Everyone who got a ticket for Jimmy LaFave’s Songwriter Rendezvous at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday knew this night was going to be full of both sorrow and beauty. And still, the show overflowed the limits on both ends of the emotional spectrum.
More than two dozen of LaFave’s favorite songwriters, dearest musicians and closest friends gathered onstage for three and a half hours to honor the Austin-via-Oklahoma troubadour, who’s in the final stages of terminal cancer. This was different from a memorial concert, for LaFave is still with us. He was able, just barely, to share in the special night he himself had scripted, from the song choices of the performers to the photos in the pre-concert slideshow to the sunflowers that lined the stage.
PHOTO GALLERY: Jimmy LaFave’s Songwriter Rendezvous at the Paramount
Watching from the shadows beneath a balcony box a few rows from the stage, LaFave heard the 1,300 fans who packed the sold-out venue express their gratitude and appreciation. He listened as artist after artist poured their souls into songs he wrote, or had performed, or simply loved. He saw each one of them nod his way with a simple message when they were done: “I love you, Jimmy.”
In the end, he had to join them. Early comments from the show’s organizers indicated that LaFave wouldn’t appear onstage; indeed, there had been some question during the week as to whether he’d even be able to attend. But after a grand finale of “I’ll Fly Away” and “This Land Is Your Land” with more than 30 players and singers onstage, here came Jimmy, in a wheelchair and hooked up to oxygen tubes, the body weakened but the spirit still strong and willing.
“Can I have a guitar?” he asked quietly, then requested that everyone sing “a very soft version of ‘Irene Goodnight.’” With his 15-year-old son Jackson standing close behind him, LaFave brought the show to a close with a musical moment that served as a benediction, a final farewell to all who have bonded with Jimmy in song across six decades of life.
ARCHIVED LIVESTREAM: See the full show on Eliza Gilkyson’s Facebook page
Typically, concert reviews address the simple question readers want to ask: “Was it good?” The word just doesn’t apply here. “Ah, you mean it was great?” It still just doesn’t work. By no means was it ever anything resembling bad, of course; the entire evening went off splendidly, ran smoothly and was presented professionally. But the experience did not exist in the same universe as those kinds of qualitative assessments.
While it’s similarly incongruous to distill the whole of the night into highlights, a few precious passages linger, hours later. Sarah Lee and Cathy Guthrie, grandaugghters of LaFave’s idol Woody Guthrie, harmonizing on the Guthrie family staple “Hobo’s Lullaby.” Surprise guest Joe Ely popping in for a verse of Woody’s “Lonesome Valley,” the first set’s finale. Marcia Ball and the band rocking the house with LaFave’s bluesy barnburner “Thru the Neon Night.” Eliza Gilkyson singing straight to the heart of Jimmy’s exquisite “River Road,” leaving host Jody Denberg overcome with tears of that ever-present beauty and sorrow.
Many of the night’s most memorable moments came in the form of words that were spoken, not sung. Denberg, for his part, gave graceful and informative introductions of the performers throughout the evening. Writer Dave Marsh went into detail about LaFave’s sarcoma, a type of cancer that also took his daughter 24 years ago; he concluded by calling Jimmy “the single most courageous sarcoma patient I’ve ever seen.” Sarah Lee Guthrie preceded Gilkyson’s performance with a recitation from her grandfather that assured, “Love catches up with space; love outruns time.” LaFave’s longtime booking agent Val Denn recounted how, when it was impossible to know what condition Jimmy would be in once May 18 arrived, his partners in planning the show promised him that “we’re going to meet you wherever you are.”
And it’s telling that when LaFave chose the songs to be done, he didn’t stack the deck with all his own compositions. Though they rightly made up a good chunk of the set list, he also wanted to hear some of the artists’ own best songs — some he’d sung himself at one point, others that simply meant a great deal to him. So we heard Sam Baker’s sociopolitical ballad “Migrants”; Ellis Paul’s anthemic declaration “I Ain’t No Jesus”; Kevin Welch’s transcendently bittersweet “Early Summer Rain”; John Fullbright’s solo piano blessing “Song for a Child” (chosen, no doubt, with Jackson in mind); and two by Nashville songwriter Gretchen Peters, who sang her own “On a Bus to St. Cloud” after Michael Fracasso had led an inspiring rendition of “Revival.”
But every single moment was a gift, all of it steeped in that paradoxical balance of sorrow and beauty. And, finally one last, perfect touch: As Jimmy disappeared back into the curtains at stage left, and the masses both onstage and in the audience gathered themselves, over the sound system floated Jimmy’s finest song, “Never Is a Moment.” Someone could have performed it during the show, but it was the right call to leave it unsung by anyone other than LaFave. His voice is magic, and that is what we will miss.
with: song — artist (songwriter)
1. Restless Spirits — Jaimee Harris (Bob Childers)
2. The Night Tribe — Ray Bonneville (LaFave)
3. Everytime — Christine Albert (LaFave)
4. Migrants — Sam Baker (Baker)
5. I Ain’t No Jesus — Ellis Paul (Paul)
6. Only One Angel — Tish Hinojosa (LaFave)
7. Austin After Midnight — Kevin Russell (LaFave)
8. Early Summer Rain — Kevin Welch (Welch)
9. Hobo’s Lullaby — Sarah Lee Guthrie & Cathy Guthrie (Goebel Reeves)
10. Lonesome Valley — full cast finale (Woody Guthrie)
11. Song for a Child — John Fullbright (Fullbright)
12. This Morning I Am Born Again — Slaid Cleaves (words Woody Guthrie, music Cleaves)
13. Desperate Men Do Desperate Things — Butch Hancock (LaFave)
14. Ku’u Ome O Kahaluu — Abra Moore (Jerry Santos)
15. Revival — Michael Fracasso (Gretchen Peters)
16. Thru the Neon Night — Marcia Ball (LaFave)
17. On a Bus to St. Cloud — Gretchen Peters (Peters)
18. River Road — Eliza Gilkyson (LaFave)
19. Joy Comes Back — Ruthie Foster (Sean Staples)
20. I’ll Fly Away — full cast finale (Albert Brumley)
21. This Land Is Your Land — full cast finale (Woody Guthrie)
22. Goodnight Irene — Jimmy LaFave (traditional)
Chris Gage (musical director/acoustic guitar); Radoslav Lorkovic (keyboards/accordion); John Inmon (electric guitar); Glenn Schuetz (bass); Bobby Kallus (drums); Kym Warner (mandolin); Warren Hood (fiddle); Grace Pettis (backing vocals).