NotSXSW 2010: Grilled Squid, Kids on Sheep, & The Siberian Express
I’m a honky tonk singer/songwriter/guitarist living in Baltimore, MD, on a Boston label called Cow Island Music. I play in Texas about every two months or so, with a rotating group of pickers called the Pearl Dusters. In 2009, I played the NotSXSW showcase in Austin, TX, sponsored by John Conquest of Third Coast Music and the Freeform American Roots (FAR) Chart. It happens the same week as SXSW, and features honky tonk, rockabilly, and other roots music artists. JC invited me to play it again this year, as part of a Cow Island Music showcase. Here’s my blog about it :
Recording at Tommy D.’s, Chasing the Squid
Flew down to Austin down the night of Sunday March 14. Pretty easy trip. 3/12 hour nonstop flight from Baltimore, small airport, easy access to a rental car. This particular trip, I walked over to Enterprise rental to pick up my car, and just when hey were pulling up my Camry, someone drove up in a late model Dodge Challenger. Piqued my interest. They made me a deal on it for the week and I drove it away. Diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean…
Monday morning I had to make it to Tommy Detamore’s studio by 10 am to record some steel tracks with Nathan Fleming, a fine Austin steel player who plays in Jesse Dayton’s band. Nathan’s played on a bunch of my gigs down there. The studio is only an hour outside of Austin, but I had never been there before, and rush hour traffic in Austin is the pits, so I got up around 6 am. We got to Tommy’s an hour early, stopped at a convenience store to get snacks. Ever had chili and lemon peanuts ? Try to avoid them before noon.
I was glad to have Nathan playing on my record, and also thrilled to meet and work with Tommy Detamore. TD’s a legendary musician and producer, and has had a hand in the creation of many fine albums, including one of my all-time favorites, Doug Sahm’s “The Return of Wayne Douglas.” The song “You Was For Real,” a true country weeper written by DS, is one of the highlights of that record. Just before the steel solo, Doug says “Make it cry, Tommy,” and he sure as heck does… We recorded good tracks at Tommy’s on Monday, went back and finished up on Tuesday by around 2 pm.
When we got done recording on Tuesday afternoon I called Justin Kolb, who (along with the mighty Brent Wilson) has been playing upright bass with me in Texas. Justin just got a job playing with Bobby Flores. Bobby’s band is pretty spectacular, and I was able to see them live on this trip (more on that later).
Justin and me had dinner at a Vietnamese place on Oltorf called 888. I ate there last year with my buddy Billy Brent Malkus, loved it, but hadn’t mananged to make it back since. Eating out during SXSW is a pain, cause most of the downtown places are crowded. Obvious places I would normally go for a quick bite – like Magnolia or Kirby Lane – forget it, you can’t even get in the parking lot. Also, very few places in Austin serve food past 10 pm. The great thing about 888 is (1) it’s off the beaten path, so it’s never too crowded, (2) there’s always parking, (3) it’s open till 2 am, (4) and the food is great. Especially the grilled squid ! Myself, I buy two orders at a time…
After dinner, we went to see Eric Hokkanen at his standing Tuesday night gig at Flipnotics. He playeverything from straight ahead jazz to Eastern European stuff, western swing, blues – his band is top notch, and he’s, well, gravity-defying. Then we went to Ginny’s Little Longhorn and saw Jim Stringer and his band. Walked in to Jim singing “Poor Side of Town,” my favorite Johnny Rivers tune The lovely Jenn Miori was singing with him. Tuesdays can be slow at Ginny’s, but it was packed with Austinites digging the tunes and trying to avoid the touristas. Whitey Morgan and the 78s were also hanging out at Ginny’s. Played a gig with them in Cleveland a few years back with Joey Allcorn and the late Don Helms. Whitey is a great singer, and him and his band just got signed to Blooodshot Records. Good on them ! Stood out back in the parking lot for awhile, shot the breeze, went home around 1 am.
