Warren Zevon - vocals, guitar, piano; Guest: Duncan Aldrich (announced as Dr. Babyhead) - sax, flute, background vocals; Guest: David Lindley - guitar
After establishing himself in the late 1960s as a quirky songwriter, session musician, 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 during the mid-1970s, he soon became associated with the burgeoning music scene 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 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 album that would finally bring him the personal recognition he was searching for. Despite the dark and cynical underpinnings to Zevon's songwriting and lyrics that are often downright disturbing, his music is often joyfully sunny. Herein lies the secret to his uniqueness as a songwriter. His cynicism has such a sweet 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. Although Zevon was often an electrifying performer on stage, it is his songs that have remained the center of his artistic legacy. His cynical edge gave his songs that Lennon-esque feel, and classics like "Mohammad's Radio," "Excitable Boy," and "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" hold up today as well as they did when Zevon first introduced them in the late 1970s. Zevon's 1982 album, The Envoy, began the decade in fine form, but it sold poorly, ending his relationship with Asylum records. This, combined with the failure of his marriage, resulted in Zevon descending into alcohol and drug addition. Retreating from the music business for several years and entering rehab to overcome his addictions, the remainder of the decade would find Zevon first collaborating with members of R.E.M. in the side project Hindu Love Gods, and with their help he would re-emerge in 1987. Signing with Virgin Records, Zevon would issue Sentimental Hygiene, widely considered his best album of the decade. The 1989 follow-up, Transverse City, featured an impressive list of guest musicians, including Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, David Gilmour, Neil Young, Chick Corea, and Jack Casady, but despite featuring an impressive batch of songs and superb musicianship, the album was a commercial failure and Zevon was again dropped from his label. Zevon was almost immediately signed to Irving Azoff's Giant Records label as the next decade began and his first album for the label, Mr. Bad Example, appeared in 1991, achieving modest success. A live album followed two years later with Learning To Flinch, which documented Zevon onstage. Due to his commercial circumstances, this era found Zevon performing as a true solo artist, primarily accompanying himself on acoustic guitar or piano. He self-produced his next album, 1995's Mutineer, but despite containing some of his most compelling work of the decade, his label was going out of business and promoted the album poorly, resulting in the worst sales of his career. It would be another five-year hiatus before Zevon would achieve a second comeback with his prophetic mortality-themed Life'll Kill Ya. This live recording from the archive of Bill Graham Presents, taped at the annual Hog Farm PigNic event over the Labor Day weekend in 1996, captures Zevon shortly after the release of Mr. Bad Example, performing primarily solo acoustic before a highly receptive audience at the beautiful outdoor location of Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville, CA. A natural music bowl beside a wooded riverside location with unlimited camping, this event brings about an unusual performance, featuring a choice overview of Zevon's career, with the songs stripped down to the most basic elements. Although accompanied by his longtime friend David Lindley on several numbers ("Carmalita," Figurine," and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me") and with Duncan Aldrich contributing flute or sax to a few others ("Bujumbura," "Excitable Boy," and the encore), this is otherwise an unplugged affair that is all the more captivating for it's stripped-down intimacy. Zevon's sarcasm and deadpan sense of humor is quite intact during this performance, with two perfect examples kicking off the set, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," and the title song from "Mr. Bad Example." These songs, both of which celebrate bad behavior, immediately endear him to the audience. What becomes apparent over the course of this performance is that regardless of whether Zevon is exploring the vintage material that established his reputation (which he does on a performance of "Carmalita," with David Lindley providing lovely accompaniment, and classic repertoire like "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "Excitable Boy," and of course, "Werewolves Of London"), is the remarkably strong consistency to his writing. Even on the newest material, which had not been recorded, the high caliber and compelling nature of his songwriting rarely wavers. In fact, highlights of this set include several new songs, including "Figurine," a song about cutting off his hair that explores his own relationship to the expectations of others, and "Bujumbura," a serious song that touches on the ethnic strife in West Africa, neither of which made a studio album. The former is a particularly deep performance featuring an extended instrumental jam with David Lindley that is utterly captivating. Zevon also treats the audience to "Don't Let Us Get Sick," which wouldn't surface on an album for another four years, when it would be included on his Life'll Kill Ya live album. Six years prior to Zevon being diagnosed with Mesothelioma, a rare, ultimately fatal form of lung cancer, this is a compelling performance of perhaps the more tender song Zevon ever wrote. Another highlight, if strictly for Zevon's wild abandon on guitar, comes in the form of the 1987 Sentimental Hygiene track, "Boom Boom Mancini." Here Zevon processes his guitar so that he can go wild with heavy electric distortion, which he does liberally on this nearly nine-minute version. Following the set proper, Zevon, with Aldrich providing flute embellishments, closes out his performance with an encore of the Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School track, "Play It All Night Long." This serves as a perfect ending to this highly intriguing set. Few would dispute that Warren Zevon was a gifted musician and a songwriter's songwriter, and this live recording adds to the legacy, capturing an intimacy rarely heard from the artist. This set not only contains a stripped-down overview of the most compelling material from the first half of Zevon's most successful years (1978-1982), but also proves that the high caliber of his songwriting remained consistent despite the ups and downs of his career.