Live Shots


Quiet Valley Ranch, Kerrville, May 23 -- June 16

I'll admit it. When Rod Kennedy announced that this year's 25th Kerrville Folk Festival was going to run 25 days, I was one who predicted disaster. The normal 18 days of blistering heat and choking caliche dust are hard enough. What masochists would possibly stick it out from new moon to new moon? Get a life. I was wrong. Attendance was light the last three weekends, but the festival actually ran more smoothly than last year, when the Kerr County sheriff was busting everything that moved. With all that extra time to fill, especially during weeknights, the musical lineup turned out to be the most adventurous in years. But to hell with the formal lineup. I'm here, as always, to tell you about the campfires, and about some folk stars of tomorrow whose names you'll read for the first time today.
The big discovery was Kevin So of Boston, who could well become the first Asian-American blues hero; and much more than blues, though he does have those Robert Johnson licks down. The range and good-humored quality of his balladry reminds me of the first couple of Dylan albums, though his silky tenor is more like Stevie Wonder. Another striking tenor was Lowry Olafson of Vancouver, one of the rare songwriters who actually writes memorable melodies in open tunings. Call him a thinking man's David Wilcox. A highway song like "I Wish You Were Here," walks a fine line of sweetness without tumbling into the abyss of sappiness. On the Erisian end of the musical spectrum were The Dysfunctionelles, a trio from Chicago that prowls the territory between Zappa and Weird Al Yankovic. Start with accordion god Oliver Steck, who seems to know every disco song and beer commercial ever recorded. Add Rich Krueger's finely-detailed slabs of cynical streetlife. Finally, mix in guitarist Vernon Tonges, who seems to have stepped straight out of an Edward Gorey gothic cartoon. Emily Kaitz sometimes opens for them. Need I say more?
A couple more campfire discoveries before I close: Michael Samuels, recently transplanted from Nashville to Austin, stepped into Camp Cuisine on the 25th night to do things with a harmonica that probably aren't legal, at least in Texas. Lastly, add in Darlene and Cleona, a world-beat duo who've been through before, but hit their stride this year. Between Darlene's didjeridoo and Cleona's Irish-Gipsy fiddling, they took me time after time to a mystical place I hated to leave. But then, the same could be said for the whole damned festival. Frank Hill and I agreed: bring on the 50-week edition. Two weeks off to steam-clean the ranch and then reopen the floodgates.
-- Steve Brooks


Travis County Exposition Center, June 15

No telling what was gripping Willie Nelson's mind. Already, it had been a bizarre event: a private show for a convention of Harley riders with co-headliner Waylon Jennings spending his 59th birthday dangling a bigger pair of balls than a champion bull -- can you imagine, singing "MacArthur Park" to an arena full of bikers? Even weirder: a biker ecstatically waving his bandana in an arc above his head as Jennings warbled about sweet green icing and rain-soaked cakes. Then, Nelson gets up and acts like he's gotten a snootful of crushed MC5 records. The man (ahem!) rocked. He didn't play any different of a set than he always does -- "Whiskey River," "Stay All night," etc., etc. -- but his guitar work was spiked with an uncommon aggression. "Bloody Mary Morning" even got extended into a full-on Yardbirds rave-up straight out of "I'm A Man"! Then, to top the weirdness factor of the bandana-waving, Jimmy Webb-loving Harley hound, Nelson decided to start kicking the microphone. He'd get this evil grin washing across his face, his eyes would get to twinkling, and he'd high-kick the mike-stand like some degenerate offspring of Bruce Lee and Iggy Pop. A poor, hapless roadie would come up, begin straightening out the boss' mess, and Nelson would do it again! Friendship with the Supersuckers must really be warping him. Of course, when you play the three-hour marathons that are a Nelson trademark ("He plays `Whiskey River' four times!" Jennings recently exclaimed), it's hard to sustain such mania -- especially in a rodeo rink that feels like a convection oven. He didn't. The rest of the show was good, but more subdued than the kick-out-the-jams opening. It got even better once Kimmie Rhodes stepped up for a gospel jam, something the duo need to consider for a future record. I'd love to say Nelson smashed his guitar and took a dive into the third row, frothing at the mouth and ripping the clothes off a 13-year-old Anna Nicole Smith look-alike, but he didn't. We did see a sign reading "Eat a Hog" on the way back to town, however. Next week: Johnny Cash duets with Lemmy on "The Old Oaken Bucket." -- Tim Stegall


