If any song could serve as the theme for the vast Pacific Standard Time celebration of the Southern California art boom time, it might be Van Dyke Parks’ “Orange Crate Art,” the title tune of his 1995 collaborative album with Brian Wilson.
Parks performed the song midway through a delights-filled show he and singer Inara George put on Saturday at the Getty Museum’s Harold M. Williams Auditorium, kicking off a series of music events tied to Pacific Standard Time — just hours before we all reset our clocks for the fall seasonal shift.
The song encapsulates everything PST represents: wistful nostalgia, willfully selective memories and, above all, an appreciation of art that is at once ambitious and functional. It filters the image of California through an idealized lens, the image quickly reshaping and remaking reality every bit as much as those put on screen by the Hollywood dream-makers. In this song’s case, it’s accomplished with a very personal memory, an association of the glorious paintings, transformed from from functional fruit crate labels to colorful decor, with a lost love.
Parks’ impact on the Southern California music scene spanning nearly five decades is so great that his role as creative partner with Wilson on the Beach Boys’ legendarily “lost” album Smile could be seen as a footnote. George’s talents and range she’s demonstrated in the past decade are so great that the fact that she’s the daughter of the late Little Feat leader Lowell George could also be seen as a footnote.
They’ve known each other since George was in the womb — as a mentor/friend of Lowell George, as well as Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and so on, Parks shaped the sound of the region. And they work together with a natural ease which was showcased to great effect on the 2009 album An Invitation. There, George’s quirkily personal songs and gorgeously engaging voice — which you may also know from her solo albums and/or her roles in the duo the Bird and the Bee and the female vocal ensemble the Living Sisters — were framed by Parks’ joyfully, idiosyncratically classic/classically idiosyncratic Americana chamber-orchestra arrangements.
Songs from that album made up the first part of Saturday’s show, with the two in front of a 14-piece orchestra that had surprisingly little trouble bringing Parks’ intricate music to life as he conducted from the piano. The music drew on Parks’ longstanding love of, as Jelly Roll Morton put it, the “Latin tinge,” with the ghosts of Morton, Scott Joplin and Louis Moreau Gottschalk dancing through the shape-shifting tangos, choros, cakewalks and calypsos that he’s devised.
The elaborate ripples of ascending and descending lines wave and smile at each other as they pass on a series of escalators in complex yet always-charming chains of point/counterpoint/counter-counterpoint/counter-counter-counterpoint/etc. As a bonus, a trio of modern dancers added engaging visual representations at various points.
This all served George perfectly, and vice versa. She can be torchy/sultry a la Julie London, soulful/sultry a la Dusty Springfield and arty/sultry a la Dawn Upshaw. More often than not she was all three at once, musing on the complex joys of love and life in such songs as the purposefully contradictory opener “Right as Wrong” and the theatre-ready “Family Tree,” the latter with George singing “I want to be your century, I want to settle down,” Grant Geissman featured on a lovely guitar solo and the dancers wittily painting a family portrait.
The second half saw Parks reflecting on his life and career in both song and mirthful asides, spotlighting his Mississippi upbringing (three songs from his Brer Rabbit musical Jump, still shamefully unstaged) and the nature of being a Californian, whether a several-generation native such as George or a more recent arrival like himself. On that note there was what could be a secondary theme for this show, as he unearthed an old never-recorded arrangement he did for Cooder’s song “Across the Borderline,” encompassing the full range of immigration issues, both literal and metaphorical: “You paid the price to come so far, just to wind up where you are,” he sang.
Another bit of art for the ol’ orange crate.