6th Street, Boots, Gigs
Wednesday morning, I got up and took a straw hat to Allen Boots on South Congress to get it shaped. The folks who work there are very nice and I usually stop in there when I’m in town. My lovely wife Jane’s plane arrived around lunchtime. We agreed to meet near 6th Street for lunch before hitting the Ioda party (my buddy Greg Beshers works for Ioda and sent us an invite). I usually stay on the other side of Lady Bird Lake – where the Continental is – and I’ve never been in the 6th street area during SXSW. Holy jeez ! They shut down a lot of the streets, and reserve street parking for musicians loading in. Carmello’s restarant had $10 parking, so we parked and ate there. Food was killer ! Then we hung out at the Ioda party – also very fun, outside and the weather was perfect. That evening, I played a FAR DJ meet and greet at the G & S lounge. Terri Joyce and Roger Wallace opened the show, and Terri graciously sang my request – “The Party After the Party,” my favorite tune off her new record. Mary Battiata played a fine set next, then I did about 20-25 minutes. Jane said I should have played longer, but I always prefer to quit while I’m ahead. Afterward, me and Jane went for a late dinner with Terri, Bill Hunt (owner of Cow Island Records) and his charming wife Marci, who is always invited anywhere I’m going because she’s awesome AND she laughs at my jokes. We ate at my new favorite spot, 888, and I insisted Terry and Marci try the grilled squid, but it was not for them. As Marci put it, “It’s a texture issue.”
Thursday morning, me and Jane parked near the Continental and walked over the Congress Avenue bridge to the Creekside Lounge to see the Texas Sapphires. It’s kind of a long walk, and we were running late, so we were hurrying to make it there by noon. Just as were were about to walk in, I said “Wait a minute, honey – I’ve known Billy Brent Malkus for almost 30 years. Ain’t no way he got up early enough to start a gig by lunchtime.” We walked in and the band was still setting up (I know Billy by heart, sho nuff…), so we didn’t miss a lick. Our friends Doug Gesler (Lost Highway, WMBR, Cambridge, MA) and Stuart Munro (Boston area freelance music writer) were there. We talked with Doug and Stu and heard a fantastic set from the Sapphires. Miss Rebecca is sounding great, and the band was right on the money. They closed with “Nashville Moon,” the lead-off tune on their new record (written by your truly), and invited me up to sing a verse, which was great fun. Truth be told, they own that sonofagun.
Thursday afternoon, as payment for her hard work as Merch Girl, I took Jane boot shopping. Fellas, did you know that there are no women’s boots made without all those flowers and fancy stuff on ’em ? And did you further know that them flowers ain’t cheap ? Jane found a pair she liked, so I just gritted my teeth and took it like a man – one who has too many pairs of boots himself to cast aspersions.
Then I went out to Giddyup’s, in Mancheca (about 15 minutes from downtown Austin) where we were playing at 7 PM. Giddyup’s is a true honky tonk, and there’s a sort of covered garage that’s nice to sit under. We hung out awhile before out set, sniffed the delicious barbeque they make (I’m not eating meat at present, and I miss the pig most of all…), and chatted with the lovely Nancy, the owner. That evening my band, the Pearl Dusters, were Justin Kolb on upright bass, Danny Crelin on pedal steel, and Timmy Campbell on drums. We played a strong 45 minute set, folks dug it. I’ll probably be back there sometime before the fall to play a Friday or Saturday night.
Around 8:30 PM, I was leaving to go practice with Matt Puryear, who I hired to to fill in for Timmy C. at Opal Divine’s on Saturday night. Timmy and Matt are buds but hadn’t seen each other in a while, so Timmy decided to go with me. (Two drummers showing up to a rehearsal ? That must be some kind of record…). But we needed to stop for food first. Now, Timmy is an expert on the best places to eat in Austin – Justin Kolb says he should write a book. And yet, Timmy had never been to the hallowed 888…. The rehearsal space we were going to was on Oltorf, not far away, so we made our way to 888 for a pre-rehearsal bite. Timmy had a big bowl of something with noodles (looked delicious), I had the spring rolls and squid again. We had a great rehearsal with Matt – Timmy sang harmony and we shot the bull in-between tunes. Afterward, Matt took off, and me and Timmy stood in parking lot resolving the world’s musical deficiencies till about midnight.
Amelia’s, G & S
Friday morning, me and Jane did laundry at a laundromat in North Austin. The tevee there was tuned to a Spanish language channel, and we watched a Hispanic version of the Jerry Springer show. A little cowed guy with tattoos sitting between two huge women, accusations and spit flying, the women tackling each other. Seemed pretty dang American to me.
Around 1 pm I rehearsed with Brent Wilson, a great bass player who was playing on my Friday and Saturday night band gigs. We left the rehearsal space around 3 pm and I headed for Amelia’s, where I had a 4:30 solo gig. Amelia’s is a vintage clothing store in Austin with a small garden/listening area in back. When I arrived, Jim Stringer was in the middle of his solo set. Enjoyed hearing Jim play solo – he played some of his originals I’d never heard before, and told wonderful stories too. I could have sat and listened all night ! I played after Jim, then stuck around for Little Mo’s (Monica Passin’s) first ever musical performance in Austin, with Marty Muse on pedal steel and Eugene Chrysler on upright bass. It was excellent.
