Songwriting legend P.F. Sloan’s first Texas appearance in as long as anyone can remember was a low-key one, even though it came in the midst of the South by Southwest Music Festival. Though he has released one indie album, (Still On The) Eve Of Destruction, and has made several stateside and overseas appearances in recent years, Sloan was AWOL from the pop scene throughout most of the ’70s and ’80s, and, despite countless commercial successes, remains a cult figure.
Accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar, Sloan’s SXSW set began sluggishly with a couple of new, quasi-religious tunes, including a dreadful blues number. But that voice, huskier now, is still able to hit both the high and low notes that made him a much-in-demand session singer way back when, and it was very much in evidence throughout the set.
About four songs in, Sloan related a story about a chance meeting with Elvis in an L.A. music store in 1959 — “he showed me a few chords” — and the set subsequently took off. A sterling rendition of “You Baby”, a hit for the Turtles in the mid-’60s, reminded the faithful gathered at the lip of the stage of his pop mastery, those days when a teenage Sloan, ABC/Dunhill staff writer, surf-hot-rod-stalwart-cum-folk-rocker, had the L.A. sound in his back pocket.
He followed with a faithful version of “Secret Agent Man” (a song covered by dozens and a smash hit in 1966 for Johnny Rivers), rapping out the song’s beat on his guitar casing, and then introduced a growling “Eve Of Destruction” as a “very misunderstood song.” For me, that opened the floodgates, and, yearning for a nostalgic glimpse of that glorious ’60s California sound — sunny harmonies, chiming guitars, endless pop hooks, a sound Sloan was as responsible for as any other, — my mind reeled with songs I’d have given anything to hear him do: “Is It Any Wonder”, “This Precious Time”, “From A Distance”, “Simple Song Of Freedom”, “Halloween Mary”, “Summer Means Fun”, even “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin’”.
To a certain extent, he delivered on that nostalgia, mixing old with new, and playing a surprising, slowed-down-to-a-funeral-march “California Dreamin’” (one he didn’t write, but he played guitar on the Mamas and the Papas’ hit recording of the tune). An intense “Where Were You When I Needed You”, a beautifully rendered ballad that dates to his Grass Roots days, closed out a solid set by one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enigmatic figures.