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Playback: The Beautiful Old

Gabriel Rhodes makes Grammy bait

By Kevin Curtin, Fri., May 24, 2013

Gabe Rhodes listens to the oldies.
Gabe Rhodes listens to the oldies.
Photo by John Anderson

When I first glimpsed a copy of The Beautiful Old: Turn-of-the-Century Songs with its elegant album art and scholarly liner notes, I pegged it as hifalutin Grammy-bait. When I threw it on my stereo, chills went down my spine. I heard extraordinary recordings of songs from the days of my great-great-grandparents, cut with soul and clarity, not the cartoony voices and scratchy production typical to antique music. I'd just discovered a musical time machine.

A century before the dawn of the Internet, Americans purchased sheet music of the day's popular songs and performed them at home (revisit Graham Reynolds' review of Beck's Song Reader, "Phases & Stages," Jan. 25). Those sales sometimes numbered in the millions, but vinyl relegated parlor music to the dustbin of history. Among the musicians looking back are Paul Marsteller and Austin's Gabriel Rhodes, who teamed up to produce The Beautiful Old.

Gabriel Rhodes, the scion of angel-voiced country singer Kimmie Rhodes and stepson of beloved KOKE-FM deejay Joe Gracey, had his future as a Texas musician all but predestined.

"I started playing in my mom's band," says Rhodes. "It was a Western swing band with all the cool old-timey players, most of whom are dead now. I was doing rhythm for them when I was 16. We played every month at the Broken Spoke, and it became the kind of thing where everyone wanted to come and sit in.

"Willie [Nelson], Kris Kristofferson, Joe Ely, and Ray Benson would all crash the gig and just play."

Since then, Rhodes, 39, has played on or produced Americana records by Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Emmylou Harris, while rolling tape for everyone from Cuban rappers to French electronica.

"This is so far removed from anything I've ever done," Rhodes reflects about The Beautiful Old, which he produced, recorded, and played on. "I only used instruments that players from those days would have had, like pianos, violins, cellos, acoustic guitars, pump organs."

For Rhodes and Marsteller, excavating and selecting material for the album was heavy research.

"We dug though hundreds of songs and spent a lot of time in the Library of Congress and Smithsonian archives to find the original sheet music," confirms Rhodes.

The ballroom songs, for example, had a similar musical language to the yet-to-be-invented genre of jazz.

"Sometimes I'd have to read the sheet music twice because there were things that people don't hardly do anymore with music," explains Rhodes. "You could tell these people were really well educated. They weren't just spitting out a song one afternoon. It was a sophisticated work of art."

One of the collection's most moving tracks finds Kimmie Rhodes singing "Somewhere a Voice Is Calling," an unacknowledged dedication to her late husband, Joe Gracey, the deejay who lost his voice to cancer. Similarly, Garth Hudson, legendary organist for the Band, plays "The Band Played On," recorded not long after drummer Levon Helm passed away.

Other notable names on the locally recorded affair include Richard Thompson, the Kinks' Dave Davies, Graham Parker, and locals Will Sexton and Jimmy LaFave. Find it in stores beginning June 3.

Surrendering Stages

House band Not in the Face at Blackheart during SXSW
House band Not in the Face at Blackheart during SXSW
Courtesy of D. Tiger Anaya

As Austin gets denser, with residents moving into entertainment areas and entertainment moving into residential areas, local venues continue struggling with neighbors over outdoor concerts. This month, two petitions circulated, one for Rainey Street rocker hangout the Blackheart, and the other for kitschy West Sixth restaurant Lucy's Retired Surfers Bar, both imploring the community to support them in permit disputes.

Owners of the Blackheart declined public comment as to not to provoke the city's wrath, but the outcome of their recent conflicts can be ascertained by their expensive band shell, which once held the best live music in the area, now sitting idle. According to the bar's petition, despite efforts to appease them, a neighboring apartment complex continued to complain until all shows had been moved indoors.

A mile away, in the heart of Austin's entertainment district, Lucy's was the subject of complaints from a nearby homeowners association. Mary McKeown-Christie, a consultant representing Lucy's, says that while complaints were erroneous because the owners have diligently adhered to sound ordinances, the venue has decided to release its outdoor music permit in favor of requesting special events permits for any performances on their massive patio.

City code requires a small department called the Music Office to investigate every outdoor permit applicant to determine whether a permit should be granted or renewed.

"There is always a balance when considering whether or not a permit is appropriate," explains Music Office head Don Pitts by email. "We look at a number of factors to determine what we believe to be feasible. In the case of both Blackheart and Lucy's, they are not just near residential, but directly adjacent to residential that was built before the applicants were there. There are people in favor of these permits, and there are people who are not in favor of the permits. Our job is to work at finding a good middle ground."

So far, that middle ground has been as hard to locate as Downtown parking. Last year saw similar conflict with Eastside wonderland Cheer Up Charlie's, and small venues will continue to lose permits because they're operating on a complaint-based system against neighborhood associations who are better organized. Those conflicts are then refereed by a city that will jump them through hoops and, when their efforts aren't enough, make an example of them.

Remember, being a good neighbor goes both ways. Yes, venues should always make accommodations for the peace of nearby residents, but those residents must also accept the reasonable expectation of what it means to live in the "Live Music Capital of the World" and show a little tolerance.

Half Notes

Moody Theater co-owner Stratus Properties, which partnered with Transmission Entertainment and Fun Fun Fun Fest this year, confirmed taking a minority interest in Pachanga Fest. Along with providing capital, Stratus helps its partners with insurance and accounting. "After years of white-knuckling this on our own, we're thrilled to have a partner with financial and human resources who can help take us to the next level," says Pachanga founder Rich Garza. "Beau Armstrong and his team really believe in what we're doing and have the same long-term vision for Pachanga as we do."

Graham Reynolds
Graham Reynolds
Photo by John Anderson

› "Each project I work on with Richard Linklater is so radically different that I'm always getting to explore new musical worlds," says local composer Graham Reynolds, who previously scored the local director's A Scanner Darkly and Bernie. Their latest collaboration, Before Midnight, the third chapter of Linklater's 18-year love story, finds Reynolds unusually reserved. "There was no score for the first two, and the film itself is so intimate and heavily dialogue-driven that I stripped it down, using just a few instruments and a theme that repeats." Before Midnight opens at the Violet Crown on Friday.

› The Chronicle team lost in the finals to KUTX's squad at Monday night's Mind Over Music trivia event, which pitted teams from local music institutions against each other to raise money for local charity Grounded in Music. Though they scored low, Arlyn Studios gets big props for bringing Bobbie Nelson and Bushwick Bill, who got up and rapped while host Charlie Hodge attempted to beatbox.

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