Pease Park, June 15 & 16

It was a sad affair; from the announcement that Ella Fitzgerald had died just before Jimmy Smith's mid-afternoon set on Saturday right down to festival organizer Harold McMillan's acknowledgment that "ain't nobody made any money yet" towards the end of the day Sunday. Every time someone clapped it was sadder still, mainly because there were hardly any souls there to clap. At the high point of the two-day festival -- during headliner Smith's 45-minute set -- there were perhaps 300 Austinites spread out under the trees where the small stage and a few scattered chairs sought shade. Most of the time though, the crowd numbered in the 100-200 range. If Eeyore's birthday is the only time you've ever been to Pease Park, then my guess is anyone driving by on Lamar wouldn't have known there was an outdoor festival in the park. It looked that deserted. There was a drum circle, yes, but only the musicians playing in it defined it as such. Few enjoyed the tasty alligator, crawfish or frog legs at the Cajun food tent, and fewer still patronized the artisans' tents set up in front of the stage. Someone threw a party and nobody came. Maybe it was for the same reason the P.A. was playing Stevie Ray Vaughan and bad reggae on Saturday; no one was thinking. Festival organizers blamed the press -- or lack thereof -- but that was probably just because French Smith wasn't available as scapegoat this year. Pity. Pity because there's no simple explanation why folks didn't show. Don't they know jazz is perfect festival music? That it wafts out over green grass beckoning you with sultry grooves rather than blugeoning you with metallic clang? It engages children, but doesn't alienate the elderly. You can read, talk or drink to it, but best of all it says something when you listen. And Austin was talking: Hope Morgan, the "Satin Doll" Jimmy Smith had talked about with his organ the set before, winding her stories in and around James Polk's piano and visiting, one-time local, James Lakey's trombone; pianist Frederic Saunders backing wife Sheila and Melanie Wilkerson trading verses on a spiritual number; Pam Hart doing some Ella tunes, and Beth Ullman and husband Rich Harney turning their time onstage into a intimate bedroom conversation in back-to-back sets on Sunday. Loudest of all was Jon Blondell's Big Band, who rock & rolled some Basie tunes -- including "Take the A Train," which is decidedly not a Basie tune, but which the band launched into anyway after Blondell announced "another selection from the Basie book." Boy, was he surprised. "Thanks to Harold for having this," he said between songs. "Unlike South by Southwest, he isn't making a million dollars doing this (`I'll be hearing about that,' he laughed'). Don't give up Harold." Yes, Harold. Don't give up.
-- Raoul Hernandez


Doris Miller Auditorium, June 16

Each year at this time, the Austin Chapter of the Huston-Tillotson College Alumni Association presents its annual Blues and Jazz Concert. Since the event is an alumni-sponsored one, it's not surprising that many in the audience and a considerable number of those on stage are graduates and ex-students of the college. That graduates and "exes" are prominent both on stage and off is not of itself a bad thing. In fact, in the case of James Polk, a woefully underrated and underappreciated Austin pianist, arranger and composer, it makes for one of the highlights of the afternoon. On the other hand, when listening to the well-intentioned noodlings of alumni whose enthusiasm has perhaps slightly outpaced their talent, it's comforting to know that the indulgence of school chums, family and friends is present in abundance.
In the days before integration, Huston-Tillotson College was one of the few places in Texas where ambitious young African-Americans could avail themselves of a college education. It is perhaps for this reason that even the most cursory examination of the guest list reads like a Who's Who of Black Austin. Furthermore, the audience is a mature one, with the median age squarely on the half-century mark. These are people who experienced Duke Ellington and Count Basie live in their heyday, long before the bowdlerizing cultural populism of the Seventies rendered their classics so much elevator music.
Still, my criticisms have more to do with the venue itself than with the musicians. Doris Miller Auditorium is a cavernous structure with the acoustic attributes of a high school gymnasium. The subtlety and nuance that are the life blood of jazz are consequently drowned in a sea of reverb. James Polk's sophisticated keyboard stylings were barely audible from where I sat, and I couldn't hear the ACC Ensemble's acoustic pianist at all. These problems might have been solved with some intelligent microphoning and sound mixing, yet I saw no sound-techs and microphones were in short supply.
In any event, memorable performances included James Polk, a cameo from local jazz diva Connie Kirk, the ACC Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Tom Huzak, and an African-American vocalist named Tim Curry. Curry's heartfelt renditions of several jazz standards were somewhat more in the tradition of African-American gospel and soul than they were of the jazz ilk. Nevertheless, his powerful voice forged an equal partnership with the ACC group, cutting like a laser through the echoing haze. Hats off to the members of the ACC Jazz Ensemble. These talented young people have been practicing their scales and polishing their riffs. Huzak has chosen solid arrangements and recruited a fine team of musicians. Some audience members might have experienced twinges of irony, wistfulness, or even envy when it became clear that this largely European-American (white) ensemble stole the show and was the first act of the evening to bring significant numbers of patrons to the dance floor.
Oh well. As I've often said, it's always been more about hard work towards the mastery of the styles and techniques inherent in a particular musical genre than about race and especially attitude. Put this one on your calendar for next year. -- Don Palmer


