Warren Zevon - piano, vocals; David "The Jaguar" Landau - guitar; Jorge Calderon - guitar; Stanley Sheldon - bass; Bo Siegel - drums
After establishing himself in the late 1960s as a quirky songwriter, session musician, and jingle composer, and then venturing into the 1970s as the keyboard player/bandleader/musical coordinator for the Everly Brothers, Warren Zevon's increasing dissatisfaction with the music industry led him to abandon it and leave America. When he returned to Los Angeles, he soon became associated with the burgeoning music scene that was rapidly developing around Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, and The Eagles. A much darker and more ironic songwriter than other leading figures of that era's singer-songwriter movement, Zevon shared with them a grounding in earlier folk and country influences and a commitment to an intellectual style of song craft. Though only a modest success, Zevon's self-titled 1976 album would begin the second and far more successful phase of his career. In 1978, Zevon released his next album, Excitable Boy, to critical acclaim. This would be the breakthrough and this album would finally bring him the personal recognition he was searching for.
This performance, recorded in 1978 after the release of Excitable Boy, captures that pivotal moment in time, just as Zevon was riding up the hit single charts with "Werewolves of London." His band is a bit ragged and Zevon's vocals are certainly an acquired taste, but his spirit and performance more than makes up for any weaknesses. Fans of that breakthrough album will be delighted here, as that material weighs heavy in this performance. Offbeat topics, often with an extremely macabre outlook, were Zevon's songwriting signature. This is clearly emphasized on the Excitable Boy material, including the title song about a high school age sociopath's murderous prom night. Zevon's deadpan sense of humor is also apparent on the sarcastic "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," and of course, "Werewolves of London." He also performs the uncharacteristically jazzy "Nighttime in the Switching Yard" and one of his most brilliantly written narratives from that album, "Accidentally Like a Martyr," the song that included a line that Bob Dylan would lift as the title of his return-to-form album, Time out of Mind. (Dylan would also cover this song in his own performances.)
Disturbing topics were nothing exclusive to the 1978 album and some of the most interesting performances here are sourced from his previous self-titled album. Suicide, abuse, and sadomasochism all surface in "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me." He also opens the set with his earlier single, "Mohammed's Radio." Both of these songs would surface on Linda Ronstadt albums. However, one of the highlights here is the anchor track from that album, "Desperados Under the Eaves," Zevon's alcoholic lament for the American dream gone sour, marked with a wit, humor, and heartfelt hope for something better. Two surprises are also featured within this set -- an early version of "A Certain Girl" (which wouldn't surface until his 1980 album "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School") and the all-too-prophetic "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."
Despite the dark and cynical underpinnings to Zevon's songwriting, this is not depressing music. Herein lies the secret to his uniqueness as a songwriter. Despite lyrics that are often downright disturbing, Zevon's music is often joyfully sunny. His cynicism has such a sweet candy-coating that it remains irresistible. Zevon wallows in the abyss of his own character flaws, using music to legitimize and eradicate them. Unlike countless other songwriters who pursue this path, Zevon's songs remain upbeat and pleasant to listen to, investigating the dark side looking for light, and bringing truth to his songs in the process. Zevon was unquestionably a true original that found hopeless escape in his music.