Live Shots

Iris Dement at the Texas Union Ballroom February 25
photograph by John Carrico


La Zona Rosa, February 13

Max's Nofziger's "Flower Power Hour" -- a Maxstravganza if you will. Three hours of nothing but Max. Or so you might think. Actually the "Flower Power Hour," the half of it that I saw anyway, was severely lacking in the mayoral candidate. So what goes down at this weekly shindig? Well, it was a handful of Nofziger's friends taking turns on the stage to play some covers (Kate Wolf, Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard, Nanci Griffith, Gillian Welch) and some originals. In a 90-minute slice of his own soirée, Nofziger himself sang back-up on exactly three songs and stood on stage during a fourth. Even so, he was a reluctant and less than comfortable back-up singer -- more like a mobile stage decoration in a green plaid shirt with a "Max for Mayor" button on. No complaints, though, because as a singer, Jose Carreras he ain't. You see, politics may make strange bedfellows, but it doesn't make musicians. Nobody can do both successfully in the same lifetime. Check out Capitol Hill. Congress has, or had anyway, a handful of ex-athletes (Bill Bradley, Jack Kemp, J.C. Watts, Steve Largent), a couple of former actors (Fred Grandy, Joe Don Baker, and, although not a congressman, Ron Reagan himself), but no erstwhile rock stars (ok, maybe, Lee Atwater). But don't even try to defend the proposition that Sonny Bono qualifies as a musician under any criteria. And the President? He can't sax above an eighth-grade level. It all sort of makes Nofziger's return to the political arena look like an inevitability, don't it? -- Michael Bertin


Liberty Lunch, February 15

Not since Abba has a Swedish pop group scored such an unlikely success as the Cardigans, riding the crest of the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack with their jauntily self-depreciating single, "Lovefool." It's fitting, then, that their capacity crowd at the Lunch was a writhing mass of lovestruck joy and flibber tigibbet coupling. After a thankfully short set by lo-fi Beantown chordwasters Papas Fritas, the Cards opened with -- stay with me on this -- Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." Not what you'd expect from leggy frontswoman Nina Persson, but then nobody thought croonboy Pat Boone would be covering the Ozz and dressing like a longtime Chaindriver either, so there you go. Much has been made of the Cardigans' sound; not quite retro, not quite rock, it falls, tumbles, and occasionally oozes into the realm of neo-pop, upbeat bubblegum lovesongs. Their Liberty Lunch show favored the more danceable tracks from the band's CDs Life and First Band on the Moon, much to the joy of the crowd -- there was even a tiny gaggle of post-pubescent moshers briefly stirring it up during the pre-encore version of "Lovefool." Shiny, happy popfools crowdsurfing to Sweden's smoothest import since Absolut? Frida Lyngstad and company should be receiving some royalties soon, I think. -- Marc Savlov


Stubb's, February 18

Whether they're called categories, types or in the case of music -- styles -- using genres as a cognitive device for understanding reality has both its good and bad by-products. On the one hand, it helps us understand something new or difficult to describe by comparing it to something we already know. On the other hand, using genres as a tool for understanding can prevent us from judging a novel event on its own merits. Thankfully, once in a while something comes along that challenges our use of established categories. One good example is the platypus. Another one is Drums & Tuba. This local group doesn't fit neatly into any established format, and that's precisely one of the reasons I liked them so much. They possess many of the elements I look for in a band: sharp playing, willingness to take chances, and unique group interaction. The characters in this experimentalesque trio are: person one, tuba and simultaneous trumpet and pocket trumpet; person two, drums, cymbals, sticks, drum shells, and (for lack of a better term) nerf sausages; and person three, guitar voices and guitar sounds, occasionally through two guitars at once. Adeptly demonstrating the flexibility and uniqueness of the instrument, the guitarist provided the main rhythm movement on some tunes, while the tubas/horns moved on the melody line(s), and the drums added accented embellishments. Part blitzkrieg bop, Les Claypool, Bad Livers minus vocals, and Medeski Martin & Wood, Drums & Tuba rocked and bopped -- hard. My only regret was that as an opening band they didn't play longer. This doesn't mean that the Tuesday night crowd at Stubb's wasn't into their rare stylings; in fact, I was rather surprised by the receptiveness of the crowd. But I look forward to hearing them in a future headlining spot where they can really open things up. Drums & Tuba's music demands that you let yourself go, that you get inside of what they're playing, not listen passively. This band is too good to reduce to an established format, style marker or genre. Do yourself a favor and check out the D & T gestalt for yourself. -- David Lynch


