The French Connection

Golden moments at Austin Week in Angers, France

Andy Bianculli and Jai Malano (Photo by Letitia Smith)

Paris sucks. It’s New York City tinted in red wine – très impersonal.

Angers, 200 miles southwest, is the laid-back French city you dream about, where you walk in the middle of the street on stones older than America, intoxicated by the inescapable aroma of fresh bread, then lounge endlessly on cafe patios imbibing on caffeine, alcohol, and the company of talkative strangers.

Replete with ancient castles and roaring hordes of college students, Angers casts a vibe as an old place with a young soul – not entirely unlike its sister city: Austin, Texas.

This week, dozens of Central Texans have crossed the Atlantic to crash at their sister’s place for Austin Week, a conference of Texas music, arts, film, food, and culture. The magnitude of the invasion? You can’t walk three blocks of the city center without running into someone you recognize from back home.

The disciplines intersect – sometimes individually. Ethan Azarian, songwriter and muralist (see the colorful cows and floating houses all over Austin), busked outside with saw-bowing sideman Jeff Johnston on Wednesday afternoon as Texas dance instructors two-stepped around. Hours later, I found Azarian leading a march of art students down the river to paint a mural on a concrete wall.

“No one knows what’s going on because I don’t speak French and they don’t speak English,” smiled the Hole in the Wall staple. “But that’s how great shit happens – or at least it has a chance to.”

The painting, to be completed over the next week, will depict a bridge over a river and planets above extending from Angers’ St. Maurice Cathedral to Austin’s Frost Bank Tower. Old Angers meets new Austin.

The night before, Austin Week launched with a club showcase for the ATX6, the group of Austin songwriters, assembled by Chris Brecht, that travels to various international music festivals throughout the fall. On this, their first adventure, they counted more accurately as the ATX5. Charismatic swampy-tonk hellraiser Tate Mayeux was hospitalized in Austin last week with pneumonia and missed the trip.

C’est la vie.

The remainder, plus Brecht filling in as a formidable sixth man, played to a packed room at Joker’s Pub and experienced a phenomenon rarely seen in Austin: The audience stayed quiet and engaged throughout the entire show. This wasn’t a cultural custom, we’d later learn.

Instead, it was a genuine reaction to banjo-pickin’ fiddler Beth Chrisman’s murder ballads and hard-edged love songs; the heartfelt rock magnetism of onetime Ryan Bingham bandmate Elijah Ford; Deer frontwoman Grace Park’s folk enchantments; the sad-sack serenade of sweet-voiced pop songsmith Andy Bianculli; and blues/soul powerhouse Jai Malano. who dropped jaws with her powerful pipes and swaggering feminism that came to life with potent lyrics like, “Don’t you smell my rose, thinking it won’t be funky!”

Some audience members mistook the individual musicians for a band because they provide accompaniment for each other. That’s a tenet – and a challenge – of the ATX6: forced collaboration.

“I wouldn’t called it forced,” Park contended after the show. “I can’t force Jai to collaborate with me. I can’t force any of these people to collaborate with me. You can plant the seed as many times as you want to, but the best music happens naturally and that’s because people want to do it.

“Good music doesn’t happen when you force people to do it. I think it happens when you get the right elements together and I don’t feel forced in this regard. I feel like it’s curated.”

On Wednesday night, Austin’s least conspicuous act, Golden Dawn Arkestra, made themselves known, marching down Rue Saint-Laud in their astral dashikis and masks, puffing sage smoke, and chanting “The Golden Dawn is coming!”Kalu James and his fourpiece band had just spent an hour softening hearts at the venue du jour, the Bolero, with an electric mix of rock, reggae, and soul hallmarked by the Austin songwriter’s big, warm vocals. Next, Golden Dawn would dilate audience member’s eyes with hallucinogenic Afrobeat disco.

In making their mark – and leaving glitter stuck in the hair of many – the ninepiece Arkestra wasn’t so much representing Austin as they were the planet Cignus. It didn’t matter. They proved themselves universal.

