By Rik Mercaldi
I had been playing the guitar pretty seriously for several years when I first became aware of David Lindley. Jackson Browne’s song “Running On Empty” had been a regular staple on FM radio for several years, but as I listened one day, it suddenly hit me like a slap in the face. The weeping, melodic swells of the instrument that punctuated the lyrics were almost trancelike. I’d heard plenty of slide guitar before, but this was something else entirely. Who was this, and how is he getting that sound? After researching, I discovered that it was David Lindley playing lap steel guitar. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned Lindley to a fellow guitar player, and his immediate reaction was, “You gotta check this out!”. He pulled out a record with a guy on the cover who looked like he had just woken up (and what was he wearing?!) The album was David Lindley’s first by his band El Rayo-X. As my friend delicately dropped the needle on a carefully selected spot on the record, the menacing slide guitar of “Mercury Blues” began, it gradually built up with a smoldering intensity until the solo erupted. After I picked my jaw off of the floor, my quest began to find anything that Lindley had played on.
David Lindley was born on March 21st, 1944 in San Marino, California, located in the San Rafael Hills of Los Angeles County. As a teenager growing up in Southern California, he learned to play the banjo as well as the fiddle. By the time he had reached his late teens he had won the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest five times! Other notable contestants at this prestigious festival included Taj Mahal, Steve Martin and Jackson Browne.
In 1966 Lindley helped form the band Kaleidoscope, a groundbreaking psychedelic band whose members were all multi-instrumentalists. By incorporating musical influences from around the globe, and playing a wide selection of exotic instruments in a variety of musical styles, Kaleidoscope produced a kind of World Music years before the term became common. The band was signed to Epic Records and released four albums on which Lindley played the guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page called Kaleidoscope his “favorite band of all time.” During their high point, the band played the Newport Folk Festival and supported Cream on their farewell American tour. Unfortunately, critical accolades couldn’t make up for disappointing record sales, and the band broke up in 1970.
After Kaleidoscope went their separate ways, Lindley went to England where he joined singer/guitarist Terry Reid, performing shows around the UK, including the Glastonbury and Isle Of Wight Festivals. His distinctively fluid slide and fiddle playing from this period can be heard on “Silver White Light: Live at The Isle Of Wight 1970”, and on Reid’s critically acclaimed “River” album. Lindley’s intoxicatingly liquid lap steel leaps to the fore right from the album’s opening track “Dean”, snaking in and around Reid’s soulful crooning.
While Reid’s band had relocated to the US to continue recording tracks for this album, his drummer Alan White left to join Yes, and Lindley left to tour with Jackson Browne who had recently scored his first hit single “Doctor My Eyes”. This would be the start of a long and fruitful collaboration that would see Lindley become an essential ingredient to Jackson Browne’s sound, adding his distinct lap steel, guitar and fiddle playing to his records and live shows through 1980. Throughout his time with Browne, Lindley was also a member of Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor’s touring bands, as well as Crosby-Nash. He became a sought-after session musician whose staggering list of clients include: Leonard Cohen, The Youngbloods, Warren Zevon, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Joe Walsh, The Bangles, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, Iggy Pop, and several albums with the members of Crosby, Stills and Nash, individually and collectively.
In addition to all of his session and touring work with other artists, Lindley kicked off a solo career with his band El Rayo-X. Their music, a unique gumbo of influences ranging from Buddy Holly covers to Reggae versions of Soul classics, were all underlined with Lindley’s distinctive and tastefully delivered playing and singing. After several albums (“Win This Record” along with the previously mentioned debut, are particular highlights for me) he disbanded El Rayo-X, and continued to release new music, tour as a solo artist, and play in a duo, first with percussionist Hani Naser, and then with Wally Ingram. The series of “Twango Bango” albums he released with Ingram are particularly noteworthy.
In the ‘90’s he collaborated on several instrumental albums with guitarist/composer Henry Kaiser, and in 2007 worked with him again on the hypnotically ethereal soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s award-winning documentary film, “Encounters At The End Of The World”. His session work has continued into the 2000’s with artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Rickie Lee Jones, as well as collaborative efforts such as 2006’s “Both Sides Of The Gun” with Ben Harper. He also reunited with Jackson Browne on “Love Is Strange: En Vivi Con Tino” in 2008.
David Lindley continues to explore the wide range of sounds that can be coaxed out of exotic, rare, and unusual instruments from around the globe, such as Irish & Greek bouzoukis, Middle Eastern oud, Turkish saz, and Kona and Weissenborn Hawaiian lap steel guitars, to name a few. He’s been collecting instruments since the 1960’s and claims to not have any idea how many he actually owns! He still tours regularly as a solo artist, performing an eclectic range of music, while choosing to market and sell his music himself, independent of record labels. Having seen him live several times over the years in a multitude of configurations, his embrace of styles, trademark high tenor singing voice, talent for vocal mimicry, witty humor, and enjoyable stage banter, continue to entertain and inspire.
His influence on my own musical journey has been profound, to say the least. I now play (or at least dabble) on mandolin, sitar, and, of course lap steel guitar. When I was looking for a double neck model lap steel for a band that I was recently playing in, I scored a cool (and cheap!) white Supro from 1959, on eBay. I came across a live video on YouTube of El Rayo-X playing “Mercury Blues” live in 1981, and, much to my surprise, Lindley was playing a double neck, white Supro steel that looked remarkably similar to mine. I’ll resist the urge to attach a mystical explanation to this fortuitous moment, but maybe it’s time for me to sit down and learn that song.
David Lindley will be appearing at Daryl’s House
in Pawling, NY on Thursday, April 12th at 8:00pm,
I will, of course, be there.