Live Shots

ADOLPH HOFNER
& THE PEARL WRANGLERS

Luckenbach, June 1

A lesson I've learned in recent years is that once a legendary performer gets up in years, you'd better not miss a chance to see them. This wisdom has come to me the hard way. I had tickets to Dizzy Gillespie's last appearance here, but sold them to study for an exam -- now he's gone; Canray Fontenot, the amazing Creole fiddler, made a trip to the Broken Spoke a few years back -- I didn't go, and he died last year. So when I heard that 80-year-old Western swing legend Adolph Hofner was coming to Luckenbach... well, forgive me for sounding morbid, but I wasn't about to let him get away. I was rewarded for this with an extremely pleasant day in the small town of great renown. We arrived in the late afternoon, and relaxed with opener Kent Finlay and the San Marcos songwriter's 17-year-old prodigy daughter Jenni on the fiddle (keep an eye on her in the near future). We kicked back around the general store/bar, sucking down a few cold Celis Bocks and watching people pitch washers. After a fun set with Oma & the Oompahs, one of the Hill Country's more enjoyable polka bands, we anxiously awaited the arrival of the main attraction. When a car finally pulled up and somebody unfolded a wheelchair, I felt a twinge of excitement that I rarely feel after nearly a decade of interviewing celebrities. Decked out in his Pearl Beer shirt (which he and his Pearl Wranglers wore through several years of sponsorship by that company), Hofner emerged, smiling and laughing and clearly ready to put on a show. Adolph has slowed a step -- well, several, really -- since his heyday in the Thirties, when he was a heartthrob crooner who drew comparisons to Bing Crosby and ruled the Western swing world in South Texas. I was disappointed that he only treated us to vocals on three songs, but when he did sing, his voice was still surprisingly robust; it was particularly a thrill to have him sing one in Czech, his first language. The spaces in between were still satisfying, however, as his daughter Darlene led his crack band (including musicians who had played with him for decades) through a solid set of great dancehall classics, while he emceed. As my girlfriend and I twirled around the dance floor, he shot me a grin -- I think he probably got a kick out of seeing a young, pony-tailed hippie shuffling to his music. I had to shake his hand after the show. I had to touch this living piece of Texas music history. A modest crowd of only 50 or so were there to recognize that there was more to Western swing than Bob Wills, and I wanted to make sure Hofner knew that a new generation of Texans still loved his work. I hope he'll stick around for several more such wonderful evenings.
-- Lee Nichols


RENE RUSSELL

Filling Station, June 4

It's Tuesday night. Do you know where your working Austin musicians are? One particularly promising one was at Filling Station playing for a crowd that ebbed and flowed between 10 and 20 people over a three-hour span. Russell had two obstacles to overcome aside from paltry attendance. Number one was lack of band. If you've heard her self-titled debut, you know that one of her strengths is instrumental arrangement. This night, her only backing was in the form of a drum machine. It was quite awkward at first, but ultimately, (and I'm being generous) tolerable. If you're going to play live, play live. Is it a money thing? Solo, sans machine, which she did on a few numbers, would work, too. Secondly, Russell needs to write more songs. It was indeed a long slot to fill, but covers, even in the ablest hands, can get tedious. Despite flawlessly performed, "true to the original" efforts on Fleetwood Mac and Joan Osborne material among others, her version of Sheryl Crow's "Leaving Las Vegas" rang hollow. The way to succeed with covers is to give them an original interpretation. Those two shortcomings aside, most of Russell's own songs did shine through with a driving acoustic, tough-woman verve that can keep pace with Indigo Girls and Catie Curtis any day. The most outstanding cut from her CD, "We Live and Breathe," imparted a hair-raising sense of urgency that no studio can capture. Russell has all the pieces in hand. She just needs to put them together and step up to the next level of play. -- Joe Mitchell


