April 20th, 2011 | Live reviews

I decided to quit L.A. RECORD a couple weeks ago. I was exhausted, unable to deal with the deadlines, the endless shows, the flash-in-the-pan bands; I couldn’t even sit in my chair or use my desk, because every square inch of my bedroom was covered in press releases and CDs that would crackle under my feet like Temple of Doom insects if I so much as moved.

So I was opening the mail on my bed, when out of one Priority Mail package slid not just three CDs of fantastic folk music, but also some incense sticks, a plastic pick that seemed meant for an autoharp, a worn triangle of leather that I assume is a bandana for a cat, and a hand-written note from Ruthann Friedman inviting me to her April 10th show with Linda Perhacs.  And that’s not all—next I got a Facebook message from Ruthann, letting me know that she would be bringing very special “baked” goods to the show. My brain almost audibly POPPED as I realized that the sextagenarian author of the Association’s “Windy” was possibly trying to coax a live review out of me by bribing me with weed cookies. I don’t really like pot, but am I insane for feeling impressed that my position at the magazine inspires free samples from sixties legends?

So of course, like a mentally abused pack animal, I crawled back under the L.A. RECORD yoke and showed up promptly at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica on Sunday to review the show.  And since it was Ruthann who did all the inviting and coaxing, I didn’t really prepare myself for the experience of Linda Perhacs playing first.

Linda Perhacs by Debi Del Grande

Of course, there really is no way to prepare for Linda Perhacs, especially when she’s accompanied by the mesmerizing Julia Holter on piano-y keyboards.  Ramona Gonzalez of Nite Jewel was there too, to play the organy synthy keyboards, and naturally Aaron Robinson backing the whole thing up on acoustic guitar.

Eagle Winged Palace vocalist Michelle Vidal, who had accompanied Perhacs on her first-ever live event at the RedCat in 2009 and has since become a permanent Perhacian, contributed  vocals from stage right, deliberately capturing the spirit of the seventies with a commune-ready cotton-rich outfit.  Her voice and her presence have gotten really strong in recent years, and they definitely worked on director Allison Anders, who proclaimed to the people around her “I love her.  Who is she?  That’s who I wanted to be back in the seventies, and I REALLY want to be her now!”

And indeed, things did have an intimate, gentle-people, spiritual vibe.  Perhacs’ band was a much smaller ensemble than the 100 some-odd musicians who had graced the stage for Perhacs’ first-ever live performance at the RedCat Theater in 2009.  And now Perhacs was repeatedly apologetic, explaining how difficult it is to capture the sounds of her recordings on a stage with so few people. No need—the four lady choir spiraled its way through bare but not barren arrangements of “Chimicum Rain” and “Parallelograms” like pros, using crazy settings on the Juno and Perhacs’ impromptu “conducting” with her hands to boost the sound and keep the myriad parts from unraveling.  It was impressive and effective: by the time they hit some of the new songs, like “Prisms of Glass” and “The Soul of All Natural Things,” the minutes of song time were literally bending time and space, like a thermocline of cool water you hit in the middle of a warm lake.  Suddenly we weren’t in a guitar store, but were dipped down into something thicker, something astral or molecular, a weirdness I haven’t experienced since last I read about Frodo spending the night at Tom Bombadil’s house.  I’m not hyperbolizing in the slightest: we had been transported.  You couldn’t help but buy in to Perhacs’ lecture-like stage banter about Annie Besant and Chief Seattle and the power of emotion to affect the world, maybe even nature.

It was going to be one hard fucking act for Ruthann Friedman to follow, that was for damned sure.  As Friedman herself said, “Linda Perhacs is an experience that has changed your world, and I have brought you right down to… pppPPPPLLLLtttt!”  And it didn’t seem fair, Perhacs having all those god-sent musicians, and Ruthann having just bassist David Jenkins—though then again, Ruthann had a full-on hit in the sixties and gets royalties from K-Earth, and Perhacs spent four decades as an anonymous dental assistant, so maybe fair is fair?

Not that Ruthann seemed perturbed by the juxtaposition—she jumped right in, smiling her way through a story-song about her entire life, “That’s What I Remember,” and kept things warm and vibrant, only occasionally veering into dark material like Peggy Seeger’s “Spring Hill Mining Disaster,” which she dedicated to the many victims of mine disasters that have been all over the news in the past couple years.  Perhacs had taken us up to angelic heights, and it’s hard to compete with heaven—but Friedman seemed to think that it’s better to laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.

Ruthann Friedman by Debi Del Grande

Friedman’s music at McCabe’s was earthy, human, like the best early seventies Elektra Records folk, yet better.  It felt like the day-to-day joy you get from hanging out with your best friends.  Even the way Friedman talked about her 1920’s guitar, or the homemade chair her daughter made at age 12 that she insisted on bringing to sit on, screamed family—and that vibe included Ryan Fuller of Fort King, who audibly sang along with most of Ruthann’s lyrics from his chair and coaxed her into covering an old forgotten self-penned ditty, “Southern Comfortable,” one of my favorites as well.

It was all too wonderful, and it was over all too soon.  Aaron Robinson came out to play dobro on “What a Joy,” and then we all went to get Mexican food, bands and touring buddies and journalists all plowing through beans and rice together, oddly hungry yet jovial and satiated.  Despite our attempts to obliterate the night in margaritas, this was a night none of us would ever forget.

—Dan Collins