Jerry Jeff Walker Birthday Bash – Paramount Theatre (Austin, TX)
Last year at Jerry Jeff Walker’s annual Birthday Bash show, some fool kept hollering out for Jerry Jeff to sing “Pissin’ In The Wind”. Jerry Jeff didn’t want to sing “Pissin’ In The Wind”, and after more than 40 years of playing shows, it seemed to Jerry Jeff that he shouldn’t be bullied around like that. So he got mad, cursed a little, and walked offstage for awhile.
Decades and fools can make a man grumpy, as can a couple of back surgeries. And once you’re 65, birthdays can be a weight, too. But here was Jerry Jeff back onstage at the Paramount. He was smiling, and doing a few of his shoulder dips and some foot taps and occasionally doing his Lone Star version of a duck-walk, and singing up to the rafters: “Pissin’ in the wind/It’s blowin’ on all of our friends/We’re gonna sit and grin and tell our grandchildren.”
This was, according to Jerry Jeff and wife/manager Susan Walker, the final of the multi-artist Birthday Bash shows that began 21 years ago. They’re fun to play, and a hassle to organize. The stage featured barstools, tables, a working bar and, most importantly, a working bartender. Bruce Robison, Todd Snider, Kix Brooks (yes, the guy from Brooks & Dunn), Chris Wall, Pat Green and son Django Walker were there to sing and celebrate and tell stories.
“When I was coming up, what we called ‘country music’ was Guy Clark and Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker,” said Brooks, who sang a song he’d written called “The Ballad Of Jerry Jeff Walker”.
It’s hard to say what to call Walker’s music, but his legacy is formidable. Jody Williams of performing rights organization BMI took a moment at the Paramount to give Walker an award signifying that “Mr. Bojangles” had been played five million times on the radio. That puts “Mr. Bojangles” in a league with “Under The Boardwalk” and “Honky Tonk Women”, and if all Walker ever did was pen that one classic, he’d have done something historically indelible.
He’s done much more than that, though, and the Birthday Bash provided a pause for reflection. Walker helped invent the Austin scene that fostered the Outlaw movement. He brought the songs of then-unknown writers such as Guy Clark, Keith Sykes and Walter Hyatt to semi-popular attention. He led Jimmy Buffett to Key West, where Buffett found a musical home.
And then he and Susan laid the musical and organizational groundwork for the “Texas Music” world now inhabited by Green and others. The Walkers became a homemade endeavor in 1986, launching Tried & True music, setting up the Birthday Bash, and gathering a fan club that now exceeds 50,000 in number.
At the outset of the Paramount show, Walker began with “Laying My Life On The Line”, a song about singing. His band was seated, while the guy with the bad back stood. He played a guitar that looked like an electric and sounded like an acoustic. Eyes darting while he sang in a comfortable, comforting voice that has been cushioned by the years, Jerry Jeff also looked electric and sounded acoustic.
After a few of his own numbers, he invited his guests up, turning around and pointing to whomever he wanted to play. Green did more cheerleading than singing, but most of the others sang a Walker song and a few of their own tunes during the night’s two sets. Walker sat when the others performed, occasionally chiming in on a harmony vocal. Brooks told a story about Walker throwing his guitar into the fire at a party and remarking, “I always wondered if that son of a bitch would burn.”
Turns out it would. Walker did, too, back in those days. He was reckless, often caustic, and proud of his gonzo reputation. He’s softer now, and probably kinder to all but those who would scream “Pissin’ In The Wind” time and again. At concert’s end, he led a joyful all-call on Todd Snider’s “Alright Guy” with a generosity of gonzo spirit that made him seem a little like Santa Claus, if Santa Claus were being portrayed, whole-heartedly, by Hunter S. Thompson.
And then he went back to his suite at the Driskill Hotel, surrounded himself with the same people who’d been onstage with him all evening, and sang with them, deep into Sunday morning.