Willie Graham Legg Perthes Benefit – Continental Club (Austin, TX)
“Half of this is magic/Half of this is make-believe…” So sang singer-songwriter Matt the Electrician at Austin’s Continental Club on June 24. It was early on in the marathon Willie Graham Legg Perthes Benefit, and an uncharacteristic and highly unwelcome shaft of incandescent late-afternoon sunlight cut through the club’s smoky gloom every time someone opened the front door.
The show started at 6:30 p.m. and by the time it ended, the sun would be long gone and waitresses would be picking up bottles and glasses to comply with the city’s 2 a.m. curfew.
To call the show star-studded might render a disservice to the heavens. At times it seemed as though there were as many musicians back in the Continental’s pool room waiting to go on as there were audience members out front. It was literally too big a show for one club — a second corresponding benefit, starring Roky and Sumner Erickson, the Skunks, Stephen Bruton and others, was being held at the same time at the nearby Saxon Pub.
Though his dad, Jon Dee Graham, held court throughout the night, the intended beneficiary of the performances was in fact 6-year-old Willie Graham, a child who has seemingly been raised (and cherished) within Austin’s far-flung musical community. The young boy was diagnosed last December with Legg Perthes Syndrome, a degenerative bone disease that necessitates extensive physical therapy and, perhaps, successive hip replacement operations as the young patient (and they are invariably young) grows.
Such a diagnosis might in itself represent a staggering burden for Jon Dee and Gretchen Graham to assume. But, in one of those Kafkaesque tales that are becoming increasingly common in American health care, the Grahams’ insurance company went into Chapter 11 shortly after Willie’s condition became evident, obliterating the Grahams’ Health Savings Account nest egg. Now, Willie’s situation is defined by other health care providers as a pre-existing condition, leaving the family essentially to their own financial devices.
In response, friends and kindred spirits put together a warp-speed, high-octane edition of that Austin evergreen, the benefit concert: a host of acts (Graham spent the evening bouncing between the Continental and the Saxon), a big ol’ silent auction, some rare reunions.
Jon Dee Graham isn’t on the celebrity radar in a lot of places, but in Austin he is genuinely beloved. Among artists and fans who know him, have shared a stage with him, or have heard him play and sing, his reputation is gold. His 2004 disc The Great Battle was voted Album of the Year in an Austin American-Statesman critic’s poll, and his work with the seminal punk band the Skunks and Austin’s Great Rock Hope, the True Believers, has endeared him to a broad range of fans.
It does no disservice to the musicians who played beforehand — including Bob Schneider, Troy Campbell, and the New Hot Damn (an all-star ensemble comprised of Kacy Crowley, Trish Murphy and Renee Woodward) — to note that the show didn’t really catch fire until Graham joined southern-rockers-cum-punkers Honky at about 10:45 p.m. for Graham’s own brooding “October” and a pop-the-clutch Tex-Mex rendition of ZZ Top’s “Francine”.
After that, it was off to the races. Ian McLagan balanced his timeless Faces/Stones pub-rock with a wan and touching turn by Graham (who was on and off the stage all night) on his own “Something To Look Forward To”.
Both Ray Wylie Hubbard and James McMurtry turned in vivid portraits from out where the buses don’t run. Hubbard’s fusion of his own “Wanna Rock And Roll” with “John The Revelator” and McMurtry’s white-trash panorama “Choctaw Bingo” brought the crowd to the boiling point. (The two men, like all the performers that night, also wove Graham originals into their mini-sets.)
Finally, after midnight, it all came together as Graham, Charlie Sexton (who produced The Great Battle) and Alejandro Escovedo — himself the recipient of the all-star Por Vida benefit last year — climbed onto the tiny stage and plugged in. With a cello tucked away in the corner, the trio started out plaintive as Graham sang softly, “Having a child takes the paint right off a man…” and progressed to a heartbreaking, lovely and seemingly inevitable closing of the circle with “The Majesty Of Love”. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
As a final lagniappe, the three plugged in and cranked up a Willie Graham original called “Rock & Roll”. “It’s the best Velvet Underground song never recorded,” Dad proudly told a reporter.
As of mid-July, the Willie Graham Leggs Perthes Fund had raised over $27,000. Fund-raising efforts are ongoing, including an upcoming live CD from the Continental show, plus another benefit in Austin at Antone’s on September 1 with Los Lobos and a True Believers reunion.
It’s almost enough to make you believe in magic, or make-believe.
(Contributions can be made payable to the Willie Graham Legg Perthes Fund and mailed to that name, c/o RajiWorld, 1810 Airole Way, Austin, Texas 78704. Contributions can also be made online by going to www.jondeegraham.com and clicking on “willie fund”.)