Down from the Canyon
There was a lot of history ranged alongside Judith Owen on the small stage in the basement room of the St James Theatre in London last night. The collective recording credits of the bass guitarist Leland Sklar, the guitarist Waddy Wachtel and the drummer Russ Kunkel include Tapestry, Sweet Baby James, Blue and Ladies of the Canyon, For Everyman and The Pretender, Heart Like a Wheel and Hasten Down the Wind and other cornerstone works of the 1970s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter movement. Not the kind of rhythm section you might expect to find on an average March night a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.
The gig was a showcase for Owen’s new album, Ebb & Flow. Her eighth, it is released next month and was recorded with these same musicians in Hollywood last year: a bit of a dream come true for the Welsh singer-songwriter, who will be known to some as a participating singer in some of Richard Thompson’s projects, including the 1,000 Years of Popular Music show. She’s a gifted writer, an extremely fine singer and an excellent pianist, her playing meshing perfectly with the de luxe work of her accompanists: Sklar’s purring bass lines, Wachtel’s deft melodic fills and turnarounds, Kunkel’s majestic underplaying and sense of texture. Visually, too, they were a treat: Sklar with an elegant white beard almost long enough to get tangled in his strings, Wachtel with mad grey curls and granny glasses, and Kunkel, shaven-headed and neatly suited and wearing shades, looking rather alarmingly as though he had just finished a stint guarding the door of an Essex nightclub.
Some of her new songs, such as “Train Out of Hollywood” and “Some Arrows Go in Deep”, are good enough to keep company with the work of her 1970s inspirations: Joni, the young Elton John and so on. I was sorry she didn’t do “About Love”, a featherweight jazz waltz darkened by the undertow of an irresistible descending chord sequence. When she announced that she was going to do James Taylor’s “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox” with the bass player and the drummer from the original record, Sklar cracked: “We finally get to do it right.”
Owen is married to Harry Shearer, the American actor and comedian who played Derek Smalls in This Spinal Tap and is the voice of Mr Burns (and many other characters) in The Simpsons. She is the daughter of an opera singer and has an ageless and unusually flexible sort of voice — listening to her blind, it’s impossible to guess her age, which is, shall we say, somewhere between Laura Marling and Carole King — and she’s not short of a sense of humour herself. Her “subversive” covers included a sultry, slowed-down version of Mungo Jerry’s laddishly lecherous “In the Summertime” (reminding me that I was in Pye’s old Marble Arch studios — now demolished — when Ray Dorset and his colleagues were putting the finishing touches to that song in the spring of 1970). Approaching it, she said, she thought to herself: “What would Joni do? She’d do it about an older woman checking out the boys of summer.” So she did.
You could see why a singer of Owen’s type might love playing with these musicians, whose principal devotion is to the song they happen to be playing at the time. Musically, their discretion is absolute: when she gave them each an eight-bar solo on the final number, none of them did much more than they’d been doing in accompaniment, and it was perfect. To see them play live was to get an idea of how, like all the finest session musicians, they can create arrangements as they go along, out of experience and imagination. It was lovely to watch. And if you’re the kind of person who’s worn out numerous copies of Tapestry and Sweet Baby James, Ebb & Flow is a grown-up record that won’t disappoint.