South By Southwest, Missive 3: Jimmie Dale Gilmore+the Wronglers, Foster & Lloyd Together Again
South By Southwest
Missive Three —
Is This The Past or the Future That Is Calling?
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the mystical old time country singer, is onstage at the balconied ballroom of Austin’s landmark Driskill Hotel, his high voice keening and spinning around the melody-line of several bluegrass standards with a nimbleness that belies the trickiness of the old time music. Exuberance unleashed, this is miles from Gilmore’s ethereal high country blend – but the joy is palpable.
Part of reason for Gilmore’s euphoria is that his backing band is cresting their first wave of live performance. The Wronglers, held together by Hardly Strictly founder Warren Hellman, is a loose-knit band of players who came together via their respective music teacher. When the suggestion came they should play onstage, to learn to cohere in a way that only performing live can solidify.
Given the high spirits, even dour songs like the traditional “In The Pines” benefit from the genuine thrill of seeing one’s practice come to fruition. With Gilmore’s silvery voice leaning to its most doleful shade, there is a sense of committing to the notes – and a shiver that runs deep listening to the Wronglers coalesce.
Not that it’s all tragic. With a twinkle in their eyes, the band pivoted, offering a serious rendition “Big Rock Candy Mountain;” Hellman taking the lead verse with his creaking hinge baritone – infusing the song with a delightful sense that children can be all ages.
Still, this was a show for grown-ups. “Deep Ellum Blues” swung with a naughtiness that was a bit guttural, a skosh knowing – and in that delicious tawdry undercurrent, the Wronglers bluegrass expanded into something more.
That is the trick: to maintain old-timey traditions – in their case harkening back to the Carter Family’s earliest recordings, while honoring the times in which you live. Banjo, guitar, upright bass, mandolin and twin fiddles created a cushion for Gilmore’s voice that offered give and created columns of air for him to glide on.
Indeed, their version of “Frankie & Johnny” was the kind of reinvention that honored the original, but also made it the group’s own. It is how one casts traditions that builds bridges to a future that is grounded in the past. For Gilmore and the Wronglers, it is absolutely about what essential to joy and accumulation of parts, influences and chemistry among musicians.
Across town, the Saxon Pub, an unlikely bar on Lamar, was bearing witness to something equally historic: the return of Foster & Lloyd, the seminal progressive country duo that merged fresh-faced Everly-esque harmonies with a rockabilly beat. Two decades, mainstream country success for Radney Foster and a popcentric trail for Bill Lloyd that included being the musical director for Cheap Trick’s Sgt Pepper shows later, it is an intriguing to see how wide-eyed kids age without losing their wonder or surrender to flogging what was into a flaccid mess of forgotten words and parts.
Not to say the pair didn’t blow a lyric here or there – but they laughed and stayed buoyant. On the thrashing “Hard To Say,” an aw shucks sweep through eroding resistance, Lloyd filleted the melody with a slamming lead part on acoustic guitar. Playing so hard he threw his guitar out of tune, the pair came to play… and play they did.
If South By Southwest is a proving ground for many, a remember when for some, the wisest plug into now and wink at the past. With twenty years under the bridge, what allows Foster & Lloyd the opportunity to pick up where they left off – almost seamlessly – is their eclectic set of influences and the tang to Foster’s West Texas drawl tangled with the molasses’n’elm tenor of Lloyd’s sweeter tones.
For both, the rhythm is important. On “Hidin’ Out,” a sweeping song of the down on your luck buddy from their upcoming It’s Already Tomorrow, the pair makes breezy seem inviting more than trivial, while the rodeo-busting “Texas in 1880,” from their 1986 debut, was all authoritative down stroke, landing with the urgency of those horses hooves going for broke – a whirling swirl of guitar notes on the outro, as well as a reprisal of the 6-string bass that was a signature lick, both from Lloyd who offered a fat tone that left nothing on the table.
Closing out their set with the blues-tinged cheek of “Crazy Over You,” the first single that announced an old school/post-new-wave kind of country that had more in common with the dBs than the Oak Ridge Boys, the pluck and shuffle was still there. In an age of “Girls Gone Wild,” Forlokos and Charlie Sheen’s porn parties, the notion of being gobsmacked may seem arcane, but when the pair – both in their 50s – slide into that familiar riff, that aw shucks, wow and wonder seem about the most desirable commodity of youth.
Given the passage of time, Lloyd found a way to bring the blues to a boil, hammering pairs of notes in the instrumental section that was fraught with kiddie giddiness and a knowing what kind of more he was looking for.
With two decades since the duo had been onstage, the crowd response kept the pair in place. Barely pivoting, they leaned into a frenetic “Faster & Louder,” synchronized vocals, fast-playing gaining urgency. Drawing on the Rockpile-era new wave that made Stiff Records home to where punk was fun, there was the headlong bump-n-tumble to their get-over-it-song of distraction and dignity’s reclamation.
Can you go back? Perhaps not. But if you can be where you are and be happy, hang onto what made you laugh and not regret what was, then you, too, can have the effervescence that was Foster & Lloyd at their best back when and right now.