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David Lindley: The Troubadour Jester of Reggae, Oud and Polyester
By Terry Roland
During this interview with David Lindley he described the great violin player, Sugar Cane Harris as a 'force of nature.' This could easily be said of Lindley as well. With a recording session list as long and legendary as anyone could possibly imagine, he remains a person with no sense of his own celebrity. While he is known for his love of polyester on stage, playing a modern day cosmic court jester, his music is diverse. He plays with love for the tradition of each instrument, such as the oud, a love for the song, and especially his audience. He is also known for covering songs with these exotic instruments. The interesting part of seeing Lindley in concert is waiting to see what songs he'll cover. For example, at a recent L.A. concert he played Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road," Springsteen's "Brother's Under the Bridge," and Blind Willie Johnson's "Soul of Man." Other covers have included Warren Zevon's, "Werewolves of London" and The Tempation's classic "Papa was a Rolling Stone." His latest releases, Big Twang and the Cooder/Lindley Family Live at the Vienna Opera House, will be available on line at www.davidlindley.com.
DAVID: Hey, how's it going?
TERRY: Just getting ready for the big push for this L.A. Acoustic Music Festival. It's this week, so you're the final interview for FolkWorks. We're on a ‘mission from God.' How ‘bout you?
DAVID: I just got a new instrument. An oud. Got it from a guy in Athens. It has an unusually long scale, so I have to do a lot of mental adjustment. It's time for a break though, so it's a good time to talk. I'm kind of scrambled at the moment.
TERRY: Ah yes, scrambled brains and oud.
DAVID: With really high decibels, that's a good song!
TERRY: Well, I thought we'd go back to the beginning with Kaleidoscope. Weren't they signed to Electra?
DAVID: Yes, we were.
TERRY: What got you guys into world music?
DAVID: We were different than a lot of the bands. I started playing when I was 17. I knew this guy named Solomon from gigs when I was playing at bluegrass festivals. He could sing, play 12 string and Flamingo guitar. I'd get together with him and he'd make things interesting. From that we got a bunch of guys together for the band.
TERRY: How long were you together?
DAVID: If you count the length of the band by albums, we released four. Then, we disbanded.
TERRY: I've heard of reunions over the years.
DAVID: Yes. I remember contributing to one album. There were many incarnations, but if Solomon wasn't part of it, it wasn't really Kaleidoscope. You know how it gets, so many personnel changes until you can't recognize the band anymore.
TERRY: Yeah, I call it The Byrds Syndrome.
DAVID: That's exactly what it is. The Byrds Syndrome. That's a good name for it.
TERRY: So you went from Kaleidoscope to being the guy-in-demand for session work.
DAVID: The first session I remember was playing for the New Christy Minstrels for some live stage production. I was hired to play 5 string banjo. I'd be playing behind the stage while the group member acted like it was him playing the banjo. After that I did a bluegrass compilation with McGuinn, Mason Williams and a lot of others. It's out there somewhere. The masters have been bought and sold over and over again. I ended up working with a Kenny Loggins when he was really young. From there word got out that I was the guy to hire.
TERRY: Of all of the session work you've done are there any that stand out for you?
DAVID: Let's see. There's so many. I'd say Etta James. I did some sessions with her. I love the Cooder/Lindley Family Band live at the Vienna Opera House. That's a new CD in release.
Oh yeah, there's the Trio sessions with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstadt.
I remember I did a live gig with Dolly around that time. She was going around introducing everybody in the band and when she got to me, she said, "And Here's David Lindley from Mars." I just made this face.
TERRY: So you kept your other worldliness intact?
DAVID: Yes. One of my all time favorite moments was on a television show, I think it was DAVID Sanborn on NBC in New York City I played People Get Ready with Curtis Mayfield. I remember he turned around to me and said, "Play the solo, David." Then, a voice in my head said, "don't screw this up." It was like this voice of the child of James Earl Jones and Orson Welles talking to me.
TERRY: That's one of the advantages to hearing voices, getting help on stage.
DAVID: Well, yeah, it's okay as long as you know their origin. If you don't know where they're coming from, you're in trouble. But, the solo went really well and Curtis was happy.
TERRY: Then, we get to your Jackson Browne years. That's where I come in. I remember the first time I heard you was back then. How did that start?
