Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season

Two cults beat as one: Jimmy Buffett & Sixto Rodriguez

Rodriguez cracks up the Erwin Center, 5.4.13: “Don’t distract me, youngblood.”
Rodriguez cracks up the Erwin Center, 5.4.13: “Don’t distract me, youngblood.” (by Gary Miller)

Jimmy Buffet and Rodriguez share a cult. Not the same one, obviously, but rather their fans’ “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book).” Amend Merriam-Webster to “film, book, or music.” The former liquored up the Austin 360 Amphitheater Friday and the latter brought the Erwin Center to its feet on Saturday.

Raped $20 for parking, I wasn’t feeling entirely welcome at the Circuit of the Americas’ sparkling new outdoor venue for tailgate Parrot Head watching. Thin strips of grass and seedlings in the medians proved better than none at all, but having been to the top of the towering red beacon that rises up behind the stage and surveying the surrounding farmland, I couldn’t help recalling Joni Mitchell’s concerns about paradise and parking lots.

Originally announced as a 20,000-seater, A360A would have become the largest local venue outside of Texas Memorial Stadium, notoriously anti-concert following a 1974 Labor Day tear-all by ZZ Top. Today, in fact – May 7 – marks the anniversary of the only show there since then, the Eagles’ aptly-named Hell Freezes Over tour in 1995. Moreover, at a 20,000 capacity, A360A would have made the perfect swap-out for the undersung Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, closed in 2011 and now a church.

A modern Texas “shed” – a roof but no walls – the Verizon filled a decade-long CenTex gap just outside of San Antonio in Selma, next door neighbor to the childhood ‘hood of Steve Earle, who grew up in Schertz. Host to everyone from Bauhaus to Sade, not to mention Alamo City metal gatherings such as Ozzfest and the Mayhem Festival, its sometimes balmy, often humid, occasionally thunderstruck hillside headquarters ruled our I-35 corridor until San Antonio’s AT&T Center took over all the AC/DC, Iron Maiden, and Rush spectacles. Prince’s guitar fest at the AT&T Center in the early Aughts rivaled his pre-millennial Erwin Center danceathon on a grand piano.

Larger than the Cedar Park Center’s 8,000-plus cap, yet smaller than the Erwin Center’s 17,000-strong ceiling – and ultimately comparable to the UT drum, which normally configures between 12,000 and 14,000 – the A360A’s compact, 13,000-person footprint had a least one intoxicant going for it on a breathtaking spring TGIF: a Hollywood Bowl vibe.

Forgetting for a moment $5 waters, overflowing Porta potties, and the fact that black t-shirt month begins there under a non-sheltering sky on August 2 for Mayhem Fest – and continues through September 10 for Maiden’s first show here in 25 years – the crossroads of a brimming, open-air amphitheater and Buffett’s Caribbean folk-pop couldn’t have found a better Austin locale. Where the heavy mental parking lot felt light on revelers in terms of sheer numbers, an ocean of alt-Deadhead baby boomers in cheeseburger and parrot headgear, with their portable bars, Improvised Flying Devices, and remote controlled land sharks, came on like the Fiesta Bowl at the A360A.

Despite acknowledging one of his patented “Margaritaville” tonsil washes at the Moody Theater last May, Buffett repeatedly called his weekend performance here – postponed 24 hours due to inclement “freezeburger” weather – the first tour stopover to his old haunt since 1996. Both a fan’s Banana Wind tour tee from that year with its ATX date, and the singer’s announcement that his mentor in Key West songcraft, former Austinite/current Belize dweller Jerry Jeff Walker, was backstage spoke to the relative rarity of the event. Buffett owning Jerry Jeff scion Django Walker’s “Something About a Boat” on an upcoming LP completed the circle in a decidedly second generation Parrot Head/Lyle Lovett-leaning manner.

Another new tune, “Too Drunk to Karaoke,” sank unceremoniously. Uproarious update to a Seventies cruise ship cautionary tale, “Morris’ Nightmare 2013” relived Texas’ recent Gulf Coast tourist debacle with a refrain including the phrase “shit ship.” A heartfelt George Jones tribute in “Bartender’s Blues” hit the spot.

From there, Buffett let his treasure chest of campfire standards do the heavy gifting, from frequent opener “Landfall” through “Boat Drinks,” “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” ancient Austin venue come Castle Creek shout-out “Pencil Thin Mustache,” “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” “A Pirate Looks at 40,” and “One Particular Harbor,” down to a closing duet on “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season.” When the 66-year-old nautical sprite got cozy with an acoustic guitar on “Come Monday” and then a ukulele for “Volcano,” his pied piper essence lay bare, the Christmas Day kid’s bonhomie and musical facility obvious – infectious. Two hours evaporated like a cloud.

Detroit folk hero Sixto Rodriguez, “a solid 70” by his own account (twice), came off no less riotous for the same time span the next night. Drawn up to half-size, the Erwin Center gave a standing ovation to the documentary film subject, who followed an improvised set-list mapped out by recent Oscar-winner Searching for Sugar Man. Slick visuals recount the unknown Sixties song activist’s descent into obscurity in the U.S. even as – unbeknownst to him – his bluesy laments became anti-apartheid wedges in South Africa. Sugar Man’s deliberate pacing and framing of Rodriguez’s music remains the movie’s overarching achievement.

“Sugar Man,” “Cause,” “Cold Fact,” “Street Boy,” “I Think of You,” “The Establishment Blues,” and more all marched stoically, radically, romantically, like campus demonstrations. Rodriguez, clad in black – leather pants to floppy hat – tuned after each song, at which point his backing trio’s guitarist would lean in to ask him what it was, then relay that back to the drummer, who would then inform the bassist to his right.” As awkward as that sounds, Rodriguez’s stark Dylanesque suffered very little from it, his folk plod offset by soul-torn lyrics. Both a packed Waterloo in-store and sold-out Antone’s experienced it late last year. In all venues, cat calls of adoration ensued.

“I know it’s the drinks,” he opened, “but I love you back. I know my audiences.”

Rodriguez had a million of them. Particularly piquant was the one about Mickey Mouse not having told his shrink that Minnie was silly.

“I said she was fucking Goofy.”

So was Rodriguez – giddy – but when he sang “I Wonder,” it sounded like Roky Erickson’s “I Walked with a Zombie,” a true psychedelic find. “I used to wonder,” cracked the singer afterward. “But I don't really want to know.” As with Buffett, three-minute jukebox wonders teamed up with covers that filled in the backend, “Lucille,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and a hypnotic pleaser in fellow Detroiter Little Willie John’s “Fever.”

“Austin, it’s been a privilege and a pleasure,” he bowed before another standing ovation and a two-song encore powered by Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” “I just want everyone to know that I want to be treated like an ordinary legend,” he giggled.

That got Rodriguez another laugh, but “Austin, I miss you already” as a final goodbye brought him a collective sigh of genuine affection and great devotion.

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Jimmy Buffett, Sixto Rodriguez, ZZ Top, Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Steve Earle, Bauhaus, Sade, Prince, Ozzfest, Mayhem Festival, Iron Maiden, Jerry Jeff Walker, Django Walker, Lyle Lovett, George Jones, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Bob Dylan

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