Live Shots

Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson
at the Broken Spoke, May 23

photograph by Jana Birchum


Frank Erwin Center, May 15

Under pressure? Damn right. ZZ Top, lumbering through most of this decade as ZZzzz Top, had over 10,000 stomping, screaming Texans to satisfy at the Frank Erwin Center. Lone Star ambassadors on a scale with George Bush, Ann Richards, Willie Nelson, and the Dallas Cowboys (God help us), tha Top was looking kinda frail last time through, fiddling with knobs and studio gadgetry on their Antenna album and a technocratic stage show less exciting than the Kerrville farm report. So yeah, they were under pressure. And after George Thorogood's snoozer of an opening set -- it's way past time for the Delaware Destroyer to get a haircut and a real job -- they did something about it. Opening with "Got Me Under Pressure" kicking as hard as a Dalhart mule, and a deep-throated "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" that would have done Richard McLaren proud, the trio didn't waste any time reestablishing their Texas rock primacy. Returning south to the blues for an extended trip into the Rhythmeen country of their latest album, they laid down the smoking feral licks of "Bang Bang" and "Rhythmeen" hotter than Georgetown asphalt, while the muddy rhythm stew of "Vincent Price Blues" was so fuzzy and distorted that no alcohol was necessary to make the entire Erwin center a spinning centrifuge of slithering swamp sexiness. Then they played the hits, cranking out "Cheap Sunglasses," "Legs," "Gimme All Your Lovin'," and "Sharp Dressed Man" in short order, poodle guitars intact, leaving the audience hoarser than the Game Seven Rockets-Sonics crowd. Yeah, they've still got it. Every bit as badass as you remember, they sealed it with "She's Just Killing Me," lacking only George Clooney and Salma Hayek (or hell, Julianna Margulies) writhing in mad ecstasy, and a final Seventies coldcocker of "La Grange" and "Tush." After nearly 30 years of busting low-down Texas boogie and hardass blues, it took balls for ZZ Top to march on that stage with just their beards, shades, satin jackets, and three little mock African huts saluting Rhythmeen's tribal theme, and pour on the Lone Star flavor thick as Sam's barbecue sauce. Thursday, their balls were big as Houston potholes. -- Christopher Gray


Continental Club, May 18

I swear it was a dream. The tall, statuesque blonde with a rose tucked behind her left ear standing in front of blood-red velvet back drop singing timeless country songs in an empty, Fifties-style club. I sat there, alone, drinking a beer, and no matter how hard I tried, that fuzzy, foggy gossamer kept rounding the corners of my reality. I'd shake my head, but the picture never came into full focus. Instead, Herb Steiner's pedal steel, as evocative as palm trees swaying in the sea breeze of some tropical isle, kept pulling me towards that idyllic never-never land; there's no other sound quite like the echo of steel guitar in an empty club. Riding gracefully upon Steiner's gentle waves of sleep, young Susanna Van Tassel strummed her acoustic guitar and sang as if each song was a lullaby soothing me and the dozen-or-so ghostly bodies scattered throughout the club into a state of dreamy bliss. Her voice, creamy and clear -- and not unlike that of the evening's headliner -- rippled with warm sincerity on a tuneful batch of originals, all of which sounded familiar. "The theme of the evening?" she asked the headliner sitting at the bar. "Raging ovaries!" cried Libbi Bosworth. "Is that what you wanted to hear?" "Uh, yeah," replied a puzzled Van Tassel. (I don't know what it means either, but dream analysis can be tricky business.) Finishing her 50-minute set with the playful "Doo Dah," a turn by baritone bassist Justin Treviño, and her memorable "You Broke All the Rules," Van Tassel then melted back into the vivid velvet stage backdrop and was gone, leaving a scene as if from some David Lynch movie playing over and over in my head. It was almost midnight. By the time the witching hour hit and Bosworth took the stage, my dream became fitful; why, for instance, was Pete Gordon behind the bar instead of the piano? The smooth opener, "It's Late" soothed me a bit, while "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You," a song that makes people long for someone they haven't longed for in years, eased my discomfort even more. But then some folks started talking -- and during the sublime title track of Bosworth's overlooked gem, last year's Outskirts of You. I wanted to shove a stool down their maws. But Bosworth took command, jumpin' up and down and whipsawing her way through "Ain't Gonna Waste My Time," and the dulcet country hit waiting to happen, "Don't Call Me Crazy." The club may have been empty (proof that it had to be a dream), but as long as there's one couple on the dance floor, it's alright. An earth-shaking version of Charlie Robison's "honky-tonk nursery rhyme," "Bar Light, Bar Bright" induced Roy Heinrich to get up and sing a couple of songs, but before you could say country jamboree, Bosworth was announcing, "We've got time for one more and then we'll let y'all go home and cuddle up together." Funny, I swear I never left my bed. -- Raoul Hernandez