DAVID: I spent three or four months in England with The Terry Reid Band. Jackson was over there doing a gig at Cambridge. I sat in with him. I said to him "wow we got this great sound. We gotta keep this." We started touring together. We did mostly acoustic, just me and him. Eventually, it grew into a band and a huge thing.
TERRY: That's what I remember. The Running On Empty Tour, this guy starts singing Stay and I'm going, who is that guy???
DAVID: Yes. It was me coming out from behind the shadows. The guy sitting down with the long hair, whose eyes you couldn't see, emerging from the shadows like Dr. Calgary. Here he comes!!!
TERRY: It's somewhere around that time when you formed El Rayo Ex.
DAVID: That was around the early 80s. I was playing with Jackson and he kept saying I needed to record this reggae music I was doing. Our first was the Blue album. It took off. It started getting played all over the place. When we put the band together, I wanted people who could do a show by themselves. I got Ras Baboo, this multi instrumentalist, Trinidad, Rastafarian guy, for percussion, Ian Wallace on drums, and Bob Glaub. We got into this place where we had basic organic chemistry. Really, that's what it was. We take out this musical compound and combine it with another to create something entirely new.
TERRY: I was talking with someone yesterday about all of the differences in country music and how California country is a really distinctive style of music.
DAVID: Oh yeah. That's really true. When we were younger we listened to country and bluegrass.
That's how Jerry Garcia started the Grateful Dead, from bluegrass. Oh, and the Bakersf`ield sound! Really great people like Merle Haggard. Man, Buck Owens was great. One of the best live albums every recorded is Buck Owens and the Buckaroos Live at Carnegie Hall. From early California country came The Burrito Brothers and Poco. You know the music was all from the migration of people from Arkansas and Oklahoma. Their kids picked up on it.
TERRY: Any Live venues stand out for you during that time?
DAVID: Oh yeah. I grew up playing the Ice House. Bob Stane is a great guy and helped a lot of people. It was a really good scene there. Kind of The Troubadour East. I played the Ash Grove too. Oh, and El Monte Legion Stadium! On the radio you'd hear spots from Don & Dewy. That was Don Harris, Sugar Cane Harris. I sat down with him once. In an hour I learned all kinds of things. He was intense, a force of nature, really cosmic. I got a call from Dewey to come to do a session with Sugar Cane, but I couldn't at the time. He and his brother would play El Monte Legion. I was really big on that place.
TERRY: Who are the musicians you'll be playing with at the L.A. Acoustic Festival?
DAVID: Nobody. I'm playing solo-acoustic. I'll have a lot of different instruments. I'll have my blues slide guitar. It's gonna be like John Hammond, a Leo Kottke kind of thing. You can do things different playing solo. There all kinds of things you just can't do with a band. Solo, I can put the petal to the metal and you hear what the song's about. I want to do this Lightning Hopkins kind of thing. He used to deal with things in his own way. I played with him at the Ash Grove. I got to hang out backstage with him. I even played on stage with him once. I learned a lot from him.
TERRY: What kind of things did you learn?
DAVID: I think that's where I had my first polyester experience. He was cool. He wore beautiful polyester. I think it started there in my subconscious and surfaced later.
TERRY: What triggered the emergence of polyester?
DAVID: I saw this video of me live in Germany playing at the Rock Palace, I think it was. I was boring. I didn't move! So, I decided to get some clothes that moved on their own. I saw The African Brothers Dancers album cover. They had the best polyester. I mean, polka dots with plaids that should have clashed but didn't. Polyester became my vestments! They came out of central Asia. It was the crazy musicians who started it. They'd get all dressed up in patch work. Usually really cheapo stuff. Eventually, they'd become the jesters.
TERRY: I know you enjoy doing covers. Tomorrow I have an interview with Chip Taylor.
DAVID: Really!! Wow, that's great! Wild Thing!
TERRY: Yeah. That song is amazing. I've worked with Barry McGuire and a lot of people know Eve of Destruction but some people don't. It seems like everybody knows Wild Thing, no matter what age, culture, the song is just everywhere. Every week I have the privilege of playing music with a group of disabled adults. They're autistic, have cerebral palsy, mentally retarded and sometimes they have a combination them all. I started playing that riff on the guitar and then I raised my arm in the air and thirty of them all shouted, WILD THING!!
DAVID: Yeah. And when you
get right down to it, that's what it's all about right there. That's why
we're doing what we do.