As I was leaving Amelia’s to go to my next gig, my buddy Mark Mundy from KNON called my cell. “Hey, man, there’s a Siberian Express coming through tomorrow.” “What’s that ?” “That’s a b*tch is what that is. You better hope they move you inside tomorrow night at Opal’s.”
I headed to the G & S Lounge for my 11:30 gig. Before I played, I had a chance to see Monica again (even more relaxed now, with Herb Belofsky on drums – she KILLED !) & Ethyl & the Regulars (swinging stuff, great vibe). Terri Joyce played just before me with her band the Tagalongs, which I wanted to hear, but I was outside warming up. At G & S, the music happens in a little room attached to the main building, so to warm up you have either go outside or sit in G & S’s gameroom (pool tables, video games, etc). They play the stereo LOUD at G & S. Nothing like getting ready for your country gig with Dokken coming at you full blast…
That night, the Pearl Dusters were Nathan Fleming on steel, Brent Wilson on upright bass, and Timmy Campbell on drums. The room was packed during our set, (thanks to everybody who came !). DJs and friends from KNON in Dallas, especially, were out in full force. We played a good set and had a great time. We packed up, and I got to hear some of Ruthie & the Wranglers set – they looked sharp and sounded great ! I hadn’t had any dinner, so me, Jane, and Timmy grabbed a bite at Kirby Lane, got back to the hotel around 3:30 am.
The Siberian Express, Opal Divine’s, Coupland
“A Siberian Express is an arctic air mass developing from a high pressure center at the North Pole. As the air mass dips into the Eastern U.S. it can cause a dramatic drop in temperatures in a short period of time. With strong winds, precipitation and cold temperatures, the Siberian Express can easily cause damage and destruction.” On Friday, the temperature in Austin was about 70 degrees; by Saturday morning at 9:30 am, it was about 35 and drizzling. Me and Jane got up and headed to brunch at Guero’s on South Congress, where we were meeting Bill and Marcie Hunt, and Marcie’s lovely sister Melanie. On the way there, I saw outdoor stages around Austin in full swing, with musicians actually playing, and I could feel my fingers getting numb. At brunch we talked about the previous night’s G & S showcases and lamented the weather. Bill had already been out to Opal Divine’s, where I was set to play as part of a Cow Island Music showcase, and talked them into moving the show inside. I sent a text to the Pearl Dusters, letting them know we’d be playing inside that night. Matt Puryear texted back “sweet Lord thank you !”
We got to Opal’s just in time to see the last part of the Stone River Boys’s set. I met those guys for the first time last fall, when the SRBs and I were both in Montgomery, AL the same weekend. I took a bunch of folks to see them and they were completely knocked out – “who are these guys ?” they kept asking. Mike Barfield (Hollisters) and Dave Gonzalez (Hacienda Brothers, Palladins) are great enough on their own, but together they’re unstoppable. “Love on the Dial,” is their new cd, out May 17 on Cow Island. We sure are thrilled to have them on the label !
Anyways, L’l Mo and Ethyl and the Regulars played their excellent sets after the SRBs, then I went on. The Pearl Dusters were Danny Crelin on steel, Brent Wilson on upright bass, and Matt Puryear on drums. The setup at Opal’s was a little odd. The room we were in is normally used as a dining room, and was about the size of a small garage – they took out all the tables and folks were standing. The room was packed, the crowd was energetic, but there were no monitors, which worried me a little. (Monitors are the speakers on the floor in front of the band that play the sound back, so the band can hear themselves). I’m not fond of singing without monitors. I asked Dave Gonzalez how it was singing without monitors, and he said he could hear himself just fine. As it turned out, he was right – not sure how, but I could hear everything pretty well. There was a dance floor cleared out in the middle of the room – folks in Texas can make a dance floor pretty much anywhere ! So despite the cold temp outside, it was pretty sweaty inside Opal Divine’s… The band played great and folks really liked our set. All in all, a great afternoon for Cow Island !
