Phil Cook and the Guitarheels

Phil Cook and the Guitarheels
Haw River Ballroom, Saxapahaw
Friday, May 10, 2013

When it was released in 1972, Boomer’s Story felt original, even though it contained no original material. As with much of Ry Cooder‘s work at the time, the influential LP features his versions of traditional folk numbers and blues favorites, soul songs and diverse instrumentals. The sounds are cobbled together from all over the spectrum of Americana, lush Latin melodies sharing space with rowdy Band-style folk-rock. With Boomer’s Story, the songs aren’t nearly as fascinating as the way they’re put together, fashioned with a free will, placing various strains of roots music on equal footing and allowing them to combine in whatever way feels most natural.

To pay tribute to such a record — as Phil Cook and his Guitarheels did Friday night — one need not replicate it note for note. That would miss the point. The Megafaun member and his cast of talented local musicians took to the gorgeous Haw River Ballroom with their own rowdy and redemptive versions. Taking up the songs that had inspired Cooder’s imagination, they did them their own way, paying homage to Cooder’s ingenuity and exuberance rather than settling for a simple recreation of one of his greatest achievements.

“We made some things our own,” Cook told the packed house near the beginning of the set, “and kept some things the way they damn well were.”

Fittingly, the night started out on its most reverent note. The band’s cover of the opener and title track moved with the comfortable bounce of the original, warm and welcoming piano from James Wallace serving as the melodic backbone behind jangly mandolin and earthy fills from Cook. The singer dug into the grittiest corners of his comfortable croon — an instrument born in Wisconsin but capable of distinctly Southern affectations.

The band spent the rest of the evening covering all but one of the album’s tracks — replacing “President Kennedy” with “How Can You Keep Moving (Unless You Migrate Too),” another Cooder song from 1972 — before returning for a three-song encore.

Cook fell in love with Cooder’s music by spinning Boomer again and again on his off-days five years ago. He soon found that many of his local cohorts shared his admiration, inspiring him to put on this show. As such, the performance was a celebration of a very personal influence, with the re-imaginings of Cooder’s concepts illuminating the ideas they sparked in Cook.

The Latin-tinged “Maria Elena” began with graceful guitar lines from Cook before being whisked away by rough but robust accordion — courtesy of Squeeze This, a Wisconsin duo that includes Cook’s father. It was a nod to the role the two men played in pointing him Cooder’s way, grafting Midwestern style to the song’s luxurious melody.

Most of the songs were far rowdier than this tender instrumental, recalling Bruce Springsteen’s boisterous work with his Seeger Sessions Band. Cooder’s often understated gems exploded with blasts of ragtime-inspired piano and trombone, rollicking banjo and fiddle, and gang vocals that were rough around the edges but never out of control. The band was at its best on “Ax Sweet Mama,” which stomped and staggered where the original was content to drunkenly amble.

The night ended with Cook turning his creative energy toward his own work. He led his band through “Ballad of a Hungry Mother” — a stark guitar tune from Hungry Mother Blues, his 2011 album as Phil Cook and His Feat — filling it out with more instruments and more energy. Cook’s cutting slide guitar was bolstered by driving rhythms and smart countermelodies, building into a hullabaloo in which almost every member of his ace backing band got the chance to solo.

He was covering his own tune, but Cook was still celebrating his connection to Cooder, reinventing himself with the same bold energy that rushes forth from every note in Boomer’s Story. No tribute could feel more appropriate.