By Steve Hochman (Photos by Peggy French)
“Let me ask you one question…”
Lucinda Williams wasn’t mincing any (of Bob Dylan’s) words when she sang “Masters of War” Friday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Charles Lloyd took it way beyond words. And the words may not exist to adequately describe the wonders of the band, the aptly named Marvels — Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on steel, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums — that sax-and-flute man Lloyd has brought together in recent years and showcased this electrifying night, with Williams as special guest.
Questions, mysteries — the Big Questions and the Great Glorious Mysteries — are to be expected at a time that has seen a rare convergence of Passover and Holy Week. But a week with both MOAB and Easter is the opposite, a time of disconnects, of distressing questions. Of confusion and despair.
But if you are looking for a way to connect it all, if not provide answers or make sense, you would be hard-pressed to do better than with the three-song sequence that concluded this, yes, glorious concert. “Masters of War,” with its simmering, bitter anger, provided a climactic peak to the show, Williams joining Lloyd and band for the latter portion of the set. And then, the encore brought the persistence of determination-driven faith and hard-won renewal with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and, returning to Dylan, “I Shall Be Released.” There we had it, the Seder tale and Easter story encapsulated in a, pardon the expression, trinity of song.
What came prior to this righteous culmination Friday night was no less, well, masterful and marvelous. In the hour or so before Williams joined in, Lloyd and the Marvels expounded and expanded on the genre-less explorations captured on their 2016 album, “I Long to See You.” It, too, is all about connections, even more clearly and profoundly in this concert as they all have gone deeper into their considerable, collective talents. This is a group that was able to go from the skittery joy of Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’” and Lloyd’s loping mid-‘60s classic “Sombrero Sam” to the somber solitude of Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood” and, profoundly, Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” with nary a blink.
“Ramblin’” had Frisell and Leisz, who have become a remarkably intuitive team via recent collaborations, pushing each other in intricately interweaving lines over the rumbling thunder propelled by Rogers and Harland — this is where the Allman Brothers meet Ornette, and it’s a pretty lively place. “In My Room” started and finished with Frisell’s deceptively casual impressionism, framing the group’s collective explorations of tune and textures, led by Lloyd’s signature love of the melody and insatiable curiosity for where he can take it. Or where it can take him. (As it has been through his storied, varied career, in which he has always ignored imposed lines between musical styles — a rare mix of high-minded musicality with a naturally populist streak, fully flowering in the current Marvels projects.)
Through it all on Friday, gentility sparkled with delight, power gained strength from peace — and vice versa. Lloyd, 79, has been part of and witness to a lot of great music in his nearly 60-year career. But often this night he stood aside, watching the other players with a look of unbridled joy.
That joy went off the scale when he brought Williams out, flipping the formula of a concert at the same locale last year in which Lloyd joined Williams and her band (which, that night, also included Frisell and Leisz) for the latter part of her concert. Williams told the crowd that they had bonded over their southern roots (he raised in Memphis, she in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas), but the bond is deeper than that in the music, bringing out much in each other. The gospel “Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine” launched the pairing this night on a fine, fiery note.
But if the concluding three songs of the night gave us the power of anger and redemption, the song right before them made that possible — with the power of love. With a gorgeously wrenching version of “A Place in My Heart,” Williams’ nakedly, unashamedly sentimental waltz, she, Lloyd and the band fully revealed their hearts, and fully reached the hearts of the moved fans. There were tears.
And there’s your answer. There’s your connection. There’s your holy.