Monday, April 21, 2008

Live: Celebrating the Ash Grove Years

You can always count on UCLA Live to do intriguing programming. But last weekend’s tribute to a classic Los Angeles performance venue – “The Ash Grove 50th Anniversary” – was exceptional, even by UCLA Live’s high standards.

The premise was the golden anniversary of the opening of the Ash Grove, a now legendary Southern California venue that was, in the ‘60s, both a launching pad for the careers of performers such as Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, the Byrds and dozens of others, as well as a platform for the unfettered expression of the decade’s stunningly disparate musical currents. Among the room’s many headliners: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs, as well as Lightning Hopkins, Bill Monroe and Doc Watson..

Cooder was there to celebrate; so was Taj Mahal, along with the likes of John Hammond, Barbara Dane, Bernie Pearl, Michelle Shocked and numerous others. But the real star was the memory of a place in which so much music, so many ideas, and so many attitudes had the opportunity to come to full fruition. Like New York City’s Bitter End, Village Gate and Gerde’s Folk City, like the Fillmores East and West, like L.A.’s Troubadour – to mention only a few – the folk and rock music venues of the ‘60s were transformative places. On any given night, they offered the possibility of experiencing new, startlingly talented young performers and – perhaps more importantly – the opportunity to feel part of a generational movement.

But, sitting in the audience at Royce on Saturday night, feeling the sense of camaraderie in the crowd as the Freedom Singers delivered one spirited gospel song after another, I kept wondering. Was it all -- as in the Bergmans’ lyrics for “The Way We Were” -- just “Scattered pictures, of the smiles we left behind?” just another form of nostalgic reminiscence? It could easily have seemed that way, especially given the grey hair so liberally sprinkled throughout the crowd, and the memories that were being evoked by one performer after another.

But when Bernie Pearl and Taj Mahal reminded us of the classic blues that was so present in the Ash Grove’s early years, when Barbara Dane sang with a forthrightness that made us want to take to the streets again, when Bernice Reagon & the Freedom Singers vividly brought to life the most significant crusade of the decade, it was far more than nostalgia.

It was an unswerving reminder of a time when music meant something more than fast-cut videos, repetitious rhythm loops, concerts saturated with special effects and amateur hour television contests. It was a recollection of the power of song to bring about change. Above all, and at the same time the most distressing of all, it provided a compelling perspective on how much that power has been missed over the past few decades and, especially, over the past five years.

So here's a thanks to Ed Pearl, founder of the Ash Grove and producer of the concerts, to UCLA Live's David Sefton, and to the planning committee for the Ash Grove 50th Festival. A thanks for a pair of too-brief evenings in which the Ash Grove, and everything it stood for, came alive -- if far too briefly -- all over again.

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