Guest post by Christopher Sheil ("cs" in the comments round here).
Tribute concerts can be fun to attend, but generally don’t make good albums, or films. The recently released DVD, Return to Sin City: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, is a partial exception for one reason and, finally, one reason only: Keith Richards. The DVD captures the best of the two Gram Parsons tribute concerts held in Santa Barbara and LA in July last year. News that Richards would join a stellar line-up for the concerts sparked excitement, for Gram’s influence on the Rolling Stones is on a par with that of Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry. His legendary influence on Richards in particular is documented by the famous 1977 pre-trial Toronto bootleg, where Keith channels Gram in a spooky rendition of Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home". The news that Richards had finally agreed to play Parsons' material live thus set historical rock & roll hearts a-flutter.
And what a tribute it is, in the full sense of the word. Richards’ performance is not merely a mark of respect and affection – “another goodbye to another good friend”, as the Riff remarks after walking on stage to a standing ovation. Richards’ performance pays Parsons for his influence in full. We not only get to see and hear just how completely Keith has internalized Gram’s music in his gorgeous duet with Norah Jones on “Love Hurts” (yes, the rasping old gasper comfortably mixes and matches it with the young star), and in leading the house band through the classic and even more gorgeous “Hickory Wind”. We also get to hear the other side of the story via an all-in rendition of “Wild Horses” (which Gram recorded before the Stones – yes, there are many stories about this, but we won’t digress). If, like me, you are a little disappointed by Keith’s songs on the Stones’ latest and otherwise generally fine A Bigger Bang, you’ll find nothing to complain about in the man’s vocals on this outing. Keith’s “Hickory Wind” is sublime; just lovely; as delicate and accomplished and dreamy and moving as anything Richards has ever done anywhere anytime.
This then is a real tribute. There is no hint of affectation, let alone impersonation. Keith is only ever the Keith and nothing but the Keith. As such, what is faithfully and lovingly revealed is just how much the Keith that the world knows is actually in very large part Gram. In these songs, he simply makes the inheritance transparent, or probably the better word is translucent. Keith first looks toward Gram and then to the Stones, showing us first how close he is to Gram’s music and then rendering Gram fully present and acknowledged in the Stones’ own music. In bowing both ways, Keith effectively hands out a mini-history lesson that lays the connection bare, placing the relationship beyond all doubt. In this performance, Keith Richards squares off the Rolling Stones’ great debt to Gram Parsons with authenticity, generosity and grace.
What of the rest of the DVD? There are some terrific tracks. Jay Farrar’s “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” is a little treat. Steve Earle can of course do nothing wrong, and crafts excellent takes of “Luxury Liner” and “My Uncle” (and gets one of the best verses in “Wild Horses” – “I know I dreamed you, a sin and a lie ….”). Lucinda Williams starts a little shaky with “Sleepless Nights” before finding the slot and then nailing “A Song for You”. Dwight Yoakam’s brazen hi-jacking of “Sin City” is a foot-shaking hoot. And a delight throughout are Al Perkins on pedal steel and the great James Burton leading the house band (guitar freaks are bound to enjoy the “Ooh Las Vegas” finale, where a row of pretenders take on James in a chicken pickin' shoot-out – all top players, they can’t lay a glove on Elvis’ master sideman).
So, yes, there are many wonderful pieces taken in isolation and altogether this is a better tribute concert than most. But I suspect that, like me, after one tour you’ll pass up most of it second time round and start wishing you could just pull the highlights through onto an album, or even a single that could be put on endless repeat – yes, do it Keith:
In South Carolina there are many tall pines
I remember the oak tree that we used to climb
But now when I'm lonesome, I always pretend
That I'm getting the feel of hickory wind.
Bless you Gram Parsons, and Keith too, whichever one you both are.