Windblown – Crighton Theater (Conroe, TX)
With costumes designed by daughter Jamie, nasty guitar work by son Gabe, acting and dancing by husband Joe Gracey, and a flawless lyrical performance by Kimmie Rhodes, the world premier of Windblown left little doubt as to the pool of artistic talent at the Rhodes-Gracey household. A loosely strung tale of a young Mexican maiden’s misfortune, downfall and eventual redemption told through salty characterizations by Joe Sears, the interpretive choreography of Jo Ann Schatz, and minimalist sets that recreated the melon fields of Mexico and a hellhole Juarez cantina, Windblown managed to beautifully bring the tumultuous and tenuous border milieu to life.
Co-author and noted Texas actor Sears (Greater Tuna, Trail Of Tears, Small Town Girl) directed the production and delivered the only spoken parts, playing the ghosts of a handful of border archetypes: a regretful Texas Ranger whose throat was slit by the tragic heroine Liliana, eccentric railroad magnate Arthur E. Stilwell, a forgiving Catholic padre, and even a crusty grandmotherly Juarez gambler, Lottie Deno. Sears slid in and out of these characterizations with his usual dexterity and comic flair.
But the centerpiece was Kimmie Rhodes’ musical performance (which is documented on her new Windblown CD on her own Sunbird label). Supported by Gabe Rhodes on a variety of guitars and harmonium, Will Sexton on guitar and bass, and drummer John Gardner, Kimmie delivered a suite of original compositions that were as integral to the storyline as the spoken parts were. Dressed in colorful flowing cantina eveningwear and a black mariachi sombrero, Rhodes exuded confidence throughout a flawless performance, whether she was setting the scene with the mystic Joe Ely-ish “Windblown”, softly bemoaning the tragic complications of Liliana’s short life (“Oh, Padre”, “Little Angelina”), or muscling up on searing numbers such as “Desert Train”.
On “Desert Train”, Sexton and Gabe Rhodes donned skeletal masks and moved from the orchestra to center stage for an extended guitar duel that closed Act 1 and was the musical highlight of the evening. Gabe proved equally adept at smoking electric riffs and fluid Mexican-flavored acoustic leads, serving notice that he may well be the next monster guitarist out of the Austin scene.
Conroe, Texas, seems an unlikely spot for a world premiere, but the restoration of the 1934 Crighton Theater draws such productions to the once sleepy town 35 miles north of Houston. Originally built as a grand vaudeville theater and a rival to Houston’s Majestic during the Great Depression by oilman mayor Harry Crighton, the acoustically perfect 330-seat venue built of native stone has been restored to its previous grandeur through the support of a city government that has made the theater the linchpin of downtown revitalization.
Along with dramatic productions, the Crighton is also home to the Sounds of Texas music series, which features some of the biggest names in Americana music and strives to create interesting lineups that allow artists to perform with each other in unique circumstances. (For instance, in June it will host the reunion of Todd Snider and his old band the Nervous Wrecks, with Fred Eaglesmith also on the bill.) The proceeds from the Windblown premiere benefited the continuing restoration of Conroe’s crown artistic jewel.