The filmmaker and rock poet laureate, joined by special guests, find both the comedy and tragedy in the late singer’s work.
“It’s not a brief show. I can’t even edit down a tribute show,” said Judd Apatow, cracking wise about his envelope-pushing running-time reputation, as he introduced a tribute to singer/songwriter Warren Zevon that no blogger could gripe went on 15 minutes too long.
A certain girth was especially called for at Friday night’s Largo salute in Los Angeles with the unadvertised (if strongly hinted at) presence of Jackson Browne, Zevon’s original producer and musical enabler, finally doing nearly an entire set’s worth of his old friend’s songs nearly 13 years after his passing.
At the outset, Apatow recalled first meeting Zevon when he and Garry Shandling (who watched the Largo show from the back row) brought the singer in to appear on The Larry Sanders Show, assuming he’d agree to sing “Werewolves of London.” When Zevon demurred, preferring to sing “The French Inhaler” instead, Shandling suggested they write that reluctance into the fictional show … with the Sanders character, of course, finally talking Zevon into doing “Werewolves” as well.
Friday night, the fandom ran deep enough that “French Inhaler” was reprised but “Werewolves” was left off the deep-tracks set list. If the emphasis was on Zevon songs that emphasized mordancy or morbidity at least as much as mirth, that was okay by Apatow, who described the late singer as “one of my biggest influences” and someone who “taught me you could be heartfelt and dramatic and also funny.”
A brief bit of stand-up had Apatow riffing on the upcoming election: “The funnier candidate has never lost. We’re f—ed,” he predicted. Then the filmmaker took it down to a more personal level by starting the musical proceedings with his own Jon Brion-accompanied rendition of Zevon’s “My Shit’s F—ed Up,” an unsparing look at the aging process.
Soon after, Browne was on stage singing “Life’ll Kill Ya” and “The Indifference of Heaven,” further ensuring that no one would ever mistake a collection of Zevon’s final-curtain anthems for a gospel show.
Jill Sobule and Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith provided some of the clear vocal standout moments of the night. Although Goldsmith’s Browne influence and friendship has been much remarked upon, his version of “Desperados Under the Eaves” sounded so much like a 2016 Dawes song that it quickly became apparent Zevon might be the bigger influence, even if the 30-ish singer admitted that he was “probably the only fan here whose first Warren Zevon experience was on iTunes.”
Sobule recalled being asked to open for her hero on tour, and “people were telling me, ‘Avoid him, because he can be a real dick. And I was intimidated, because I’m such a fangirl … At the fourth show, he said, ‘What do I have, rabies or something? And he became such a support for me. He would come out and sing ‘I Kissed a Girl’ with me … He’d say [the line] ‘We’ll have our pearls’ and say, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’” The mood wasn’t quite so frothy as Sobule was joined by Browne for a bittersweet duet of “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” which came as close as Zevon ever could to writing a song as optimistic as Dylan’s “Forever Young.”
The most touching moments included Jordan Zevon spookily recapturing some of his father’s vocal idiosyncrasies on “Studebaker,” and the late singer’s careerlong collaborator, Jorge Calderon, doing two of the songs they co-wrote in Zevon’s very last days, the rocker “Disorder in the House” (with Goldsmith joining in to recreate Bruce Springsteen’s recorded harmony vocal) and his ultimate farewell, “Keep Me in Your Heart.”
Part of the joy of a Warren Zevon tribute show is hearing performers with purer voices take on some of his signature lines, whether it was Browne sweetly singing, “Then he raped her and killed her and he took her home,” or Goldsmith wailing, “The cattle all have brucellosis/We’ll get through somehow.”
As Browne and Goldsmith led the closing “Carmelita,” additional singers emerged to sing verses in Spanish, in tribute to the song’s anti-heroine, and Russian, presumably in honor of Zevon’s family heritage. The Echo Park “Pioneer Chicken stand” mentioned in that song may be gone, but as long as it’s still possible to “Look away down Gower Avenue” (to quote Zevon’s one-quarter funny, three-quarters sad parody of “Dixie”), his tragicomic musings will have Zevon remaining the quintessential stenographer of the eternally irresolute Los Angeles mood … as Browne and Apatow, no slouches at SoCal chronicling themselves, are first to attest.
“The Songs of Warren Zevon”
Largo, Los Angeles
March 11, 2016
This article originally appeared on Billboard.com.