J. D. Souther was in classic form last Friday afternoon. He took the stage armed with his usual assets—gravelly voice, a deliberately scruffy beard, a repertoire of love songs, and a dozen stories to tell. With a multitude of awards and honors and a life-long career of writing for artists (ranging from Linda Ronstadt to The Eagles), it’s easy to bypass the beauty of his solo work for the chart-toppers that he allowed other artists to make their own. Playing from his new album, Natural History—on which he reclaims many of the songs that he wrote for other artists over the years—J. D. Souther showcased some of his best work in a style that shed his recent excursions into jazz and stripped away his associations with country rock. Telling jokes and stories and laughing as he mixed up tunings and played the beginnings of the wrong songs, Souther ambled recklessly and tenderly through his set.
Souther is an artist who never seems to age, despite the deepening laugh lines in his face. He came on stage with a kick—literally jumping out from back stage and kicking up his foot for an entrance. He opened by cracking a few jokes about how early the show was, claiming that he’s usually in bed drinking coffee at noon, and then, deadpan, admitted, “I realize it’s a little too early to start talking about drugs… Do you have any?” The audience loved it. He broke into a grin and launched into a soft, piano rendition of “Go Ahead and Rain.” His set was stripped down, and with minimal rhythm and melody from either his acoustic guitar or the piano, Souther sounded like he was channeling Paul Simon, if Paul Simon ever tried to seem gruffly funny between ballads. For his second song, Souther played “New Kid in Town,” accentuating the quiet beauty of the lyrics.
Natural History is packed with quiet moments that re-examine the brilliance of Souther’s work. He has described the album as “a real crooner,” and teased about buying copies this afternoon saying, “Don’t be afraid, they make excellent Christmas gifts.” His performance didn’t have a Christmas feel, exactly, but called to mind the holiday season in a different sense. This new spin on his older work made his songs seem as though they were written for a romantic comedy from the ’90s. This is an album to listen to while drinking coffee or eggnog on a snowy night. Yet, making the audience swoon wasn’t enough for Souther, who clearly preferred to make them laugh. He told stories about writing “You’re Only Lonely,” about being asleep when XPN came to pick him up from the hotel this morning, and explained that receiving the lifetime achievement award “just means you’re old.”
Souther’s reliably funny and touching set was comfortingly familiar, and his confidence as a veteran performer was obvious, especially because it was juxtaposed with the freshness of the band Magnolia Memoir who opened for him. Free At Noon shows do not usually feature openers, but as soon as the Magnolia Memoir front woman Mela Lee began to sing, it was clear why Souther was paired with the group. Had Magnolia Memoir toured with anyone less impressive, it would have stolen the show. Mela Lee’s voice is meltingly sweet and, as her bio promises, she actually has a five octave range. As a performer, Lee is a method actor. During the heart-breaking confessional “Good Girl,” she barely held back tears and she played with her hair nervously when she described the feeling of falling in love in “I Keep Falling.” In a black dress, subtle jewelry, soft curls and red lipstick, she looked like a femme fatale, but she sounded like a young woman in the throes of her first love. It was a captivating blend of the sexiness of jazz and the honesty of acoustic rock. Magnolia Memoir’s third song featured mandolin in place of piano and the group shifted effortlessly from jazz-and-rock to a more blues-and-country feel. The real shock of their set came when Lee thanked the audience and XPN, saying that this was their first ever radio appearance. It seems safe to say this was the first of many to come, but it’s always exciting to see a band that is genuinely grateful for a chance to perform.
That is not to say that J. D. Souther didn’t seem equally thrilled to play this afternoon. In fact, the level of excitement never dropped between artists, it simply changed. Magnolia Memoir brought the energy of a band that is literally on the verge of making it. Souther, with his fresh take on his older work, brought the infectious joy of an artist who knows that his work is loved, and loves the audience for it. After the show went off air, he came back on stage for an encore, and told the audience that he was playing one more song “because I love you.” “This is the last song, because that’s what it is,” he teased cryptically and wrapped up an afternoon of soulful music with his emotional hit “Closing Time.” —Naomi Shavin
I Keep Falling
No More Wishes
J. D. Souther
Go Ahead and Rain
New Kid in Town
Bye Bye Blackbird
I’ll Take Care of You
You’re Only Lonely
Closing Time (Encore)