Review of performance on 4/13/09 by Dan Wheetman, Van Dyke Parks, and David Jackson at UC Santa Barbara. Originally appeared here.
Jeff Moehlis: They’ve Got the ‘Do-Re-Mi’
As part of its program on Music and the Mind, the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind hosted a free concert at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies featuring multi-instrumentalist Dan Wheetman, pianist Van Dyke Parks and acoustic bass guitarist David Jackson.
Befitting the rich histories of the songs they played, these phenomenal musicians have interesting histories themselves. Wheetman and Jackson both played in John Denver’s band, and Wheetman has for the last 20-plus years played in the eclectic folk music band Marley’s Ghost. Among other things, Wheetman even wrote “The Christmas Wish” that was sung by Kermit the Frog himself! Jackson co-wrote the Three Dog Night hit, “Joy To The World,” although co-writer Hoyt Axton claimed full credit; the case eventually went to court.
Not to be outdone, Van Dyke Parks is probably best known for writing the lyrics for the lost-Beach Boys-masterpiece, “Smile,” which was resurrected a few years ago by Brian Wilson. Rock obscurists might also know that Parks played keyboards on The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension album, Tim Buckley’s self-titled debut album, and the should-have-been-a-hit “Magic Hollow” by The Beau Brummels — and that’s just (some of) the music he was involved with that was released in 1966 and 1967!
Monday’s show kicked off with a rousing version of Woody Guthrie’s “Do-Re-Mi,” a song about people leaving the Dust Bowl for the “garden of Eden” in California, but finding that it is overcrowded with people with similar hopes and dreams. This, and several other songs, featured rootsy harmonies by Wheetman and Jackson. Next was a country-tinged reflection about the universality of our emotions — “don’t we all feel like that?” — which included the first of several seemingly effortless old-timey piano romps by Parks.
Wheetman’s descriptions of the songs were quite informative and entertaining. For example, he explained how the next song, Bob Wills’ “San Antonio Rose,” was in the “western swing” style that mixed up elements of blues, early jazz and country. For this, Wheetman switched to fiddle, which he also played for the playful French-Canadian instrumental stomp, “St. Anne’s Reel.”
Wheetman next played slide guitar and harmonica for “Drop Down Mama” by bluesman Sleepy John Estes. If the lyrics seemed familiar, perhaps this is because Led Zeppelin borrowed from them for the first verse of “Custard Pie” from Physical Graffiti. (Apparently Wheetman wasn’t the only one who listened to old blues records.) Here the style was pure slide-heavy acoustic country blues, and to me this song was the highlight of the show.
The next song, “Cowboy Lullaby,” was written by Wheetman for a play about a cowboy radio show in the 1930s. He explained that this was a good example of how “songwriting is often just channeling, you’re just trying to get out of the way of something that’s coming through you.” Here what came through him was a lazy song that one could easily imagine a young boy listening to on a bulky tube radio while fully decked out in cowboy gear.
An audience member then requested “Orange Crate Art,” the title track and “paean to California” from the 1995 album by Parks and Brian Wilson. After Parks’ skilled performance of this, another audience member asked about his collaboration with Wilson. His response was quite striking. He described the nature of collaboration (in songwriting at least) to be “adversarial,” with the aim being to “survive the
collaboration.” This somehow led — I lost track of Parks’ argument — to the humorous claim that “you cannot be a Presbyterian and come up with a decent song.”
Parks graciously explained this last comment to me later by e-mail. He wrote with characteristic eloquence: “(Presbyterianism) is a sect that believes in predestination, and the inevitability — yea even the
predictability of all human affairs. I take exception to that, as it relates to the creative process. My point is this: Nobody knows how a creative project will bear fruit, nor the nature of the results of such an ephemeral process. Truly creative affairs must be entered into with only a blind faith, due diligence and adequate talent.”
Wheetman switched to yet another instrument, banjo, for the next song, Bob Dylan’s rustic “The Wicked Messenger.” An audience member then requested a song by bluesman Skip James, and Wheetman’s encyclopedic musical knowledge allowed him to launch into “Hard Time Killing Blues,” falsetto singing and all. In fact, it is worth noting that while it was obvious to be impressed by Wheetman’s facility on so many different instruments, almost as impressive was his ability to sing in so many different styles. (And, while we’re at it, let’s not leave out the equally impressive playing by Parks.) After another country-tinged song, the band closed with an acoustic reggae cover of Bob Marley’s “One Love.”
Wheetman, Parks and Jackson were clearly having fun playing together, and often cracked good-natured jokes between songs. Certainly they could have played all night without getting bored or running out of material. At one point Wheetman marveled that he gets paid to make music. I marvel that we got to hear such a great performance, and we didn’t even have to pay for it!