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Playing tribute: (l-r) Angela Ford, Lo Faber and Todd Pasternack. Photo byLeif Zurmuhlen

Return of the Grievous Angel
By Shawn Stone

A Gram Parsons Tribute
Valentine’s, June 1

‘Please view this as a cer- tain kind of American performance art.” When Lo Faber said this, he was referring to the peculiar acoustics of the venue, in which the hard sounds of the bands playing on the floor above clashed, at times violently, with the mostly acoustically armed musicians taking part in the Gram Parsons Tribute. His words are also a pretty good description of Gram Parsons’ stranger-than-fiction, quintessentially American life.

Gram Parsons was a spoiled rich kid who loved country & western music, a genre that traditionally defined itself by its working-class roots. He admired the lonesome, edgy sounds of iconoclasts like Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, but preferred to dress in the rhinestone-encrusted sartorial splendors of mainstream Nashville. He came of age in the mid-1960s, and was part of two groundbreaking groups (the International Submarine Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers). He joined an established superstar band (the Byrds), played the key role in completely revamping their sound, and in the process helped invent country rock. He helped discover Emmylou Harris and turned the Rolling Stones on to country music. He had a wide-ranging effect on the sounds of the 1970s, but never had a hit record in his lifetime. Parsons wrote impossibly beautiful songs, drank gallons of booze, ingested enormous quantities of drugs, and died young. In an improbable, absurdist coda, Parsons’ friends stole his body and burned it at the Joshua Tree National Monument.

Dana Monteith assembled an impressive array of local musical luminaries to honor Parsons’ music, and to remember the late Chris Ryan. The worthwhile financial purpose of the evening was to raise money for the Chris Ryan Scholarship Fund. Ryan, who met an untimely, senseless death in Washington Park a few years ago, was appropriately honored by the soulful, emotional music of this American original.

For various reasons, explained and unexplained, an uncomfortably large number of the promised performers bailed out. When Monteith took the stage with his guitar a little before 9 PM, he was not only singing for the crowd, he was looking hopefully at the door for arriving artists. Joined by guitarist Don Ackerman, he opened with a plaintive ballad (“Still Feeling Blue”).

The first part of the show was necessarily (and appealingly) loose, with various combinations of folks playing Parsons’ songs. Highlights included Ackerman’s fine version of the satirical “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” and John Brodeur’s solo on “Hot Burrito #1” (not the evening’s last version of Parsons’ unfortunately titled love lament). Monteith, joined by Cris Noel, movingly performed a couple of Parsons’ signature tunes, “Hickory Wind” and “Return of the Grievous Angel.” (“Hickory Wind” is a stunning song, and makes you wonder about all the fuss made over James Taylor’s derivative effort, the overpraised “Carolina on My Mind.”) All performers had to contend with the racket playing above, but soldiered on bravely.

Lo Faber, Angela Ford and Todd Pasternack then joined forces on a particularly strong set, with their two-guitar, three-part harmony vocal arrangements soaring on the sour lament “$1,000 Wedding,” Parsons’ early folk offering “Brass Buttons,” and a plaintive cover of “Love Hurts.” They were followed by three members of knotworking who, after doing one Parsons song, played a haunting original that fit beautifully with the evening’s musical atmosphere. (Also, having the only fiddle in the mix made knotworking an essential part of the evening.)

Don Bazley, solo, covered two straight country songs Parsons covered, the sardonic “Cash on the Barrelhead” and the rocking, rueful lament “Streets of Baltimore.” He brought a sense of energy to the show that carried over into the all-star finale; everyone joined in on the comically apocalyptic “Sin City,” in which Parsons muses over the madhouse that is California with more wit than Don Henley and less self-conciousness than Warren Zevon. It was a stirring way to end the show, and fitting tribute to the enduring legacy of Gram Parsons.

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