When the Circus Comes to Town

Bert Jansch's first time in Texas gives us the vapors.

My glasses fog up as I walk from my car, and there are droplets of sweat running down my arms and legs. Humidity is a dog from hell. At least that's what the familiar swamp smell, the meshing of mud and plant, concludes. We had been told by a local this place was “down by the docks,” always a good sign, but as we approach the curious structure, “down by the docks” becomes something else altogether.

Jana Hunter, the night’s opener, sits behind a de facto merch table. “Oh, you’ve never been here?” she asks, eyes wide.

The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art in Houston was painstakingly built in isolation over the course of 25 years by former Houston mailman Jefferson D. McKissack, who found most of the objets d’art along his routes. While working in Florida during the Depression, he had an epiphany: the orange was the perfect fruit.

In a way, the Orange Show is dedicated to educating the rest of the world about it. Clowns, mannequins, plastic animals, and (real) spider webs dot the sweltering “museum,” a small room with signs reciting the rejuvenating effects of cold O.J. every morning, the purity of orange rinds.

The rock-encircled pit in the middle of the venue practically screams Fellini. The crowd sits in seats surrounding Bert Jansch, his first time ever in Texas. As he softly finger-picks his first few songs, a group of people pit right are attacked by a giant flying cockroach. One guy tries to karate chop it, but it's a flying cockroach.

Jansch remains impervious. He plays “Blackwaterside,” an Anne Briggs song from his 1966 album Jack Orion (later “reconfigured” by Led Zeppelin as “Black Mountain Side”), as well as a song called “Carnival,” which is wildly appropriate. There’s a cover of “Blues Run the Game” by Jackson C. Frank, former boyfriend of Fairport Convention vocalist Sandy Denny. Jansch's voice, a mixture of Scottish brogue and high lonesome, is a nice breeze.

After playing a few from last year's The Black Swan, it's easy to see how a whole generation (Johnny Marr, Suede's Bernard Butler) has latched onto Jansch's minimal folk songs. Understated is an understatement.

And it’s hard not to think of one of the signs in the museum: “Many years ago, the land where oranges now grow was covered by the sea. Man came, cleared the land, and planted orange trees. When you eat an orange you can truly say ‘I am getting chemicals left by the sea.’”

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