We’ve just returned from our 6th visit to the live music capital of the world. We stay at the famous Austin Motel (‘So close yet so far out’), which is a great base for a music-centred visit.
On our first night we went to the Cactus Café – a neat acoustic venue at the heart of the University of Texas – where everyone who’s anyone in Texas music has played. We went to catch Amy Speace, who had greatly impressed me when she played the wonderful Maverick Festival in Suffolk last year. She was launching her new CD How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat, which charts the course of a relationship gone wrong. Amy is warm and entertaining, but the new songs did not quite have the impact of the best of her earlier walk. If you’ve written songs as good as The Killer In Me and Drive All Night you should really sing them. It’s a classic dilemma for an artist eager to present new material: but I felt too much good stuff had been sacrificed to make space for the new. Amy was supported (I think, though he played after her) by Rod Picott, another Maverick alumnus. Rod’s songs are, by his own admission, of a melancholy turn, but witty and elegantly written. His presentation is engaging and laugh out loud funny, including some amusing jibes at the expense of his old school buddy Slaid Cleaves. The evening was a gentle, tasteful success.
For nearly 15 years The Resentments have played a Sunday night residency at the Saxon Pub on South Lamarr. This show continues to be a space in which some of the best musicians on the Austin scene can come together, introduce new songs, explore material from their own and other people’s repertoires, make jokes, make mistakes, make beautiful and surprising music, and make a wrapt and knowledgeable audience extremely happy. Originally the grouping coalesced around Stephen Bruton – songwriter, producer and guitarist for luminaries including Lowell George, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and Jimmie Dale Gilmore - and Jon Dee Graham (subject of a No Depression cover feature in May-June 2006). These two versatile performers shared a front line with bassist Bruce Hughes and guitarist ‘Scrappy’ Jud Newcomb. That band established a model in which the 4 front men would take it in turn to lead on one of their own compositions, or an imported tune deemed appropriate for this collective. No setlists, just a complete confidence that colleagues would pick up on the key, the vibe, and the improvisational opportunity. The singer calls out the solos, and we all listen to the artistry.
If this suggests the dynamic of a jazz show, then that would be right. Spontaneity, empathy, and great musicianship guaranteed that every show would be fun for all concerned, on both sides of the monitors. We were spellbound when we first saw them in 2004, and have relished their shows, in Austin and London, since then. Original drummer Mambo John Treanor was succeeded by John Chipman. Bruton died of cancer in 2009, at which point Jon Dee also withdrew.
You would have thought these absences would have signalled an end to what was always a very part-time band. But rather courageously, Hughes, Newcomb and Chipman kept the concept alive, and they have now been joined by two new compadres from the rich Austin muso ranks: Miles Zinuga, a wry songwriter and guitarist; and Jeff Plankenhorn, a prolific session player and sidesman on lap steel, mandolin and guitar. Their show last week maintained, or even extended the finest traditions of the band.
The 4 lead voices are characterful. Hughes is a fine tenor, with a strong blue-eyed soul-funk flavour. Scrappy has a sweet but gravelly voice, like Demerara sugar. Zinuga flirts with danger, without ever quite losing the tuning. And Plankenhorn has a strong blues-rock delivery. Highlights included his own song Trouble Find Me, which sounds like a rhythm and blues classic from the 60s.
The band responds to requests, if they are submitted on the appropriate written pro-forma (a $20 dollar note, ideally). One of these led to Bruce Hughes singing Fallin’ and Flyin,’ the signature tune from the hit movie Crazy Heart. He reminded us this great song was written by Stephen Bruton, whose spirit continues to energise the band. Paul McCartney announced he’d pla y Austin this summer, prompting a request for a Macca song. Zinuga opted for the ambitious Band on the Run, which is more like 4 or 5 songs, in as many different keys. I believe the band had never played this, but, apart from some straining on the high notes, they pulled it off as if it was an established part of the set.
All evening the players demonstrate their chops through quietly dazzling solos. It is inexplicable that this band doesn’t have a wider following. But it keeps the atmosphere of a special, almost secret indulgence for the initiated. A 10 buck cover charge for two and a half hours of magic.
Miss Lavelle White has been a mainstay of the Austin blues/soul scene for decades, and has sung with and/or supported a stellar cast of artists including Otis Redding, Bobby Bland, Buddy Guy, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. Decent credentials. Last October she headlined a benefit for Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers (HOME) at the renowned Antone’s club, where the careers of the Vaughan brothers, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Pinetop Perkins, Lou Ann Barton and many other stars of Texan blues have been nurtured. Many fine local musicians contributed to the original show, and the accompanying CD, which they reconvened to launch at the new (and 5th) Antone’s venue a couple of miles south-east of downtown.
