Echo in the Canyon: A 12-String Serenade to the California Sound

21 Jul

A few months ago, I saw a trailer for Echo in the Canyon, a documentary focusing on California’s Laurel Canyon-based musicians who turned folk music into rock legend in the mid to late 1960s. And, for a brief few seconds, I saw my dear, departed Tom Petty on screen in a guitar store talking shop. I realized it must have been the last documentary project he ever did, so, with wistful anticipation, I planned to see it when it came to metro Detroit.

Thankfully, my partner saw it was playing at the Main Art Theater in Royal Oak on a hellishly hot afternoon when all any sane person would want to do was sit in an air-conditioned theater with an artisanal chocolate bar and iced black tea. I hustled over to catch a matinee.

The billed “star” of the documentary is Jakob Dylan, Bob’s fourth born and the lead singer of the middling Wallflowers. He and director Andrew Slater chose to focus on the prolific years of 1965-1967 to support their 2015 concert featuring stars of the 1990s and 2000s singing key songs by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys.

That is great material hobbled by a lousy premise. As much as I am glad Fiona Apple can still get a gig, the cover versions do nothing the originals didn’t do a thousand times better. Jakob has the sturdy timbre, diction and tone his father could never muster, but he is a passionless performer. He is stone faced during each recording session; he ably hits the notes and plays guitar, but there is no warmth or grit to hang your eardrums on. Additionally, no one benefits from Jakob’s staged conversations with Regina Spektor, Cat Power and Beck jammed together on a couch next to a coffee table piled with LPs. These talented, eccentric musicians say nothing about how the albums they hold in their hands affected their personal or professional lives. It’s a missed opportunity.

What Jakob does have is connections, and that’s where the documentary earns its cred. While it’s not stated, I imagine he has known many of these legends from childhood, and they easily open up to him. He gets Stephen Stills to admit he “booked” when the cops showed up one night, leaving Eric Clapton and others to get handcuffed for pot possession. Michelle Phillips, now a bright-eyed grandmother, gleefully shares how her dalliance with band mate Denny Doherty was the impetus for her husband (also a band mate) John writing, “Go Where You Wanna Go.” Brian Wilson jokes that Jakob and his backing band are playing “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” in the wrong key. Ringo confirms that George Harrison sent Roger McGuinn a note that he had based his opening riff in “If I Needed Someone” on McGuinn’s “The Bells of Rhymney.” Even Neil Young shows up, although he is only seen playing behind glass in a studio toward the end of the film without comment.

And, thankfully, Jakob’s dad’s brother Wilbury, Tom Petty, gets significant opportunities to be the consummate rock historian he was. He sets the record straight from the start: it’s Rickenbacker, not “Bach-er,” that made the 12-string guitar at the heart of the Byrds’ shimmering sound. Throughout the film, he provides the perspectives only he – as a lifelong fan, a musical beneficiary and a peer of the featured acts – could share. (I so miss that guy.)

Echo in the Canyon illustrates three years of pop music innovation and collaboration, nurtured by the woodsy Laurel Canyon culture where you could drop by your neighbor’s pad and noodle around on a song that would become rock and roll canon. It’s worth hunting for whenever you need a break from the heat while still enjoying the sunshine.

See you on the flip side …

2 Responses to “Echo in the Canyon: A 12-String Serenade to the California Sound”

  1. pamhoughton July 21, 2019 at 12:33 pm #

    That’s a movie I’ve been wanting to catch. I hear however that Joni Mitchell isn’t featured and when I think of Laurel Canyon I can’t help but think of her. Thanks for the review!

    • lpon45 July 21, 2019 at 1:09 pm #

      The filmmakers dodged having to include Joni Mitchell by covering a time just before she’d made her impact felt. Who knows? Maybe they reached out to her; maybe they were afraid to.

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