Thursday, March 31, 2011

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: What I Did on My Spring Break

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 1, 2011

I had to attend to some (happy) family matters in Austin, Texas, last week. But even if music wasn’t the prime purpose of this little vacation, you just don’t go to the Live Music Capital of the World without catching some shows.

I was there during the week immediately following the South by Southwest Festival. The whole town seemed to be kind of hung over, but there were still plenty of good shows from which to choose (without the crazy crowds and impossible parking you find during SXSW). Here’s what I heard:

* Dale Watson at The Broken Spoke: Seeing Watson at the Spoke is pretty much the full-on Texas honky-tonk experience. This place is an authentic musical institution in Austin. A sign on the building outside said the joint has been open for 46 years. Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Willie Nelson have graced its stage.

I almost didn’t recognize Watson when I first walked in. His jet-black pompadour has turned to a rich silver since the last time I saw him. (He’s not even 50 yet.) But his music hasn’t changed a lick. If he looks older, his stamina onstage is as strong as ever. Watson played more than three hours without taking a break.

He and his band, The Lone Stars, which includes a steel guitar, fiddle, and a stand-up bass, play pure, raw, unadorned beer-drinkin’ honky-tonk. Watson’s voice has a lot of Hag in it, as well as a touch of Waylon.
Watson mostly performed his own tunes.

There were plenty of recent ones, such as “Hey Brown Bottle,” an ode to Lone Star beer. He did a song called “Big Daddy,” about a shoeshine man who was doing business in the Broken Spoke that night. Watson frequently plugged him on stage: “Get a shoeshine, a boot-shine, anything but moonshine.”

He also played some older songs in his repertoire such as “Truck Stop in La Grange,” in which he included a part of the ZZ Top boogie classic of similar name. In fact, Watson included a whole mess of covers of country classics like “Silver Wings,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop a Top.”

A little sociological phenomenon I observed at the Spoke: It was ladies’ night at the club, and the place was full of cute college-age girls dancing with old guys who looked like Hank Hill and his friends. I asked my daughter, an Austin resident, about this. She said it’s because the old redneck guys know how to dance. “The young guys don’t know what they’re missing,” she said. Being an old guy myself, I probably shouldn’t tell them.

*  Ralph White, John Schooley & Walter Daniels at Beer Land: Schooley normally is a one-man band, a wild blues stomper who records on Voodoo Rhythm Records. That’s what I was expecting to see last week at this free show. White, who was a founding member of The Bad Livers, recently played Santa Fe, opening for Scott H. Biram at Coraz√≥n. I caught Biram there but arrived too late to see White. I figured he must like playing on bills with these crazy one-man band types.

But instead, at the Beer Land show, Schooley was part of an acoustical trio. He played slide (mostly on a resonator guitar) and a little banjo with White (who sings and plays fiddle and banjo) and harmonica player/singer Daniels. Though I would have loved to have seen Schooley in his usual hands-on-guitar/feet-on-drums mode, I wasn’t disappointed with this team-up.

Basically, the trio played mournful, spooky old mountain songs, country blues, and proto-bluegrass, sometimes veering off into John Fahey territory. They covered tunes by Muddy Waters, Dock Boggs, and R.L. Burnside and even took a shot at Charlie Walker’s honky-tonk classic “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down.”

The opening acts here were also worth noting. There was Wes Coleman, a singer/guitarist backed only by a drummer, whose melodious melodies reminded me a little of the old band House of Freaks. And there was an extremely fun little scuzzgrass band called Dad Jim, whose frontman Robert Allan Caldwell is related to the famous Caldwell brothers of the Marshall Tucker Band. Besides its rowdy version of “Ya’ll Come,” the thing I liked most about Dad Jim is the fact that the band had a black dog that made itself comfortable onstage throughout the set.

* Exene Cervenka at The Mohawk: Cervenka kicked off her tour for her new album, The Excitement of Maybe, in Austin last week. As anyone who has followed her knows, Cervenka solo is far more low-key than her work with the band that made her famous, X. In fact, on her own, she sounds closer to The Knitters, that X offshoot folk group of which she was part.

I appreciated her Austin show more than I did her new album. The record is quite enjoyable, with some nice tracks with Dave Alvin on guitar and Maggie Bjorklund on dreamy steel. But her stage sound was more stripped-down than that of the album.

Cervenka’s band was a hearty little ensemble with Austin guitar stud Will Sexton and, on the last couple of tunes, banjo picker Gretchen Phillips. But my favorite part of the band was the drummer, whose name I didn’t get. She used a washtub as a bass drum. She’s no Buddy Rich, but she banged that tub with spirit.

And, oh yeah, Exene sings her guts out.

My favorite songs she did were the upbeat “I’ll Admit It Now” (which works better without the horn section on the studio version) and the wistful, countryish “Dirty Snow,” both from the new album, as well as one of the songs she did with Phillips, “I Wish I Was A Single Girl Again” — an old folk song performed by The Maddox Brothers and Rose.

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