Flatliners – Anderson Fair (Houston, TX)
Chuck and Ruth Maynard flew in from Milwaukee for the Flatliners debut; fortunately they arrived early, as the show sold out twenty minutes after the doors opened. Maynard had met Flatliner Vince Bell at one of Bell’s lectures on coping with and recovering from brain damage. Bell, who struggled through a decade of rehabilitation after suffering severe head injuries in a 1982 auto accident on the way home from a gig, wrote One Man’s Music about his ordeal and now uses the book as the basis of lectures to groups all over the country. “Vince’s insight helped me so much in my recovery”, Maynard said. “He’s a guide who’s been over the trail. I play a little guitar and after the lecture we got together and picked a little and I got to know him some. So we came down to support him in this.”
Such good vibes were abundant inside this storied venue where Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and a raft of Texas singer-songwriters cut their teeth. After the show, Bell stood in the lobby renewing old Houston acquaintances and exchanging witticisms. His fellow Flatliners, the legendary Steve Fromholz (who suffered a stroke last year) and the reclusive Eric Taylor (who recently had a heart attack), arrived during the opening act, and the three compadres retired to the famous backstage room, but only after Fromholz walked behind the bar, studied the beer cooler and helped himself to a Dos Equis Brown.
Entirely spontaneous, the show turned out to be both magical and whimsical. While none of these men have achieved the commercial success of Lovett or Griffith, their credentials are impeccable. They were mainstays of the scene that revolved around Anderson Fair when Lovett was earning his spurs, and he acknowledged his debt by covering their work on his 1998 album Step Inside This House.
On this night, with wine, beer and old memories flowing, the trio recalled their fallen comrade-in-song Townes Van Zandt. With his commanding presence, Fromholz poured out “No Lonesome Tune” like a Beat poet lost in Old Testament fire and brimstone; Taylor gave blistering Texas blues treatments to “Where I Lead Me” and “Brand New Companion”. At one point, the ever-cheeky Fromholz turned to Bell and, entirely deadpan, asked if he knew the words to Townes’ “White Flatliner”. The knowledgeable crowd roared with laughter.
There was much jovial cussing, and the jokes came nonstop. While the stream-of-consciousness repartee broke any flow the performance might otherwise have had, in their turn each of these old warhorses pulled on his game face and nailed it. Bell’s “100 Miles From Mexico” and “The Fair”, his homage to Anderson Fair and a memoir of Houston’s Montrose district in the ’70s, were delivered with his trademark sincerity and earnestness. Fromholz blustered through on the power of his personality, his unimpeachable stature, and his finely tuned Zen sense of the absurdity of it all.
Taylor, despite having to interrupt the proceedings briefly to take the heart pill he’d forgotten at dinner, proved to be at the peak of his considerable powers. Like Van Zandt, Taylor leans heavily toward the acoustic blues greats in his guitar technique, while his singing and lyrics suggest what Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen might do if their artistic roots were planted in south Texas.
The plaintive, heart-tugging final lines from Taylor’s “Manhattan Mandolin Blues” — “can’t make no money playin’ this mandolin” — served as the perfect sentiment to summarize the hard-traveling troubadour life these three survivors chose, and lived.