Musical Director for the evening was Marcia Ball, who is a tall, slim, charismatic figure- a fine singer and swinging blues pianist, with 11 albums to her own name (at least one of them, the excellent So Many Rivers, produced by Stephen Bruton). Miss Lavelle sang Into the Mystic and Livini’ for the City with her rocking band, to great acclaim from the enthusiastic Antone’s crowd. Other contributors included local favourites Sara Hickman, Ruthie Foster, Rosie Flores, Emily Gimble, and Guy Forsyth, who each sang a song selected for them by Ms Ball. The new Antone’s is more compact than the sprawling 5th Street site, but sound and viewing were good from the floor of the hall, and the lofted galleries above.
For the last 40 minutes or so, a supergroup of Austin players and singers played a brilliant set. The Texas Guitar Women were convened by Marcia Ball (piano and vocals). Shelley King is a powerful, soulful singer; Carolyn Wonderland has a sharper, bluesier voice, and plays magnificent guitar; Cindy Cashdollar is a brilliant slide/steel guitarist who has played with, among many others, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison; Sarah Brown is a respected bassist and singer; and Lisa Pankratz is a superb drummer and singer in her own right. (Cindy, Sarah and Lisa were all members of Dave Alvin’s Guilty Women for the life of that beautiful project). To see and hear the 6 of them trade songs and licks was a joyous privilege. You’d have to be in a special town to be able to enjoy a night like this.
In fact, we decided quite late on to opt for Antone’s. It has been our habit to spend Wednesday evenings at the Continental Club with Jon Dee Graham and the Fighting Cocks, followed by James McMurtry and his band. On this visit we got our McMurtry fix in its solo acoustic form in the Continental’s Gallery the previous night. This is rather a reverential session, as enthusiasts brave the irascible and uncommunicative performer’s chilly intensity at close quarters. Someone we met described him as dark. Much of the time he is positively bitter. But there is no denying the genius of his songwriting, and his masterful playing, especially on 12-string guitar. Choctaw Bingo remains a low-life classic; and the ‘medley of his greatest hit’ We Can’t Make it Here was especially chilling. He could do with some new ‘jokes,’ though. The one about thinking he was an artist until he discovered he was a beer salesman is over 10 years old now, and other attempts at lightheartedness were similarly shopworn.
For various reasons we have never before made it to the Lucky Lounge, which is the home of Ian McLagan and the Bump Band on Thursday. McLagan was the keyboard layer in the Faces and the Small Faces. He and I first shared a space in 1972 – it was a muddy field in South-East England where the Faces were pumping out their feelgood britrock to a woozy festival crowd. His current 4-piece band is similarly good-natured (including Scrappy Jud Newcombe on tasteful, bluesy guitar). The leader is not a great singer, however, and unfortunately lost track of a couple of his best songs. But once again there was plenty of enthusiasm from the large Happy Hour crowd.
Speaking of Happy Hour, there are plenty of half-decent blues-rock bands knocking out cover versions of familiar tunes every night in Austin. But not many of them are led by a guy who played guitar in Dylan’s band for 5 years, including recording the Modern Times album. But here is Denny Freeman, back at the Saxon with his versatile band. (Freeman was in the band for much of the Antone’s show mentioned above: tonight he had Sarah Brown on bass, and a guy called John Reed on guitar, whose picture I saw on the wall at Threadgill’s later that evening, playing at an early Flatlanders show in the 70s. Everyone’s connected on the Austin scene.) Freeman’s band is cool on blues and country standards, and some originals, which show what a discriminating guitarist the leader is.
Music is everywhere in Austin. Our last 2 shows took us to a Whole Food store in a mall on the edge of town, and a Mexican restaurant on 6th Street. At the Central Market, in a large café/performance are we saw the delightful Carper Family – a four-girl line-up playing traditional country and blue-grass tunes, with fine singing and playing on upright bass, guitar, mandolin and fiddle. Later we caught Tish Hinojosa at El Sol y La Luna. She sings sweet melodies in English and Spanish, supported by Marvin Dykhuis, yet another Austin-based maestro of guitar and mandolin.
Apologies for the long post. I just wanted to make the point that there is so much music to see, even in a relatively quiet, non-SXSW week. As well as those we did see, we could also have seen James Burton, Southern Culture on the Skids, Mary Gauthier, the Derailers, John Mellencamp, Grizzly Bear, Dick Dale, Edgar Winter, and Jack Ingram (plus Kristoffersson, Guy Clark, Todd Snider etc) and many, many more. The bumper sticker has it right: So Much Music So little Time.