We hung for awhile, chatted with folks, sold some cds and had a sandwich. Then just after 10:00, we drove to Coupland, Texas (about 45 minutes outside Austin) to see Bobby Flores and the Yellow Rose Band at the Coupland Dance Hall. Our friends Kate and Mager Walker rode with us. Kate is a country/roots DJ on WZBC, Newton, MA) who plays my music pretty regularly, and I’ve been a guest on her show several times. Luckily, Kate and Mager are not only wonderful folks, but also skinny – not much room in the Challenger backseat. None of us had ever been to Coupland. It’s a very small town (Wiki says about 1,000 people live there). The dance hall is about 100 years old, as are the two long wooden bars inside. The dancehall has been used as a set in many movies, including Lonesome Dove. (Here are some photos http://www.couplanddancehall.com/info_photos.php).
We arrived around 11:00 pm – Bobby and his band were on stage when we walked in. Bobby was playing guitar (known primarily as a fiddler, he’s an A-1 guitarist as well). His bandmembers are Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Famer Randy Reinhard on pedal steel; Kevin Carter, Catie Offerman, and R.J. Smith on fiddles; Dennis Kubos on drums; and my buddy Justin Kolb on upright bass. Man, did they sound great ! Shuffles, two-step, swing – true Texas music ! Bobby also sang one of my favorites, “South of the Border,” from his “Festival Favorites” cd. Frank Sinatra’s Capital-era version is probably best known, but I really dig Bobby’s version – Randy’s jazzy steel ride is superb ! We also saw some friends of mine, Robert and Susan Patterson, who love to two-step and come to my shows in Austin. We all had a great time, and this was definitely a highlight of the trip.
Gospel Brunch, Kids on Sheep, Charley Pride
Jane and I were invited to gospel brunch at Hill’s Cafe by our good Austin friends Don and Linda Valk. We arrived around 10:30 am and were joined by Rick and Carol Miller, and their friends Linda and Nanette. Hill’s is an Austin institution with an interesting history: http://www.hillscafe.com/history.htm. Along with the tasty food, we were treated to gospel music by Brennen Leigh (guitar, mandolin and vocals), Noel McKay (guitar and vocals), Melissa Carper (upright bass and vocals), and Beth Chrisman (fiddle and vocals). The music was great – believe me, good vocal harmony before noon is a rarity, and this band brought it ! And Brennen’s memory for gospel lyrics is amazing – she sang tune after tune that most country singers have only a passing familiarity with. Brennen and I have gigged together before, so she graciously asked me to sit in. We sang “Are you Afraid to Die ?” and “Gathering Flowers from the Master’s Bouquet.” I had to make up some lyrics on “Gathering Flowers” – hopefully the Master didn’t mind.
After brunch, Jane and I headed to Rodeo Austin. http://www.rodeoaustin.com/. Charley Pride, one of my very favorite singers, was slated to appear at 3:00 pm, and we arrived just in time. We scooted into our bleacher seats, all primed to hear “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” and the show started. This being our first, ahem, Rodeo, we didn’t know that “Charley Pride, 3:00 pm” meant “Charley Pride will arrive at the Fairgrounds around 3:00 pm, you’ll see him around 5:30.” So, hoping against hope that Charley would pop out at any minute, we watched the opening ceremonies, with gals on horses riding around the ring to great fanfare. And then, without any warning….a bareback rider burst out of a chute, slamming like a ragdoll against his horse’s back, his head and neck quivering like a Slinky, and Jane screamed bloody murder. “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh – Jesus, what….what is he DOING ????” That kinda set the tone for Jane for the next couple of hours. Thankfully, the somewhat complex rules governing calf roping caused a gentle confusion to set in, and she settled down nicely…
After the rodeo events, they had the Mutton Busting competition. Little kids in helmets and flak jackets ride on the backs of sheep. The kid who rides the longest wins. They all smiled a lot, even though the sheep walked all over them. Sponsored by State Farm.
Then, around 5:30, Charley Pride came on. He was awesome ! 72 years old, and sounded incredible. He played all the hits of course – “Kiss an Angel…” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” Does My Ring Hurt your Finger”…. (I know I’m in the right place when the whole audience can sing along to “Crystal Chandeliers”). And his band was really outstanding – they did a gospel set and sang some dead-on 5-part harmonies. He also did some medleys of other artist’s songs – he sang a version of Hello Darlin'” that definitely rivalled Conway Twitty’s. CP is a Country Music Hall of Famer with good reason – truly a monster talent !
By the time Charley finished we were pretty tired. We went back to the hotel and crashed, left Austin the following morning.
Hopefully we’ll be back for NotSXSW 2011. But in the meantime, I’ll be in Dallas, Uhland, and Helotes for some more gigs in late May.
Viva Texas !