Jingle Bell Rock and Blues

Two legendary Austin bands reunite for the holidaze.

It’s one of my favorite weekends on the town, when the students are gone and the traffic is easy. Most of the folks you see in the clubs are the hardcore fans and that suits me just fine. I woke up this morning thinking about the Broken Spoke and just know that in ten years, no matter what the developers say, that place will be totally different, surrounded on three sides by Starbucks and apartments for people who can’t afford the overpriced condos but want that 04 zip code.

However, I didn’t start this blog to rail about that. The end of the year is my favorite time for sorting through past events and putting them in the place within my life. That basically means I am a sentimental fool, capable of tearing up at the sight of Salvation Army bell ringers. It also means I love to wrap myself in memories of years past because in almost 33 years of writing about music in Austin, I’ve had a few good times, my friend.

Many of my good times I had with the Skunks, gathering tonight at the Continental Club for their annual reunion. The trio of bassist Jesse Sublett, guitarist Eddie Munoz, and drummer Billy Blackmon was the first headlining punk act to play Raul’s right after the Sex Pistols, kicking off the scene that still throbs on Red River nightly. They played my reception at Soap Creek Saloon after my first wedding in 1978, when Munoz was still the guitarist. A year later, I went to New York for their first gig at CBGBs, back at a time when the Police were touring in a station wagon and it seemed like punk would save the world. It didn’t but it did serve notice to the then-overblown dinosaur rock that the jig was up.

I spent many nights bouncing around the dancefloor to the Skunks in a delirium of immortal youth and frenzied partying. For me, they and the Standing Waves captured the zeitgeist of Sixties garage rock that was so visceral: the machine-gun beat. The Skunks – especially after Jon Dee Graham joined – became an army of three merciless chords that cut straight to the bone. Their songs – “Cheap Girl,” “Telewoman,” “Slander,” “Earthquake Shake,” plus covers like “Sister Ray” – are imprinted like DNA in my brain. I once danced to a Skunks song with a woman I hardly knew; E.A. and I bonded in that exuberant moment have been best friends ever since.

It’s by coincidence (for me, anyway) that Saturday night is the annual Paul Ray & the Cobras Christmas show. If I were to pick a handful of bands that have most affected my life and whose music carried me through the good times and bad, Paul Ray & the Cobras are waaaaaaaaaaay up there.

After moving here in 1973 ostensibly for the country music, I was baptized into the blues and introduced to the world of gas station barbecue and after-hours chicken shacks. The rest of the time my blues fix came from the One Knite’s nightly lineup that included Paul Ray & the Cobras on Wednesdays. I’d already fallen in love with the Tuesday band, a scruffy outfit called the Nightcrawlers with a hotshot teen guitarist named Stevie Vaughan, but the Cobras were different.

This was pure rhythm & blues and soul, curated by vocalist Paul Ray with Denny Freeman popping hot guitar to the beat. By the time the Cobras moved to Soap Creek for the now-famous Tuesday night Cobra Club (with 50 cent tequila shots!), Stevie had joined the band.

And what a band! Rodney Craig slamming home “Sugaree,” Alex Napier bottoming on “36-22-36,” Joe Sublett blowing sweet sax on “Can I Change My Mind,” Denny Freeman firing up “Song for My Father,” Stevie Vaughan ripping up the guitar on “Lonely Lonely Nights,” and Paul Ray at the mike.

That’s the image I most love: Paul Ray, so tall and handsome and crooning big blues like a tenor dream. His knowledge of blues – especially Texas blues – well informed his repertoire, allowing him to draw on everything from Ray Sharpe & the Razorblades’ “Linda Lu” to Otis Rush’s “All the Love.” And it’s where I learned to love the slow dance. Being on that dancefloor, eyes closed, blood thinned by alcohol and a little what-have-you, and arms wrapped around a warm body swaying to the bluesy beat … it’s a beautiful time caught forever in my heart.

Make your own memories – the Skunks tonight at the Continental, Paul Ray & the Cobras tomorrow – at midnight both nights.

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The Skunks, Paul Ray & the Cobras

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