When I was sent to a conference in Austin for work, you know I just complained and complained, but to no avail. Yeah right!!! So if they're going to send me down here I'll take advantage of it. Still, I didn't exactly intend to go out every night, but it ended up that way...
Monday I got into Austin. This was the registration day at the conference. But the big event of the day, in my mind, was the Elvis Birthday Tribute hosted by Dale Watson at the Continental Club. Sam, a coworker, and I made it down there after it had started. Dale was going and soon brought up Guy Forsyth (also with the Asylum Street Spankers). But the place was full. So Sam and I waited in line as Guy played.
The wait wasn't as long as I had feared. Guy finished and Scott Biram was playing when we got in. The basic band for the night included Dale's band (pedal steel, fiddle/rhythm guitar, bass & drum) plus a keyboard and a three piece horn section. There were also two backup singers who Dale referred to as the Ordinares, as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Jordinares who backed Elvis for years. Dale was on and off stage, filling in, doing his own thing, or adding extra guitar or vocals as needed.
The Continental Club is a good room. It is probably a bit bigger than Iota. There are a bunch of high top tables in the back and chairs along the walls, with a nice "dance floor" in the middle. But this was obscured by the masses that crammed their way into the club.
Some pretty high powered talent was in attendance. And then there was one I didn't expect. Next up on stage was Bill Kirchen. I talked to him later, and was introduced to Louise (his wife) and their daughter. He was back in Austin working to finish up his move and had to hustle back for his McLean gig on the weekend.
Miss Lauren Marie & The Horton Brothers did a rockabilly swing thing. Cool enough to get me to see the Horton's at Ginny's the next night. Lauren Marie wasn't there. Didn't catch the name of the guy they had singing at Ginny's. That show went a bit more country. I should have stayed later, but ya' know the conference...
Chad Thomas & the Crazy Kings, yet another fun rockabilly band, followed. Chad used one of those old chrome microphones. While Dale was setting it up he discovered that the mic had a significant sweet spot. Later it struck me as funny when I noticed Chad was measuring that sweet spot by touching his nose to the top of the mic.
The Derailers sounded good. Dale encouraged Brian Hofeldt to imitate some of Elvis's guitarists over the years. But this was not the band I remember from the last time I saw them. It seemed to have, what?, one member in common with that band.
Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel's lead singer) provided his fantastic bass vocals. Bill Kirchen came back up to sit in with Ray.
Dale's good buddy James Intveld followed. James apparently does everything: music, acting, movie producing. Anyway he's an amazing performer. He did a fantastic version of "Little Less Conversation".
One little fashion note, James was clad head to toe in black leather, doing that fancy upscale biker look. It's the same look that the Fabulous Thunderbirds employ. It must be an Austin thing. But it just looks a bit too Village People for me... not that there's anything wrong with that...
Carolyn Wonderland was a real find. She came up late, looking very shy and apprehensive. Then she opened her mouth. Damn what a voice, and well used too. She's a fantastic blues guitarist too. I went Antone's to see her Thursday night, there she put on another great performance and showed a breadth I hadn't expected.
Carolyn's closest analog might be Susan Tedeschi. Susan made her reputation on her voice, but she's a good guitarist as well. Carolyn's voice is equally strong, though it has a bit more of a gutsy edge. Carolyn's guitar skills, however, put her in a league separate from Ms. Tedeschi. And that's before she picks up the Mandolin or lap steel, which she does a mighty good job with as well. And she's a fine songwriter as well.
Ginny's is a descent little hole in the wall. It kind of reminds me of JVs. It's probably 50% wider. Ginny seems remarkably akin to Lorraine, if a good bit older. But the place was not smoky. But that all made sense when and at the end of the set, half the crowd made a B-line for the door, where they could light up outside.
Wednesday night I did a short night on 6th Street. I started at one blues bar, the band seemed talented, but really didn't have any personality; there was no cover, the band worked for tips only. I ran into a few folks from the conference, but tired of the band and wondered down the road. I ended up at another blues bar, Nino's. One band finished up and a second began. This pair was much better pair. Again, they were playing for tips only. Sam found me there. Before heading back, we tried a pirate bar that was across the street. This place was dirt cheap; $1 for a mixed double and my soda was free. The bartenders work purely for tips here as well.