Stubb's, June 17

Willy Porter can really play guitar. That's heavy praise in a city with wannabes who would be kings in lesser towns. Despite being all by his lonesome on stage, Porter created a huge sound. He would take his acoustic and slap the low strings, almost like a funk bassist, while playing chord voicings with plenty of open strings on the high end. Initially, it was an outlandish amalgam of Windham Hill, blues, and folk; but given his affinity for suspended chords and harmonics, as the set progressed, Porter's playing began to sound more and more like Michael Hedges'. From a musicianship standpoint, the highlight of the show was an instrumental nod to Leo Kottke, mixing slide guitar with two-handed fretting and frenetic finger-picking. Porter could've fooled a blind man into thinking he was actually Kottke; almost fooled me. But Porter generally writes regular songs -- you know, verse-chorus-verse -- which is not something people around here consider frivolous. Porter should know better than to walk into a town that nurtures Guy Clarks, Jimmie Dale Gilmores, and Robert Earl Keens and play predominantly sub-par material as he did. From the uninspiring I'll-be-alright self-discovery of "Angry Words" to the kitschy blues of "Jesus on the Grille" (somebody please enact a ban on theological pop songs), Porter's songs were barely average. Despite a likable, regular-guy demeanor, and impressive command of his instrument, Willy Porter isn't quite a complete package. If his songwriting skills ever match his chops... wow. Until then... ehh.
-- Michael Bertin


Paramount Theatre, June 18

Take this with a grain of salt: When the Cowboy Junkies opened their Paramount show last week with a ballad called "Driving Wheel" by old folkie Tom Rush, it reduced a jaded music writer to tears. I never was much of a fan of the Cowboy Junkies, really; I suppose I always found their brand of lyrical introspection on albums like Pale Sun, Crescent Moon and The Trinity Sessions a bit heavy-handed. But one night a couple of months back, I heard "Common Disaster," a song from their new album, Lay It Down, on KUT and tumbled headlong into Cowboy Junkiedom -- addicted, hooked, obsessed. Was it Margo Timmins' smoky, soothing voice or Michael Timmins' precise, elegant compositions that drew me into their spell? I couldn't tell. And the answers didn't come easily with their performance here last week. Under the proscenium of the Paramount, a piece of white material was draped behind the band, gathered high at the top and curving gently to the side as it flowed downward. Against that blank canvas stood the Cowboy Junkies, painting their original compositions with exquisite delicacy and jewel-toned lights. As Margo Timmins' voice brushed across the rich, moody textures of "Lonely Sinking Feeling," "Anniversary Song," and "Hold on to Me," the show began to take on the feel of a classical ensemble, suggested particularly by the presence of cellist David Henry (whose brother Ned opened the show). And for a band who could easily perform nothing but their own material, the presence of Neil Young's "Powderfinger," Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" was as compelling and memorable as their originals. Between songs Timmins' Canadian twang and patter was utterly charming -- slightly self-deprecating but full of warm, good humor. Her delivery was not unlike raconteur Garrison Keillor, who gets his laughs not with roll-on-the-floor lines but with quiet humor carefully layered until laughter spills forth. That dynamic was also at work with their music, one song layered upon another until the sum began to overshadow its parts. Finally, as the band wrapped their show with a ballad-like gospel song, the elements merged, like aspects in the moon, into one, perfect vision, eclipsing the audience but shining into a more beautiful, wild night. -- Margaret Moser


Emo's, June 20

Contrary to what your friends in bands say, you're not necessarily too old if it's too loud. Scientific studies show most loud bands only play that way to drown out the "you-suck" screams from the bar. The For Carnation dishes out a steadfast defiance to this mentality, and it was quite the social experiment to see them attempt to ply their slow, steady groan at a place like Emo's. Their new Matador EP, Marshmallows, is no groundbreaker, but the band's affinity for foreboding restraint is undeniably distinguished. They emerge from the same contemporary snooze-rock phylum as Bedhead, but take a turn toward the horrific by slowly pounding deep, dark melodies into your dreamscape. Live, they look much like they sound: heads hunched over, backs to the crowd. Their quest for subtlety was admirable, but recreating the intimacy of Marshmallows was a tall order indeed. It was tough to lose yourself in the soft repetition amid the sound of longnecks hitting concrete, pinball flippers, and some wiseacre yelling "Woo-hoo!" with all the decorum of a fart in the Vatican. In spite of such an uneven response, the Carnation's perseverance managed to captivate a portion of the audience beyond precursory interest in their Matador pedigree. Some were even charmed enough to sit Indian-style at the foot of the stage. Concurrently, the Softs displayed an uncommon grasp of aural nuance, but they aimed it toward a charming hybrid of English pop-punk and Spaghetti Western soundtracks. Their combination of dour-but-innocent whines, energetic bursts of guitar, and car-radio harmonies was in fine form, and all heads were a-bobbin'. Even in the absence of jet screaming decibels, The Softs proved to be a sure bet for the first night of summer.
-- Greg Beets

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