Bass Concert Hall, February 19

Those shying away from last Wednesday's production of Blood on the Fields, Wynton Marsalis' epic work on American slavery, might be surprised to know what they missed. Marsalis, who has time and again come off a solemn and sanctimonious prat, joked a bit with the audience, announcing "Tonight, you are going to hear a piece entitled `Blood on the Fields,'" followed shortly thereafter by, remarkably, "I've talked enough." More remarkable still was the nearly three hours of music that followed. No period of American history brought more misery, polarization, and shame to this country than the enslavement of African Americans, a practice that ended only slightly more than a hundred years ago. This is rarely the stuff of an evening's entertainment, especially in the hands of a man whose precedent for Stanley Crouch-ian analyzing has wrung the life out of many an effort. But Marsalis has figured out a few things, among them how to tell a story. There are no saints among Blood's captives; one is an African prince, Jesse, who once owned his own slaves, while another, Leona, Jesse's lover, is a commoner, and their lives would have never intersected were it not for their captivity. When Jesse escapes, Leona prays for his return. Only through the realization that their struggle is everyone's struggle, do they eventually find the freedom they crave. Race is never once mentioned. The narrative, propelled by three singers and the 14-piece Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, made Blood on the Fields unforgettable. The musicians deftly maneuvered through rhythmic dances, fiery brass counterpoint, and quiet gospel-tinged interludes. Marsalis' truncated vision of jazz beginning with Louis Armstrong and ending with Duke Ellington is still intact. The fervor of Armstrong's music and shared hometown sensibility shone through the evening's performance. Blood's bluesy, stylistic jumble was much in the tradition of Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige or Sacred Concerts, and indeed, the spirits of Williams/Nanton/Webster/Hodges and the rest of jazz's greatest orchestra soared through the proceedings. But there was more than just mimicry at work. The LCJO's droll, seen-it-all, spoken narration gave the work an unexpected humor and warmth. The band had so many bright spots (drummer Herlin Riley, trombonist/vocalist Wycliffe Gordon, saxes Victor Goines and Wess Anderson, trumpeter Marcus Printup) that it was frustrating when they didn't stretch out more often. As for the vocalists, Jon Hendricks' appearances were high camp and seemed out of place. Miles Griffith did a fine job that still went all but unnoticed due to the riveting performance of Cassandra Wilson. Her prodigious talent and grace almost shook the thunder out from under this amazing assemblage of musicians. Still, the night belonged to Marsalis, who conducted, stomped his feet, sang, played, danced, and led a crack ensemble through a masterful performance. In the end, Blood on the Fields was not a story of slavery and oppression, but of dignity and freedom, finishing in a celebratory New Orleans parade march. It's unlikely Austin audiences will be treated again to a show of this caliber anytime soon, but at age 35, it's also unlikely that this work will prove to be Marsalis' life's work. And judging by the smile on his face, the newly at-ease Marsalis has finally figured that one out, too. -- Jeff McCord


Victory Grill, February 19-22

Culminating with a weekend of fireworks, the Blues Family Tree Project week-long celebration was mainly about one thing, the blues. Friday's show started out with the young and talented guitar prodigy Jake Andrews playing out in front of the Blues Specialists. Andrews had some good leads and displayed a surprisingly solid vocal style, but he seemed somewhat humbled by his surroundings. Understandably so, as T.D. Bell took the stage, and with riffs so fast and smooth you could hardly see his hands move, showed why he and the Blues Specialists are one of the most consistent blues acts in town. As if that wasn't enough, Blues Boy Hubbard appeared and stepped unceremoniously into a guitar rhythm, signaling the horns for the melody that made "Cantaloop" a show stopper, filling in the solo spaces with sharp jabs from his big fat Gibson. Hubbard brought on the more showy R&B side of the evening's installation by doing a slew of standards including "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Soul Man" and even ending with a James Brown tune. It takes a great blues man to make those songs still compelling live, and with the exception of the overdone ending of "Brand New Bag," Hubbard pulled it off. And while the near-capacity crowd on Friday would indicate otherwise, the highlight of the Blues Family Tree series came Saturday night with a two-hour set by Long John Hunter. Most space was filled at the Victory Grill for this show as well, but the audience was decidedly more subdued. Long John did not disappoint, though, and he showed why the guitar is the dominant voice of the blues. Fronting a five-piece band, Hunter pulled together the differing styles of his keyboardist, drummer, and sax player to full effect. The drummer banged out one of the most unique and inspired solos I've seen, showing rapid-fire technical skill on the cymbals and snare without losing the thread of the song he broke. But it was Hunter who made it live, walking the room with antenna hook-up, shaking hands, making jokes and fans for life. When a concert series like this one goes beyond the lineup and turns into a true celebration of the blues, it makes you wonder whether all this talk of the genre's demise has been greatly exaggerated. -- Christopher Hess

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