The festival’s third night, in which club shows commandeered a half-dozen venues, reunited the ATX6 for an evening engagement at a combination record store/coffee house called Exit Music For a Drink. Even in what sounds like it could be a dud of a show, the revue of Austin songwriters again found themselves in a small space packed with attentive spectators. The French faces lit up when Chrisman drew her bow and fiddled fire on a Cajun bluegrass concoction and grinned widely when de facto headliner Malano commanded the room sans microphone.

Even so, Thursday’s highlights belonged to the men. Bianculli reinvented Randy Newman and Ford owned the evening’s finest moment when he collaborated with Park and Bianculli on holier-than-thou commentary “Blessed,” off his new album As You Were, which arrives today on Austin’s Nine Mile label.

Andy and Elijah, both owning a knack for lofty vocals, nimble guitar work, and zipper-tight song composition are a match made in Angers. Actually, the trip’s greatest musical bromance was born this summer, when they met at the initial ATX6 photo shoot. Since then, they’ve booked a British tour as a duo for next month, separate from the ATX6, and have conceived a faux project that will, in all likelihood, become real one day.

Their planned album title: The Kids Are Wrong.

“We get along and we like each other’s stuff so it’s pretty effortless,” Bianculli assesses of playing with Ford. “Sometimes it’s a chore to learn other people’s stuff, but it’s been very natural. It’s nice to be around someone who’s got it together more than me.”

Previously, Ford had heard his friends/collaborators Jonas Wilson and Ricky Ray Jackson say good things about Bianculli – which piqued his interest.

“I looked up his [Star Parks] record, and I just fuckin’ loved it. I felt like we had the same touchstones, just different approaches” says Ford. “I was excited to learn those songs. Then when we got together, three of the first four songs he showed me weren’t even on his album. I appreciate the balls of that.

“We’re here to show what we’ve been working on.”

Speaking of balls, gigging in foreign lands means the possibility of taking the stage in hostile territory. That proved the scenario on Thursday night when the Mood Illusion played the James Joyce Pub, the French equivalent of a crowded Sixth Street frat bar. The experimental lounge act, consisting of pedal-steel tactician Bob Hoffnar, vicious upright bassist Janie Cowan, and Hard Proof beatsman Stephen Bidwell, endured obnoxiously wasted Euro-bros bullishly walking on their stage and still managed to maintain their mind-blowing musical probing.

Forty-five minutes into their dizzyingly melodic, jazzed-out vintage pop – including a stellar version of Dirty Dancing cut “(I've Had) The Time of My Life” (which they call “Swayze Train” on the Mood Illusion’s excellent new disc Strangers in the Night and Other Favorites) – the manager of the bar came outside raving.

“It is too late for this JAZZ! The people will leave! They need to play something that rocks!”

After getting an earful from the barman with no appreciation for Burt Bacharach, the Mood Illusion waged one last act of avant-pop defiance, then cut it short. They can’t all be easy shows – no matter where you are.

That travesty notwithstanding, golden moments – those magical flashes of inspiration and joy that we worship – occurred aplenty in Angers, sometimes in the strangest of places and usually after midnight. On Wednesday, the best show wasn’t in a bar or venue. It was in the kitchen of the urban castle that the ATX6 call home while in Angers.

At 2am, with hash in the air and wine on the table, Austin musicians – bonded from being strangers in a strange land – picked guitars and sang. Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie,” sung by Jai Malano and Kalu James with Beth Chrisman on banjo and JT Holt on guitar, took my breath away. Same for the Chrisman-led rendition of Ola Belle Reed’s “High on a Mountain” – gorgeous – and a 12-piece version of “The Weight,” on which even the French girls sang, “Take a load off, Fanny.”

Incredible times hopefully remembered and never to be re-created. Voilà.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Austin Week, Angers, ATX6, Elijah Ford, Kalu James, Stephen Bidwell, Bob Hoffnar, Mood Illusion, Chris Brecht, Beth Chrisman, Jai Malano, JT Holt, Golden Dawn Arkestra, Star Parks, The Deer, Grace Park

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