I arrived at Antone's just before the opener started. Shelley King is almost operatic in size and in voice. They played a mix of rock, blues, and country with some nice jazz touches. The bass player looked familiar. I suppose pretty female bass players with long black hair are a bit rare. But there was another on 6th street the prior night. That woman wasn't this active or as good. I finally confirmed my guess when I talked to Anne Marie at the bar after her set. Yes she is the new bass player with Brave Combo. She's looking forward to the trip up to our neighborhood. They've got a few gigs in the area. Though, the "area" is pretty broad... including a trip to Mountain Stage (WVa) and World Cafe in Philly.
The whole night went very quickly. Everybody basically got a single set. Shelley King 8-9:15... Carolyn Wonderland 9:30-11... Dirtybird 11:30-. Dirtybird is a rock band... they were ok, but I was tired ...
In my mind, Antone's is THE famous Austin venue. Antone's history is a bit akin to the Birchmere in Alexandria. It started small and was able to parlay that into a bigger venture. At one point, they even spawned their own music label and promoted the whole boom of the blues scene down here. The current venue isn't anywhere near as upscale as the Birchmere has become. This place is a concrete floored warehouse, a lot wider than it is deep; a nice stage with an empty area in front, and tables on either side, and a pair of bars on the back wall. This night the sound was good, but the crowd was small. There were maybe 50 people in this large room.
The Broken Spoke is an odd room. It looks to have stared as a cow barn or something. The long central dance floor is concrete polished by millions of shuffling cowboy boots over the nearly 50 years the place has been open. There is a bar at one end, the bandstand at the other, and a low ceiling in between. On either side, one step up, is an area with tables and a progressively lower ceiling. And another tier was added beyond that. So the ceiling height shrinks to the point where your average tall person would have to stoop.
I was there pretty early, grabbed a table, and slowly the crowd filtered in. A broad variety of ages were represented in the crowd. Racially it was majority white with a considerable latino population. One elderly black well-dressed gentleman showed up, he slowly made his way across the floor. He looked distinctive and somewhat familiar. I should have known by his walking cane which had a piano keyboard inscribed on it.
The crowd was growing; some of the regulars doubted there would be enough room to dance. Dale started up and folk were out two-stepping. A broken down chair with a sign tacked on kept the standers to the back. Before long Dale called that gentleman up on stage. So Pinetop Perkins sang "Got My Mojo Workin'" to a funky country beat. I never really expected to two-step to that song, but I did.
I really didn't have much trouble finding dance partners. I was a bit worried considering I really don't know the country dances. These folk don't seem nearly as rigidly structured to doing one particular dance with one particular song as the country dancers I met in Colorado. And nobody really had a problem following my Cajun 2-step variants. And early on I found a familiar face, Holly a recent DC resident was there and I tagged on to her crowd.
Unlike Antone's the night before, Dale provided a good long night. We started at 9 and went to 1 with a short break in the middle.
Then the rains descended. <SFX> SRV's Texas Flood</SFX>.
I spent much of the day dodging flooded roads while shopping... clothes shopping. I hadn't brought anything heavy duty enough to withstand the temperatures that are scheduled to descend to below freezing. I surmised that picking up an interesting coat would be a good option. I was flying blind and really didn't find anything I liked, so I went the el-cheapo route instead.
I'd hoped to make it back to the Continental for Redd Volkaert's Happy Hour. That didn't happen. I didn't have any other real plans either. I found out about a Friends of Traditional Music thing, but skipped that too. Instead I went to the Saxon Pub for Guy Forsyth.
The Saxon Pub isn't far from the Broken Spoke. It's a significant contrast though. This place is dark, high ceiling, and the floor is crammed with tables tighter than I've seen outside of New York City. There was some room up front which occasionally had use as a dance floor by a few solo dancers. The tables were prized possessions and recently vacated seats were quickly grabbed.
Guy started later; Paula Nelson kicked things off. She fits nicely into that cute little blonde singer niche. Vocally she reminds me of Patty Reese; and she had a monstrously rockin' band. The keyboard player was great, and the Tele guy wasn't too shabby either.
Guy is/was with the Asylum Street Spankers. He had a little trio... drummer & bass/tuba. I think that's the first time I'd seen a band substitute a tuba, outside of the Nawlin's crowd (say Anders Osborne, for example). Guy is a really strong singer, very powerful and passionate. He is also a talented multi-instrumentalist. He started the night on acoustic guitar. After a few songs he moved on to the Harmonica, both diatonic and chromatic; followed by the musical saw, steel uke, back to the acoustic guitar and finishing the set with an electric. And that's not all he plays or brought on stage. By the end of that set it was 12:30 and I was fading fast. So I didn't see the 2nd set.
