The four-hour show was staged in a music and art space that had overtaken the shabby decayed grandeur of a Gilded Age Victorian manor, the kind with bordello-style chandeliers and a winding staircase that looks to be right out of The Addams Family. (Our fave room: giant hookah sitting on a coffee table and glistening sitar leaning in the corner.) The stage was set up in an open-air backyard appended with an old rusted schoolbus and a bashed-out camper. Tea lights were strung around the stage and the audience lounged in puffy-comfy couches or (apropos for a folkie show) cross-legged on large carpets. There was free coconut juice and tequila, not to mention a beer bar with an amazing collection of brews all for $3 and hot fresh oatmeal-chocolate-butterscotch cookies. The paper programs even had liner notes. Whomever organized all this (which was also a benefit for the Japanese Red Cross) really had their shit together.
The backyard of HM157...who knew?
The two-part set started nearly a half an hour late, due to multiple sound problems both onstage and in the sky involving an endlessly circling LAPD helicopter that drowned out most of the attempts to begin the show. Singer Emily Lacy took the stage and decided “I’m just gonna go ahead and sing because I’ve got to.” Despite the nonstop noise-rape from the chopper blades above, Lacy delivered a stunning minimalist read of “In the Pines” complete with Louvin-style vocal cracks and yodels. There were other little standouts, including a teen/tween brother/sister quartet with matching red tunics and stiff new blue jeans called The Wimberly Bluegrass Band, whose vaguely nervous 12-year-old frontman spoke in a warm, folksy announcer’s cadence that reminded one of an old WLS show. He also fiddled his ass off in all-too-brief brief bursts before joining his brethren in four-part harmonies on “Make Him A Soldier" that underscored how amazing and complex the Louvin’s famed duet singing actually was. I mean, there were just two of them.
And that was part of the problem. Between set changes the sound system would play brief blasts of classic Louvinalia like “The Christian Life” (covered by the Gram Parsons-era Byrds) and “Great Atomic Power” (covered by Uncle Tupelo) and it was hard not to be frozen in wonder at their baroque vocal interplay. Thing is, despite the convivial and non-judgmental folk-revival setting, anyone who stepped onstage had to contend with the ghosts of those angelic voices (high tenor/mandolinist Ira died in 1965; tenor/guitarist Charlie passed this last January). This didn’t work so well when it was just one singer onstage, and sometimes even more than one singer had difficulty recapturing the Louvins’ vocal mojo: the “superduo” of Tony Gilkyson and I See Hawks in L.A. co-founder Rob Waller seemed almost apologetic as they struggled through raggedy versions of “Christian Life” and “Atomic Power”; The Chapin Sisters started off a bit wobbly on “Blue” but came into full power on an a cappella coda to “While You’re Cheatin’ On Me” that sparked the biggest ovation of the night.
The most bizarre attempt at some sort of old-timey veracity was runs at “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight” and “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” from a trio called RT N’ the 44’s, who certainly dressed the part in R. Crumb country-style suits and tipped-back fedoras. Their instruments were Vintage Junkyard: cigar-box slide guitar, jerry-rigged slap bass that resembled an enormous banjo, and the proverbial washboard. The lead singer had clamped a tiny mike to the harmonica brace around his neck so when he sang he sounded like a fuzzy CB radio; its eerie effect, we surmise, was intended to sound like an old field recording or barn-dance broadcast from the 1930s. Unfortunately, the two other vocalists were miked normally and the effect was lost. It looked more trouble than it was worth. Nice idea, though.
Charlie and Ira: Them Boots!
When John C. Reilly took the stage for a five-song closing set with Tom Brosseau and surprise guest Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, he related an anecdote about taking his young son to meet Charles Louvin at Amoeba Music: “Charlie shook his hand and asked, ‘What’s your name, son?’ ‘Leo.’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘Eight.’ ‘Are you married?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, just remember: marriage is like a bath, it ain’t so hot once you get used to it.’” Reilly nodded to the laughter (“Charlie was a salty dog!”) before singing lead on Louvin stalwarts like “Weapon of Prayer,” “The Family Who Prays” and “Lay Down My Old Guitar” with an amiable low-register warble familiar to fans of his country music-biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Brosseau sang mostly by-ear harmonies (literally, by cupping his ears) and his delicate Venice-Beach-by-way-of-the-prairie trill came the closest of the evening to matching the unreal high-lonesome pipes of the tormented Ira Louvin, who as it turns out was born on this night in 1924.