Echo in the Canyon — Straight-Up Nostalgia Buzz: Folk Meets Rock ‘n’ Roll

Echo in the Canyon. With Jakob Dylan, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Lou Adler, John Sebastian, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Beck, Regina Spektor, Graham Nash, Cat Power, Michelle Phillips, Norah Jones, Jade Castrinos. Directed by Andrew Slater. 82 minutes; PG-13. Grade: B+

echo poster new

Sure, “Echo in the Canyon” is a straight-up dose of nostalgia buzz, and potentially not of enormous interest to those under 35 or so. But anyone, regardless of their age, who is fascinated by the personal stories behind pop-music history will be charmed by the film, a part documentary, part concert affair “hosted” by Jakob Dylan (of the Wallflowers, and son of Bob), who also performs in the film.

The story is fairly narrowly focused on the years 1965 through 1967, when folk knocked knees with rock ‘n’ roll to create a new sound. And many of the originators of that new pop music — nominally focused on the artsy and the poetic rather than silly love songs, as the typically unrestrained David Crosby points out — congregated in the woodsy Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles.

“Echo,” directed by newcomer Andrew Slater, is packed with vintage clips of performances by Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys, and recent interviews with members of some the above and others: Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash (but why not Neil Young?), Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, Jackson Browne, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, Ringo Starr, and Eric Clapton.

In what feels like the most emotional component of the film, there are several sequences with the late Florida-bred Tom Petty, interviewed at a vintage guitar store. “This is a folk-rock special,” Petty says, as he plays a few chiming, ringing chords on a 12-string electric Rickenbacker (feels unimaginable that Petty wouldn’t live to see the film’s release).

McGuinn, chatty as ever, effectively describes how the Beatles, who initially drew from skiffle and other Brit folk forms, played the kind of rock ‘n’ roll that inspired the Byrds’ electric folk-rock, which was initially dissed by folk audiences in New York City and on the West Coast. And, of course, as the stories go, the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” influenced the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” which in turn helped spark the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s.”

Crosby relates the story of how he was kicked out of the Byrds — his bad attitude, not the band’s decision to keep his risque song “Triad” off their album “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” he says — and Stills sheepishly recounts the time he jumped through a bathroom window to escape from the police when they raided a party at his house; other celebrity guests were arrested on marijuana charges and carted off to jail. Phillips talks about how her free-love lifestyle led husband John Phillips to fire her from the Mamas and the Papas.

The film also is spiked with fun performances of those old hits by a younger generation of artists, including Dylan, Cat Power, Norah Jones, Beck, Fiona Apple, and Regina Spektor. Thus we get new versions of “In My Room,” “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “Questions,” “Go Where You Wanna Go” and “Never My Love” that are largely faithful to the originals, rather than reinventions. Some of the performances are live in the studio, and others are taken from a 2015 concert at LA’s Orpheum Theatre.

What’s not to like? Well, to be honest, as much fun as Slater’s film is, particularly for someone like me who clearly remembers at least 75% of the music (I was 4 to 6 years old during the film’s target years), “Echo in the Canyon” sometimes feels like it could double as a feature-length commercial for the soundtrack album.

Also, the multiple clips of “Model Shop,” a mostly forgotten 1969 film said to represent the SoCal vibe of the time, add little to the proceedings. I would have liked to have heard some of the artists’ opinions on why they think this particular body of music — made by a group of singers, songwriters and instrumentalists who practically lived in each other’s homes for a period of time — resonated so strongly with the public.

And there are no (or only minor) references to several major artists who were central or tangential to the scene, including Joni Mitchell, Carole King, the Eagles, J.D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, and Jim Morrison.

Still, “Echo in the Canyon” works well as a broadly entertaining record of a long-vanished, highly creative artistic flourishing resulting in music that continues to resonate. Highly recommended for music lovers and pop-culture fans.

NY Times Critic Ben Ratliff Talks To Readers

Want to ask a question of a New York Times music critic, actually get a response, and perhaps see the exchange published?

Now's the time.
 
Ben Ratliff, who writes about jazz, rock and pop for the Times, and penned
last year's acclaimed The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, a collection
of interviews with jazz greats, this week is making a point of responding
to readers' questions.
 
Below is the announcement of the feature, and an initial q&a.
 
Ratliff offers a quite sound response to a question regarding the relatively small
audience for jazz. To that, I would add:
 
1)The if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods truth: If the average music listener/consumer
doesn't read or hear about jazz (or, for that matter, blues or world music or
altcountry), then how does he or she know that that music exists? There is often
 -- but not always -- a direct correlation between the music that gets the most
hype, and the Billboard charts. This is related to the below:
 
2)FAR too many music "critics" spend the bulk of their time/energy
chasing celebrity culture, rather than writing actual music. Case in point:
The acres of forests giving their lives this week for oodles of stories on
the allegedly new and improved "American Idol." What's that abomination
of a "reality" show have to do with music that matters?
Nothing.
 