It was a great set. But there is a part of Guy's set that has left me conflicted. During the songs where he played harp, Guy used some electronic tape loops to provide a little backing guitar and/or keys to fill out the sound a bit. I feel a bit disappointed to have recordings introduced. But as a practical matter, does he really need to employ another musician or two for just a couple songs? One guy nearby made a comment "I can see why he left Asylum Street (news to me), that was some pretty sophisticated mixing." I'll admit to not being an electronic aficionado, but it seemed like a pretty straight forward mix. One song had two parts and another did some looping, if anything I'd say it was minimalist.
It isn't anywhere near as rainy today, but the temperature is supposed to drop below freezing at night, and the town is downright nervous about it.
The day started with a trip downtown to Manuel's for a jazz brunch. The food was good and they had a nice little trio acoustic guitar/bass/congas doing Latin/Cuban jazz standards. I relaxed and made a half-hearted effort to finish off Burt Levy's Last Open Road.
I made my way back to Ginny's for Chicken Shit Bingo (we'll see if that makes it through your web filters). This is yet another weekly gig for Dale Watson. Really I wasn't stalking the man. Ginny's was crowded to the point where it would be well over fire hazard limits up north. Dale started at 4-ish and at the end of his first set everyone lined up to get a bingo ticket. They sold out before I managed to make it to the front. But laid out on the pool table was a caged board with a 6x9 grid of numbers laid out. Add a chicken and some feed. Let Dale start up again, and wait. Eventually the chicken did its thing and we have a winner, Ann in this case. The winner gets "over 100 dollars". Which at $2 per bingo ticket and one shit per game, means nobody gets a cut but the winner. And as Dale says, "You too could be a Chicken Shit winner!"
It occurs to me that I haven't really described Dale's music, for those not in the know. Dale is hard-core old-style country. I can illustrate this with a conversation I had with him. I wanted to buy a CD, but he was out, they'd just unloaded the van for a tour. I asked if he was coming to DC. He said that they were coming sometime in March, I think. I asked if they were going back to Iota. No they're headed to some new place. Oh? Is it the Surf Club? Dale replied "No, I liked the guys in the house band and all, but there was too much Tim McGraw shit on the juke box." Dale didn't think the clientele was right for him.
Sometime in there another familiar face wandered by. This guy doesn't know me from Adam, but Nevada Newman was a fixture in DC music for a while. I remember when he played with the acoustic blues band, the Resonators. He is in Austin having hired on with the Spankers. And he was more than a little shocked that anyone down here had even heard of the Resonators.
Dale was deep into his second set when I tired of the crowd. A handful of couples tried to dance on the cracked linoleum floor and that only exacerbated the press. I thought I'd go off and have a nice dinner and head over to the Continental Club for HeyBale. Well it was a half good idea, I presumed the Sunday gig would start at a "reasonable" hour, but the club was locked tight. It wouldn't start 'til 10pm... which wouldn't be so bad except for two things. (a) I'm flying out in the morning, and (b) the town has all but shut down out of fear of this "artic storm" that's coming in. It's supposed to get down to 31 degrees F. Oooohhh.
The rental was covered with a bit of ice, but it was wet, and the wipers had no trouble pushing it aside. The roads were wet and not slick. Still the town is afraid.
A few extraneous Austin comments:
Some of you have probably heard my stories about the flakey GPS system I had in a rental last time I was in Austin. I got another one this time around. I'm not sure that things have improved much. A lot of that seems to owe to the utter rabbit warren of streets and frontage roads here. The GPS just doesn't have the resolution required; the DBs aren't totally accurate, complete, or up-to-date. That said it was helpful and got me to the clubs even if I made some wrong turns and I needed the address to find the joint (instead of just a name lookup).
While prowling for good shows and particularly when looking up the slew of artists from the Elvis night, it seems that much of the Austin music scene, artists and venues, is using MySpace instead of having their own sites. I am not sure it really helps. Perhaps it is easier, but the sites are kind of clunky from my perspective.
Austin prices are a good bit cheaper than back home. I didn't pay more than $12 for any show. Several were on tips alone. Likewise, sodas were around a buck. I think I paid a maximum of two. The harder stuff seemed equally cheap, but I really don't have those data points.