IAN MOORE BAND

Steamboat, June 4

Ian Moore's cool, practiced guitar virtuosity is about as far from Southern Culture on the Skids' jerky-necked hillbilly swing as a '64 Cadillac is from a doublewide, yet come prayin' time, both put their mats on the floor and genuflect to the same place -- the Delta. That, and the fact that these two acts were playing opposite each other, are where similarities begin, and end. Bathed in floodlights and billowing clouds of smoke, Moore is on a blues pilgrimage, laying down all in search of perfection; nirvana at Steamboat is the eternal groove, the divine jam, the solo that makes you see God. (And if the solos didn't, then Bukka Allen's Hammond B-3 work certainly would.) Moore is a perfect fit for the 'Boat, explaining why he sold it out five nights in a row: He's exactly the proper mix of blues reverence, Sixth Street funk, and Texan swagger. As the veins came popping out of his forehead, not only did they match his powder-blue ensemble, they gave off the impression that either he was headed for a total mind-blowing guitar experience or just an aneurysm. He was the Texan Rock God at his most Apollonian: beautiful to look at and a wonder to behold, but straining so hard to carry the sun across the sky he never looks down to enjoy the view. Maybe he's too busy to smile, or maybe he believes smiling is blasphemy to the gods in the Texas guitar pantheon. Or maybe a smile would have been an admission that, after practicing 'til your fingers bleed, the reason you put on the Band-Aids and pick the axe right back up is because music is fun, and there's nothing else like it. There's nothing wrong with `fessing up to this. In three songs, Southern Culture on the Skids let loose in such a way Moore never could: a sloppy, bare-assed kind of rock & roll that treats tomorrow as a nasty rumor instead of eight more hours in the practice room. No disrespect to Moore, but technique only goes so far. The rest isn't what you learn, but what you feel. -- Christopher Gray


BIGFOOT CHESTER, PHANTOM CREEPS

Hole in the Wall, June 7

It wasn't revolutionary. It wasn't even very radical -- nothing akin to indie starchild Jon Spencer's throwing out the bass and throwing in a theremin -- but Bigfoot Chester's show at the Hole in the Wall was evidence that there's a little life left to be pumped from a genre being marred by its own icons and ambassadors who are aging blandly. Fronted by singer and man o' harp Walter Daniels (erstwhile of Jack o' Fire), Bigfoot Chester is basically a blues band, though they play with a sound that's garage and a fury suggesting that garage is in flames. To wit: the band's cover of Howlin' Wolf's "I'm Leaving You (Commit A Crime)" was delivered with more reverence for chaotic abandon than prosaic formula. And much of the rest of the set proved that you can be bluesy without resorting to 12 bars, gratuitous guitar solos, and somebody-done-somebody-wrong lyrics -- and without being boring. Just do it? No, do it with a little more fervor than the next guy. Do it like you give a shit, then you're half way there. That way if you lack a cool gimmick, or even if you are having an off night, you're still pretty solid. As for openers the Phantom Creeps, either the close finish to Game 2 of the Bulls-Sonics series added extra kick to first part of the set or it was the PC's music that helped energize what was only a marginally exciting fourth quarter. Either way it was a nice combo of music and, uh, missed free throws. The Creep's instrumentals -- part surf, part punkabilly -- were far better than the vocal numbers, which were marred by too much screaming. Translation: less talk, more rock. -- Michael Bertin


ANI DIFRANCO

UT Union Ballroom, June 8

To whom does Ani DiFranco's music speak? By the looks of the crowd at the UT Union Ballroom on Saturday, it's doubtlessly 95 percent female by conservative estimate, with the better part of those lasses proudly displaying a penchant for lesbianism, or at least bisexuality. Girl-to-girl kiss fests popped-up like dandelions after a spring rain the second DiFranco hit the stage, easing into "Untouchable Face" along with drummer Andy Stochansky and Gang of Four bass goddess Sara Lee. The few men I did see kept a tight grip on a woman. Even the guy with sideburns in a long, flowing, hippy-girl skirt was with a woman -- or what looked like one. Sexual orientation aside, this crowd was unique for its boisterous dedication. It'll be a cold day in Villahermosa when Hootie and the Blowfish get an audience like this. These people had fervor. This was a meeting of the High Priestess of the Church of the Sexually Ambiguous, and DiFranco is looking more deliciously ambiguous than ever. She's softened the leather-dyke, cropped-hair look that always belied her gentle face, sweet voice, and nervously ebullient demeanor. Her appearance now portrays a kinder, gentler, truer Ani. She has hair now. It's long, flowing, and braided with lots of beads and other bright embellishments. The same can be said for the songs played from her new album, Dilate. They have subtlety, a far cry from the raging acoustic punk from a few years back. They're seductive with the little-lost-girl rage distilled into a nice sharp point. DiFranco no longer throws the pain at you, but swiftly sticks it right in your heart. It's what Alanis Morissette tries to do, but misses the mark. When she washes up on the shore, perhaps her crowd can join DiFranco's Righteous Babe congregation. The Priestess is ready. -- Joe Mitchell

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