return — I’m With Her
Poor Poor Pitiful Me — David Lindley
When Will I Be Loved — Lucius
Willin’ — Jackson Browne & Lucius
Heart Like a Wheel — Maria Muldaur
Adieu False Heart — I’m With Her & Gaby Moreno
Silver Threads and Golden Needles — Grace Potter
Don’t Know Much — Aaron Neville
Desperado — Don Henley
Blue Bayou — cast
Heat Wave — cast