Live Shots


OLD SETTLERS BLUEGRASS & ACOUSTIC MUSIC FESTIVAL

Old Settlers Park, Round Rock, April 5



Danny Barnes conducts the banjo workshop.

photograph by John Carrico

Nary a cumulo nor nimbus spotted this bright blue morning. I know because I kept looking up in total disbelief. The torrent that screamed through Central Texas the night before had wreaked enough havoc on the stage setup at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock to force Friday night's festivities to La Zona Rosa. On Saturday morning, the evidence was clear: One stage, two RVs, a ReddyIce dispenser, and a trailer-sized equipment locker stood submerged under the instant lake which used to be a lakeshore and was the intended amphitheatre for the show that come hell or high water was to go on. Hell came and went and the show did go on -- a little late (but jeez, considering the mammoth task of re-erecting another stage in four or five hours, not late at all) and a bit battle-scarred (whar in the hale was Don Walser?). We strolled in to hear Steve James' lovely "Talco Girl." Having never seen the drunken slurp of James' dobro in action, I realized this is what's missing when I see Guy Forsyth. After James' set, we wandered around the 600-800 or so folks also bathing in the blue and yellow wildflowers, dusted by the powdered sugar from wind-blown funnelcakes. What festival is complete without panpipes, didjeridoos, beads, and funnelcakes? Fortunately, these items (except the funnelcakes) were mostly restricted to the craft and workshop areas. Maybe it was the proximity to Round Rock or the huge Sun City promotional trailer, but this audience was not your typical pot-soaked festi-crowd. I just couldn't imagine many of them donning phoney Indian nicknames or dancing naked around a fire. It was a long way to Kerrville, and it seemed to want to be.



Allison Krauss

photograph by John Carrico

After experiencing a truly sublime festival moment (seeing the very large Mark Rubin and his very large stand-up bass crammed into a very small, speeding golf cart), I wandered alone to the workshop area. Since the schedule had been revised, folks took it upon themselves to set up impromptu playing circles. For all I know, one of the fellas playing was the spawn of Flatt & Scruggs, but to me, it looked like a diorama from the Country Bear Jamboree, with doggies rolling on the grass, ma and pa a'pickin' and a'grinnin', and Uncle Joe forming the perfect hypotenuse to the right angle of the lawn chair, snoring away in perfect rhythm, head snapping back and forth with every snrrrtzszzt. Claire Lynch & the Front Porch String Band lured me back to the main area. They were simply stunning. With her Ma Everly, sweet pah-tayta pie tones, Lynch soothed the audience like a kitchen full of comfort food. "Wabash Cannonball" and "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" might seem like obvious encore covers, but FPSB's treatments were enchanting. By the time we came back later that evening, the crowd had swelled to about 1,000-1,200, Comet Hale-Bopp was brilliant, no motherships seemed apparent, and the only gate to heaven was the pluck of 100 mandolins. Making our way through the parking lot of pickers, I swear there were at least that many there. On stage, Doc Watson was telling tall tales about pigs in hats being mistaken for men by cops or somesuch sweet nonsense. His entire set seemed a bit intimate for this size crowd. Iris DeMent took the stage at 9pm like John Wayne took hills. The sound, for the first time all day, seemed distorted and unattended. Despite this shame, DeMent's set of battle cries and Woody Guthrie-like anthems warmed the thinning crowd as the night grew cold. At one point, this very pickled twentysomething dude and this fortysomething rabid fan (are they called "DeMent-heads"?) shared tears and insights, crashing the 20 years of barriers between them to commune under the watchful eye of Iris. Whoa.



Pickin' & grinnin' with Richard Greene, Tony Trishka, Peter Rowan, and friends

photograph by John Carrico



Next up, Jody Denberg announced a trio of "guys probably in a lot of the records in your collection." Sorry, Jody, not mine. But if KGSR had a house band, they'd be it. Russ Barenburg, Jerry Douglas, and Edgar Meyer played what sounded like the theme from thirtysomething over and over and over. Their set was redeemed by a perfectly poignant lullaby called "Early Morning," which conveyed enough warmth and subtlety to almost make up for the rest of the set. Oops! back to thirtysomething... Now, the Paul Glasse Quartet (Mitch Watkins, Spencer Starnes, and Gene Elders) might've seemed like the same thing, but no. Their interpretation of classic instrumental runs was so much more inventive. Despite a charming multiple-personality disorder (at different times, I expected to see Astrud Gilberto, then the members of Clannad stroll out and take the mike...), their genre-hopping sounded right at home and never too far from the intended bluegrass theme. We sadly had to miss the reunion and the jam, but decided that Paul Glasse was a class way to end this sparkling day. -- Kate X Messer



