"Shoot Like a Grrrl" Takes You on a Club Crawl Through Lost Austin

Photographer Martha Grenon's exhibit at SouthPop covers the Austin music scene in the Eighties and Nineties

Martha Grenon in front of her Goober and the Peas photo at the SXSW 25th anniversary exhibit at the Austin History Center, 2011 (Photo by Grace Mcevoy)

Close-up on two musicians side by side. That they're musicians you have to take on faith – all that's visible are guitar straps and a sliver of one guitar – but you can see they are deep into a show; the drenched T-shirt and strands of dark hair plastered to the brow of the guy on the left testify to that. The guy on the right – junior to the other by 20 years – looks much fresher, but his downcast eyes and mouth agape with excitement signal that something special is happening, and the grin on his compadre's mug shows he's tuned into it, too. The tightness of the shot is purposeful: to focus on the instant of joy these two music makers share as they go full "Shazam!" and call down the rock & roll lightning. The date, place, and artists' names are dutifully noted on the print: "Joe Ely and (Little) Charlie Sexton, Club Foot, Austin, June 1982," adding that Charlie is 13. That may provoke a sentimental twinge in some older folks, but there's not an iota of nostalgia in the image itself. It's simply Martha Grenon doing what the best photographers do: working in the moment, catching that split second when magic is released.

Joe Ely & (Little) Charlie Sexton, Club Foot, Austin, June 1982

In the 50 black-and-white prints that comprise SouthPop's exhibit "Shoot Like a Grrrl: The Photography of Martha Grenon," drawn from her work covering music in the Eighties and Nineties, that split second of magic pops up again and again and again. That's because Grenon, a former art director for the Chronicle, is, well, a rock star at catching the flash point when something extraordinary occurs, when, in the case of a musician, whatever feelings that have been amped up by the rhythms and tempos and sounds and words of the music suddenly shift from the infrared to the visible part of the spectrum, when they can be seen. Joy, fury, determination, exhaustion, satisfaction – they may be here and gone in a blink, but Grenon can capture them. And the results are remarkable and illuminating.

Patsy Montana, Cactus Cafe, 1990

The magic may be in the motion, as with a member of Goober and the Peas or Dash Rip Rock or Osaka's Balbora caught in flight – leg extended, straight as a board, and three cubic feet of air between his heels and the stage. Or with Jason & the Scorchers, Grenon shooting the musician's back, boot soles side by side, pointing down, the heels under the musician's ass. The music, like a dynamo, supercharges the body and rockets it upward, and Grenon finds the microsecond to click that shutter, catching the musician at maximum altitude, frozen in space, a portrait of music as kinetic energy.

As Grenon is upstage of him, we can see the crowd holding tarps over their heads, but Allen doesn’t give a good goddamn about what’s dropping from the clouds.

It may be in the moisture. Here's Terry Allen, raindrops speckling his piano as he growls into the mic at the storm-plagued 1982 Tornado Jam in Lubbock. As Grenon is upstage of him, we can see the crowd holding tarps over their heads, but Allen doesn't give a good goddamn about what's dropping from the clouds. If anything, the foul weather feeds his mood, his bewhiskered face that of a Lone Star Lear, fiercely singing to the clouds to blow and crack their cheeks.

More often, that moisture comes from within: musician after musician with shirts sweated through, like the perspiration has flowed out with their music: Joe Strummer at the Austin Coliseum in '82, in profile, eyes closed, head bowed – a curiously reverent demeanor for a member of the Clash – his sleeveless shirt stained, bare arms and head glistening, all combining to suggest the show had been a baptism; and Marianne Faithfull at Nightlife a year later, also in profile, shirt soaked, damp ringlets of hair curling at her collar, left arm outstretched and fingers splayed as if beseeching the crowd for something – maybe absolution, maybe just a towel.

And you best believe those flash points of magic are in smiles. The exchange of unfettered glee between Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson and Texas Playboy Leon Rausch at the 1998 Austin Music Awards bonds two generations of Western swing. A similar appreciation of one musical colleague for another shines in Buck Owens' grin at a focused Casper Rawls in a 1995 show at the Continental Club. With Jona­than Richman, the sheer elation on his face from a concert at Liberty Lunch in '85 bespeaks a communal love of rock & roll that he and his audience share. Then you have a shot of Linda Ronstadt at the Tornado Jam. In '82, she has eight platinum albums under her belt, six covers for Rolling Stone and one for Time, plus a Tony Award for singing Gilbert & Sullivan, yet you see no rock diva here. You see a country girl in a denim jacket, given over to a moment of spontaneous laughter: head tilted back, mouth open, at ease, face bright with delight.

Linda Ronstadt at Tornado Jam, 1982

This catalog of Grenon's "greatest hits" captures the spirit of the era just as a band's music does: a shirtless and sneering Jello Biafra brandishing a traffic cone at a Dead Kennedys concert; a glaring Grey Ghost, his hat casting a shadow over one eye, the other eye's dilated pupil like a total eclipse; Clifford Antone and Angela Strehli at the '89 AMAs, posed like prom king and queen, him stoic, her beatific. Grenon got it all by, yeah, shooting like "a grrrl," which is to say applying her fierce focus, energy, and drive.

The venues in which Grenon captured all this magic is an all-star lineup of the city's hottest hot spots for music in the 20th century's last two decades – almost all of them now interred in the graveyard of great clubs: Liberty Lunch, Soap Creek Saloon, Club Foot, Electric Lounge, La Zona Rosa, Steamboat, Ritz Theatre, Chicago House, Austin Opera House, Austin Music Hall, Club 312, Blue Bayou, Nightlife, and – last man standing – the Continental Club. It's not that you can see much of those venues in Grenon's shots – she keeps the lens trained tightly on the musicians, and rightly so – but the fact that her outstanding images of these musicians releasing their magic into the world were taken in those places make this exhibit the greatest Austin club crawl we'll ever see.

“Shoot Like a Grrrl: The Photography of Martha Grenon” is on view through Oct. 6 at SouthPop, 1516 S. Lamar. More info at www.southpop.org.

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Austin photography, Martha Grenon, Austin music scene, SouthPop, South Austin Museum of Popular Culture, Joe Ely, Charlie Sexton

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