Club Congress’ 20th Anniversary – Club Congress (Tucson, AZ)
Practically everybody in Tucson is from somewhere else. That’s partly because just about everybody from here moves away. So it was that the Hotel Congress 20th Anniversary weekend was a reunion of the diaspora. Fans flew in from all over, along with members of 25 erstwhile bands reconstituted to share stages with the latest and greatest, many of which have members in common with their forbears.
Friday night’s festivities were a catclaw vine of hugs and chatter among the long lost, breaking only to savor performances by the founding fathers. The Pedestrians, acknowledged to be Tucson’s very first punk band, included Chris Cacavas, who went on to Green On Red, and Billy Sedlmayr, who joined Howe Gelb and Rainer Ptacek to form Giant Sandworms. The cholla-rootsy, carport-punk/pop Sidewinders reunited Rich Hopkins with Dave Slutes, who, as manager of Club Congress, had organized the weekend. They played their “hits” for fans gone wild, and some new songs just recorded for an upcoming Sidewinders release (the first in fifteen years). Closing the evening on the outdoor stage were Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand and its alter ego, the Band of Blacky Ranchette, which hold the endurance record for Tucson bands, two decades after their initial ascendance.
All night, fans new and old got a taste of the tough choices ahead as they ranged among thirteen bands on three stages, including that of the newly remodeled Rialto across the street from Club Congress. Some were discovering for the first time that at long last, the venue is favored with the sound quality it deserves.
Early Saturday evening, Al Perry, the unofficial mayor of Tucson’s music scene, held forth at a barbecue and jam, lest any musician be omitted from the weekend’s lineups. Perry and Slutes were on the first live music bill that ever played Club Congress, on May 31, 1985. Aging punks here will tell you it’s Perry who introduced them to country music. His shows mix irony, hilarity and often the deepest sincerity, and everyone in town has played with him. Among his selections Saturday was Tucson’s anthem, “We Got Cactus”, penned by Bob McKinley (of the long-defunct Bloodspasm), who joined on vocals.
Saturday night was a blur of great punk noise from the ’80s and ’90s. Fans dodged traffic crossing back and forth across Congress Street, finding it almost possible to catch at least a little of each set. The thoroughfare was the hotel lobby, where an interactive filmmaking setup allowed everyone to document, and replay, their thoughts on the best show we’d ever seen at Club Congress.
All weekend, British blues guy Tom Walbank propped himself against the doorjamb between the Congress’ lobby and outdoor stage with a box for donations to Katrina relief efforts. A kind and gentle import, Walbank has an amazing feel for the blues, which he plays raw and howling with heart. On Sunday afternoon, Walbank, like the rest of us, was surrounded by the beloved and pervasively influential spirit of another import, Rainer Ptacek, the late, brilliant blues guitarist who settled here from Germany via Chicago. Howe Gelb led a tribute jam in Rainer’s memory, the tear-stained highlight of which was a duet of Ptacek’s song “The Farm” performed by Tucson emigres Chuck Prophet and Pieta Brown.
Like scorpions and gila monsters, Tucson music has mostly evaded the harsh light of full sun. The accidents of fate that periodically seemed likely to attract world attention are the stuff of local legend, related with great humor if at all. The film High And Dry, six years so far in the making, debuted over the weekend to deliver the back stories of the great and near-great bands that began surfacing around town in the late 1970s, as well as the eclectic and lurching progress the local music scene has made since. Seeing it, natives and newcomers alike could only chuckle and shake their heads at the injustice of the world’s neglect. Even fans that had never seen these bands live before the weekend were missing them already.
How could the Pills, Mondo Guano and Pollo Elastico not have been at least as big as, say, Jane’s Addiction or even Dieselhed? The River Roses not as big as Blue Mountain? There’s no reasonable answer. We almost have to count the Supersuckers, who didn’t come for the weekend, and Green On Red, who did, even though both bands left town eons ago. And we point to Doo Rag, who got sort of huge, opening for Beck on tour. Of course there were the Sidewinders, who became the Sand Rubies near the end of a comedy of management and major-label missteps that snakebit their career as much as the familiar “artistic differences.” Howe Gelb’s and Calexico’s worldwide popularity are given, and no one would dispute that their music sounds exactly like this place.
The fact is, though, that geographically isolated, climatically hyper-hot and magically strange Tucson is and has been a thriving incubator for distinctive, if not always wonderful, music for decades. In High And Dry, Billy Sedlmayr observes, “In Tucson you’ve got a lot of time to figure out what you want to do. There’s not much stuff to get in your way, and there’s not much fun to distract you.” John Convertino of Giant Sand/Calexico points to the musicians’ and fans’ common “ability to survive with whatever’s available, and do without for a while.” Others note that there are so few fans of any one genre that everyone has to stick together to make one scene.
Some of the more popular flavors of this caldo de todo were featured Sunday night. The original Friends Of Dean Martin lineup played a lounge-heavy set with charter members Joey Burns and John Convertino; that evolved into a Friends Of Dean Martinez show, featuring the brooding, atmospheric inspirations of founder Bill Elm, who now lives in Austin. In a real-time replay of actual chronology, Burns and Convertino performed next in their rootsy Spoke incarnation, the Giant Sand side project that took them from their split with FODM into their more confident and compelling Calexico identity.
The show of the weekend was to be the last. A Green On Red revival at the Rialto drew all but a handful of hardcore fans from the Fourkiller Flats reunion and Al Foul’s show across the street. Dan Stuart joked and charmed, and sang like it was yesterday, ranging through favorites such as “Death And Angels”, “Hair Of The Dog”, “Gravity Talks” and the still timely “5 Easy Pieces”. After each song, bassist Jack Waterson wadded up Stuart’s lyric crib sheets and tossed them into the eager crowd. Chuck Prophet’s keening guitar work has only improved with time, and he lit up the stage with it. Chris Cacavas’ keyboards reminded us all where we were: He’d transformed the Roland logo on his keyboard to read “Rainer”.
And then, the weekend was all relegated to the realm of “Were you there?” memories. But as the beat and happy crowd began to emerge back into the night, they were assaulted by the very last words, seized by the guerilla street duo Doo Rag. Their amped-up psycho-blues ricocheted from the tile and mirrors of, of all places, the women’s bathroom in the Rialto’s basement. Weary celebrants were thrilled by the last-minute reprieve from the return to real life, and crammed the stairs and narrow hall to join the fun.
— LINDA RAY