David Grisman, Peter Rowan, and Vasser Clements kick out the jams

photograph by John Carrico



RAILROAD JERK

Emo's, April 8

For the first part of their 60-minute set at Emo's, Railroad Jerk was a commuter train. They stopped at every siding, braking long enough to make passengers impatient, and taking too friggin' long to get where they were going. There's no concrete particular to list as the cause of the over-punctuation, unless it was that they had to shake off the contrived-punk-blues goop that the questionable-at-best Speedball Baby left all over the stage. Just before the halfway point, however, following Marcellus Hall's oddly chosen death-dirge, they got their shit together and threw a shovelful on the fire. The loping "Roller Coaster" brought the spare rhythms and slightly off-kilter leads together into a groove. On some songs, the tiny subtleties of the guitar interplay between Alec Stephen and Hall (the whole point of Railroad Jerk) were lost due to a lack of volume and a roof. More of either would have done it, though it was worth the lower level to be outside at Emo's on a weeknight. The sound was clean and well-placed, there just wasn't enough of it. But when they lunged into "Objectify Me" from their latest, The Third Rail, any low points were left standing on the platform, and Dave Varenka's perfect pot-beating, beer-swilling beats got the train belching along. His haltingly sparse style is what gives Railroad Jerk a lot of its personality -- it makes an erratic background for the awkward lead and rhythm guitars, and that awkwardness is what makes it swing. It's a bit premature to be dubbing bands like Railroad Jerk, Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion, or the Delta 72 the new blues; theirs is most definitely more an aberration of the form, an East Coast mutation that takes the call and response and guitar flair from Delta blues, and adds strange time and attitude -- and an odd guy out front. It makes it white, in other words, but that ain't all bad.
-- Christopher Hess


JOSEPH ARTHUR

Stubb's, April 11

Sometimes a buzz starts with silence and the occasional whisper. The silence is typically stunned silence, and the whispers are whispers of reassurance, as in friends asking each other, "Is this as great as I think it is?" That was pretty much the scene throughout Joseph Arthur's first Austin appearance, a solo set that challenged the New Yorker to deliver Big City Secrets, his hip RealWorld debut of astonishing production and musical density. But Big City Secrets is mostly about songs, which made this easy-to-tour transition almost seamless, with the opening take on the album's best rocker, "Haunted Eyes," turning a slow build into a fierce acoustic rave-up -- more like Chris Cornell or Billy Corgan Unplugged than some sort of Dylan at Newport or Hammell by Default. Better still, Arthur's intensity and the audience's rapt attention quickly became reminiscent of another young troubadour's first intimate Austin appearance: Jeff Buckley's phenomenal 1993 Chicago House set. And yet, it was the album's title track that set this gig apart, as Arthur explained he'd be giving us the song by "sampling himself live, with no pre-recorded sounds." And there it was: a pre-song pounding, pulling, and plucking of a rhythm track, which, with simple loops, somehow recreated the "gravel percussion," "vibes," and "treated tubular kit," the album credits five men with producing. It wasn't the loop gadget that was so cool, however, but rather how Arthur was using it; these weren't loops for the sake of techno-wanking, they were loops for the emphasis and accent of the songs, which themselves are singularly narrative and abstract, straightforward and complex. And when each song ended, half the fun was watching Arthur lean over his pedals and deconstruct the beats and strokes he'd created in minutes -- emphasizing the performer's live transition from an organic singer-songwriter into vital DJ Shadow-style loop guru. That those effects were just as fresh 40 minutes later and the songs just as compelling earned Arthur even more post-show silence and more whispering -- this time of the "Why did it have to end?" variety. -- Andy Langer


KRONOS QUARTET, DON WALSER & THE PURE TEXAS BAND

Bass Concert Hall, April 12

Think the Beatles with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme was a strange bill? Next to the myriad of wonderfully non-linear progressions offered by the Kronos Quartet and Don Walser at the Bass Concert Hall, the former appears lowballed by comparison. While the Quartet's unquenchable zest for new musical frontiers is formidable in its own right, adding Walser's twang to the mix only heightened the sense of curious excitement. The show started with the Quartet performing Seattle composer (and longtime Kronos collaborator) Ken Benshoof's "St. Francis Climbs Mt. Diablo (on His Way to Heaven)." From there, they moved on to P.Q. Phan's "Tragedy at the Opera," a movement from Memoirs of a Lost Soul that aurally recounts the first time Phan attended a court opera as a youth in Vietnam. Men portrayed women in this particular opera, and as one of the men strained to deliver an impassioned high note, he collapsed and died onstage. If this wasn't a true story, you'd think it came out of a Mel Brooks' movie, and Kronos' high dramatic interpretation acknowledges the ghastly humor underlying the horrific. The Quartet also performed Nubian composer Hamza El Din's piece "Escalay (Water Wheel)" from their Pieces of Africa album, and three John Adams selections from John's Book of Alleged Dances that featured a unique, time-jumping set of prepared piano loops playing beneath the strings that roughly approximated the sound of a gamelan. Then Walser and Co. took the stage for a short solo set. It was fascinating to see the mood of the hall take a schizophrenic 180-degree turn as the string quartet yielded to the cowboy yodeler. The awesome dichotomy left the audience with no choice but to let out a collective chuckle of bemusement. By the end of Walser's set, though, the Texas spirit was out of the bag and sailing about in the form of hoots and hollers. Following intermission, Kronos returned with a rambunctious John Zorn composition entitled "Cat O'Nine Tails (or, Tex Avery Directs the Marquis de Sade)." Zorn's inspiration came from Carl Stalling's magical scattershot scores for Warner Bros. cartoons, and the disparate, quick-change nature of the piece evoked a hyper-reality that seemed to simultaneously critique and celebrate this era of violent information overload. The evening culminated with the Quartet joining Walser for five or six glorious songs, including a version of "Danny Boy" that damn near brought tears to my eyes. The harmonic blend of the Quartet's strings and Walser's yodeling created an eerie beauty that drove the yearning imagery in "Mexicali Rose" dangerously close to home in any genre. Walser almost brought the house down when he told the audience how much he'd enjoyed playing with the "young folks" in Kronos Quartet. "I've got socks older than some of 'em," he quipped. Maybe next year, these two great tastes that taste great together can put on another humanity-affirming hootenanny at the Broken Spoke. -- Greg Beets

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