IN TUNE: One of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of our time shuffled his own gems (“New Kid in Town,” “Best of My Love,” “You’re Only Lonely”) with a little Duke Ellington and Fats Waller on Saturday night, thanks to some swinging accompaniment.
“I’m basically a saloon singer, like my dad,” 66-year-old J.D. Souther told the intimate gathering at Studio 201, a Chelsea fashion photo studio neatly transformed into what felt like a living room.
It was a deft setup for “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me,” the Ellington barroom standard recorded over the decades by a parade of artists, from Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett and Ella to Suzy Bogguss, Mary J. Blige and Fiona Apple to Graham Parker’s original backing band, the Rumour.
Where others have made it snap and swing, Souther, pianist Chris Walters (a talented performer in his own right) and bassist Jerry Navarro made it simmer.
One of the pioneers of Southern Cal rock, John David Souther has had his own material interpreted by many — among them, Michael Bublé, Tom Jones, Raul Malo, Hugh Masekela and the Taiwanese pop girl group S.H.E.
The songs include “Faithless Love,” which Souther on Saturday night said “has done nice legwork for me” and which recently was pressed by Rita Wilson – by his count, the 30th recorded version.
There might never have been a first if not for Linda Ronstadt, Souther said:
“She said, ‘Keep finishing it and I’ll sing it’.”
Souther, who refused to go into greatest-hits mode after all but vanishing from performing and recording for a quarter-century, finally began shining up his chestnuts with a full band last year after returning to the studio in 2008.
As fans of the Eagles know, heart-tuggers are key to the canon (You’ll find many of them on last year’s “Natural History,” a musical autobiography that sneaks up on you with some powerful versions of choice material).
These became deeper, richer with the stripped-down instrumentation Saturday night, in what once was a warehouse and now houses art galleries in addition to the cozy Studio 201.
Highlights included “Mr. Blue,” a song that Souther cheekily said he hadn’t sung since eighth grade, the Eagles-popularized “Sad Café” and an achingly exquisite version of “I’ll Take Care of You” (made famous by the Dixie Chicks).
For all those songs popularized by other performers, Souther is as much a showman as he is a songwriter — even with that familiar just-fell-out-of-bed look.
He broke up the crowd as he talked of narrowly avoiding becoming a teacher instead of a musician, a fate that he said would have found him “lucky enough to find tenure for awhile until I was fired for sleeping with a co-ed.”
After missing a whopping 41 days of high school, Souther said, he attended a community college in Texas where he met a music teacher who changed his life.
The tale became another “Behind the Music”-styled segue:
“We both liked this song, even though I didn’t write it – or, well, I did,” Souther said. “I was calling myself Fats Waller at the time.”
The trio then smoothly slid its way through “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Souther, who’s done some TV and film acting, is so comfortable in his skin that you can’t help feel comfortable in yours.
He held listeners rapt with “You’re Only Lonely,” a paene to Roy Orbison and one of the sweetest ballads ever recorded, then got them swinging with a way-catchier version of “Heartache Tonight” than you’re used to:
No one from the Left Coast will ever match Brian Wilson. But along with Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Dave Alvin and Randy Newman, J.D. Souther occupies a special place in the pantheon of great American singer-songwriters from that side of the world.
That the Detroit-born folk rocker still has the chops – as well as the pipes – a full 40 years after the release of his first solo album is all the better for us.