Related to the above is an irony: The folks who continue to be loyal to
newspapers, in print, are generally older readers. Within that group are
those who cite arts and entertainment coverage as a primary reason for
continuing to purchase newspapers. Many of those older readers have
little use for coverage of '"American Idol" and the likes of Miley Cyrus
and the Jonas Brothers, etc. 
 
Here's the irony: The younger audiences (Teens? Tweens?) who are interested
in that kind of stuff have already abandoned print papers for online sources, so
they're not being served when that coverage appears in print. And the readers
still loyal to print newspapers are simply annoyed when papers emphasize
teen/pop celebrity coverage at the expense of arts/music of substance. So -- to 
clarify -- they're catering to an audience that's already gone and in the process
pissing off regular readers. 
 
Smart thinking, huh? 
 
Here's the link to the ask-the-readers feature. And below is the announcement
published in the Times:
 
January 12, 2009 
Talk to the Newsroom: 
Ben Ratliff, Jazz and Pop Critic 
 
Ben Ratliff, music critic, is answering questions from readers Jan. 12-16, 
2009. Questions may be e-mailed to askthetimes@nytimes.com. 
 
Mr. Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times since 1996. 
 
Born in New York City in 1968, he grew up in London and Rockland County, 
N.Y., and studied Classics at Columbia University. He is the author of 
"Jazz: A Critic¹s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings" (2002), 
"Coltrane: The Story of a Sound" (2007) and "The Jazz Ear: Conversations 
Over Music" (2008). 
 
Among hundreds of reviews, reported stories and obituaries in these pages, 
he has written about Duke Ellington, Slick Rick, Shirley Caesar, Dorival 
Caymmi, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Johnny Paycheck, Cat Power, Slayer, 
Donald Lambert, the Stooges, Tito Puente, Miley Cyrus, Prince, Gal Costa, Bo 
Diddley, Bebo Valdes, the Texas A&M University Marching Storm, community 
singing in East Lansing, Mich., the praise-rock house bands at the High 
Desert Church in Victorville, Calif., and much else. 
 
These discussions will continue in coming weeks with other Times editors and 
reporters. 
 
Why Isn't Jazz Audience Bigger? 
 
Q. Why isn't there more of an audience for "straight-ahead" jazz? Or put in 
a different way, how come established jazz artists who have been active 
since the '50s or early '60s are given only niche status (or no visibility 
at all) by the media? Do you feel the media plays a role/responsibiltiy 
regarding the public awareness of such artists as Freddie Hubbard, Barry 
Harris, Cedar Walton, for example? Why is it that the general (U.S.) public 
have no awareness or appreciation of this genre? 
-- Paul Loubriel 
 
A. Paul: This is a big question. I'll try to hit some parts of it but I 
probably won't answer it to your satisfaction. 
 
In the last 60 years, people almost completely stopped dancing to jazz, and 
far fewer people grew up with pianos in the house. I think that has a lot to 
do with why jazz is no longer the popular vernacular art it used to be. When 
you dance to music (in all ways -- partner dancing, stepping, headbanging -- 
just reacting to music with your body) or when you play it, then you own it. 
A lot of people born since 1960 don't feel that they own jazz. 
 
Absolutely, the media plays a role in why the average person doesn't know 
who Cedar Walton is. But I think the mainstream media -- obviously we're not 
talking about jazz magazines like Downbeat, which has Benny Golson on the 
cover this month (a good example of the kind of artist you're talking about) 
-- doesn't, by definition, deal with the kind of art that post-bop mainstream 
jazz has become, which is an art of tradition and very slow refinements. 
 
Mainstream publications, generally, want to run music stories about what's 
new or radically different, or about trends. (This could get into a larger 
issue about the shallowness of the general perception of "news.") With 
classical music, they put a lot of stock in premieres or big, notable new 
compositions. In jazz there are few premieres and few big, notable new 
compositions. One has to sniff out what's interesting, however it presents 
itself: it could be a one-night gig attended by 15 people or a sold-out run. 
 
As for the general public, they're not buying albums as much anymore, and as 
much as jazz is a recordings medium at all, it's still an album art. 
 
I believe that jazz needs more jazz clubs (with small cover charges), 
because it's still a social music. The way to know about Cedar Walton in 
2009 is to go see him at the Village Vanguard. 
 
By the way, I see that The Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times, in 
reviews and articles and listings, since 1980. Not too bad.