RIP Phil Everly

I just heard that Phil Everly, of the Everly Brothers, has died. In his memory, I thought I’d repost this review I wrote eight years ago on my old LiveJournal of what turned out to be a show on their last ever tour:

A couple of decades ago in ‘history of popular music’ books, the snap precis given of rock and roll’s origin was ‘a combination of rhythm and blues and country music’, but in recent years, even as rock’s country origins have been increasingly influential, the country-influenced founders of the music have been ignored.

That ‘origin story’ is certainly the origin story the Everly Brothers seem to think the true one – as Don Everly put it last night, “we used to love Little Richard and Bo Diddley, but we also used to love Hank Williams and Lefty Frizell. Then rock & roll came along”. And the Everlys are probably the most unjustly neglected of the 50s rock pioneers.

For those who don’t know the music of the Everly Brothers (and the fact that I know there will be people on my friends list who *don’t* know who the Everlys are is shameful in itself), they were rock stars of the late 50s and early 60s, who performed fluffy pop songs with two-part bluegrass harmonies. While the songs on their earlier records weren’t great (their later Warners records, where they wrote more of their own material rather than relyng on the songs of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, were much stronger), if you’ve ever heard the Beatles, the Byrds, Big Star, Jellyfish, Wilco, REM (whenever you hear Mike Mills and Michael Stipe singing together, that’s Don & Phil you can hear), Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks, Gram Parsons, any ‘alt. country’ musician ever, Simon & Garfunkel, The Pixies (Kim Deal’s first public performances were singing Everly Brothers songs with her sister) or anyone influenced by any of those people, then you’ve heard the Everlys’ harmonies – they provide one of the crucial links in rock, pop and country history.

I *had* hoped that either during the O Brother Where Art Thou? bluegrass revival, or in the wake of Johnny Cash’s belated coolness, that the Everlys would get some recognition, but unfortunately their habits of combing their hair, not being dead, not singing songs about death, and seeming to actually be quite nice polite people (the rumour about Don smashing Phil over the head with his guitar onstage and shouting “That’s for fucking my wife!” notwithstanding…) meant that they would never get the kudos that some other musicians do.

This was all stuff I knew intellectually, but last night turned me from an admirer into a fan.

The set started with a slow, overlong ballad about Kentucky that I didn’t recognise, but which gave me a chance to assess the brothers and the band intellectually before just sitting back and enjoying the gig. The Apollo was more packed than I’ve ever seen it, but the audience was almost exclusively people of my grandparents’ generation – unlike any other older acts I’ve been to see, the Everlys have next to no cross-generational appeal, which I think is really sad. The brothers still have incredibly tight harmonies – ludicrously tight given that they were performing before my grandparents were out of primary school. The harmonies have changed over the years – Phil’s voice has got stronger (the only sign of age in his voice is a slight sloshing of his sibilants) while Don is a little husky in his mid-range (those who’ve heard Bruce Johnston sing in recent years know the sound I mean), although his head voice, used for the keening and yodelling sound that makes for so much of their sound, is as strong as ever. This meant that unlike the records Phil was the more dominant voice during the harmonised sections. It also meant that Don would occasionally rush phrases during his solo middle eights, when those phrases were in the lower part of his range.

But that’s a minor quibble – their voices were absolutely glorious, and better than most singers a quarter of their age. Don’s rhythm guitar was also the backbone of the band, and he was playing tight and well – nothing fancy, but good rhythm guitar can make or break a band, and he was good. (Phil’s guitar didn’t seem to be plugged in – he’s never been much of a player).

The rest of the band were variable. The rhythm section were terribly heavy-handed (although that may have been partly the fault of the mix – the drums were far too prominent), the keyboard player almost completely inaudible, but the pedal steel player was exceptionally good, and the lead guitarist/mandolin player was ALBERT LEE!!!

Graham Nash joined them for a couple of the big hits, but didn’t add very much – as good a harmony singer as he is, the Everlys simply don’t require any more than two vocal parts.

The first part of the set was almost all crowd-pleasers. Happily for me they concentrated on later recordings like Crying In The Rain and Gone Gone Gone over their earlier hits (although they played everything you’d expect), and threw in a couple of nice semi-obscurities like Bowling Green. They seemed a lot more comfortable singing the ballads (All I Have To Do Is Dream, Crying In The Rain, Let It Be Me, Love Hurts etc) than the more uptempo and lightweight early hits like Bye Bye Love and Wake Up Little Suzie, but everything sounded great. One thing I liked was that they acknowledged where songs came from and who wrote them, crediting the Bryants, Chet Atkins, Roy Orbison, Little Richard and others whose songs they made hits.

However, it was after the interval that they really astonished. They came on and said “Now we’re gonna do some songs our Daddy taught us” (the name of one of their more obscure albums). They opened with a recording of their father introducing them aged 13 and 15 on an old radio show, and a verse of their performance from there, before merging seamlessly into the song live. Accompanied only by Don’s acoustic guitar and (for the first few songs) a standup bass or (for the last couple) Albert Lee’s mandolin, they went through a huge range of pre-rock song styles, from schlocky country songs like That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine, through Irish murder ballads, to thirties blues.
Not only was this an utterly astonishing performance – one of the two or three best bits of live music I’ve ever seen – it also brough home just how important the Everlys are. Almost uniquely, they’re a surviving link in the chain, bridging the gap between pre- and post-1955 popular song in a way that no-one else living does (Van Dyke Parks and Bob Dylan do to an extent, but the Everlys are an actual part of that tradition rather than students of it – and wouldn’t an Everlys album produced by Van Dyke Parks be an album worth killing for?)

They ended the short show (they were only on stage in total for 90 minutes or so, but these are old men, and they did a *LOT* of songs in that time) with a few more of the hits, then came back for an encore. Rather than any more of their own hits (and there were a few they didn’t do – I’d have liked to hear On The Wings Of A Nightingale and Walk Right Back, but that’s really nitpicking), they did Blue Yodel #1 (T For Texas) by Jimmy Rodgers (the ‘singing brakeman’, not the bluesman who did Baby What You Want Me To Do), and then followed it by Sam Cooke’s You Send Me.
I can think of very few performers who could cover both those songs and make them fit in with their own style so perfectly you don’t remember the original while listening – both the songs just sounded like Everly Brothers songs. And the few I can think of who could, like Beck, would be doing it with inverted commas round everything – with the unspoken subtext of “look how clever I am being, breaking down genre boundaries in a post-modern semi-ironic way!”. By contrast, the Everlys are just doing it because they’re from possibly the last generation that truly didn’t think of music in terms of genre. They cover songs from anyone they like, because it’s all good music, and they do it sounding like the Everly Brothers because that’s who they are.

I left the gig absolutely astonished. We’re lucky to have these two men still alive and performing, and I strongly suspect they won’t be doing many more tours, so I *urge* you to go and see them while you can. The tickets are expensive for such a short show (did I mention I got mine for free? ;) ) but they’d be worth twice the price.

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