Cedar Street, May 19/Mercury Lounge, May 20

There's the jazz that keeps you in your seat, eyes riveted to the hands of the players, ears trained to the overlaps and exchanges of every solo note put together for that one time only, and then there's the jazz that pushes yer ass up outta that seat and makes you shake said ass and all parts connected to it in uncontrollable response to the power of a groove. Either way, it's jazz and it's good for the soul. And the amazing thing is, the best of both schools have established regular residence downtown -- yes, downtown Austin -- on nights often reserved for open mikes. Every Monday for approximately the past year, the Elias Haslanger Septet has assembled the best, or at least the freshest, sets of traditionally instrumented modern jazz to be found in Austin that didn't arrive here via airplane from parts east. Boasting as many original numbers as standards, every player provides as much cool as you can handle, and just because it's Monday doesn't mean they're coasting. Everyone goes after it on every solo, the front line trading off with the comfort of old pros and the impetus of standing in front of a hot, hot rhythm section. Even though the rain forced the show indoors to the club's obstructive and muddy-sounding basement, the brass, in the hands of Ephraim Owens, Jay Fort, and Freddie Mendoza, still managed to make a Birdland out of Cedar Street. For a new take on that other jazz, the aforementioned front line travels to the Mercury Lounge on alternating Tuesdays where they join another full-on rhythm section in Hot Buttered Rhythm, which sports two keyboards, two basses (one stand-up, one electric), and two drummers -- the two drummers, Brannen Temple and J.J. Johnson. All who enter here had better have some funk to give. This workshop for the obsessively syncopational twists standard rock beats into a tight-knit and sustained system of grooves that can result in a nasty case of funk
vertigo if you don't check your feet once in a while. And when they're on, they keep on; this past Tuesday, I checked the clock at about 1:15am and they had yet to break since their start-up at 11:30pm. Then they did, for 30 seconds, and it was right back to it. All this and it ain't even Wednesday. -- Christopher Hess


Paramount Theatre, May 22

Building, building, all evening long, building towards the climax of a 17-year-old named Nydia Rojas. That's what Austin's Hispanic community (yes, such a thing exists -- 27% of the local population by one emcee's count) had been waiting nearly two and a half hours for. Out in force for the third annual "Mariachi Espectacular," the sold-out house had already been serenaded by Roy Lozano's Ballet Folklorico, Mariachi Relampago, another mariachi band, Los Caporales, as well as a variety of community leaders/celebrities joking and congratulating the unity of the gathered crowd. Then, the door prize having been awarded, the moment arrived: The local debut of Arista Austin's entrant in the Selena sweepstakes. "Actually, it's my second time in Austin," Rojas would say a few songs later, remembering her 1997 South by Southwest debut. Nevertheless, when that curtain went up, revealing the handsome, young, California-born, Guadalajara-raised singer in her black-and-gold, fitted Mariachi outfit -- surrounded by a half-circle of nine strapping Mariachis (four fiddles, two trumpets, and a small assortment from the guitar family) -- it was a true Evita moment. And when the first words out of her mouth were, "Soy pura Mexicana," ("I'm all Mexican"), could there be any doubt she'd win over the crowd? Of course not. They loved her. Hair pulled back in a bun, gold earring dangling, a red ribbon in her hair, Rojas was a young, Mexican Madonna, a symbol of race, youth, and promise. That's all that really mattered, or so you'd think from the musical portion of her set, which lasted no more than 20 minutes. The songs, "Cien Años" ("100 Years), "El Rey" ("The King"), and at least one tune Linda Ronstadt made famous on her Canciones de Mi Padre, fared well when Rojas let her voice boom, but she spent the majority of the set noticeably breathless. Judging by her engaging stage presence, it wasn't nerves, and since her suit didn't look ill-fitting, one can only assume she hasn't been practicing her esophageal exercises. Not that it mattered for the final encore, the Latin version of Blondie's "The Tide is High" ("La Numero Uno") a god-awful travesty, which, if not lip-synched (the backing track was definitely canned) sure looked like it; in any case Rojas seemed much more concerned with strutting her stuff in a new outfit -- a sex-kitten, belly-button show-off number. Puro show (all style, no substance), as my family is fond of saying. Still, it would have been nice to see a lot more of it. -- Raoul Hernandez


Electric Lounge, May 25

It's gotta be a slow year if this is what's getting profiled in Newsweek. It boils down to this: don't just stand there, play the album. I can get the album, sit at home, and hit the shuffle button. Same thing. Even better, for the price of two beers at the bar, I can get a six-pack. So, instead of giving me hostility, give me a show -- at least a little bit of a show. With an on-stage dynamic that was about as sharp as a butter knife and an "I've-been-traumatized-by-being-20" expression on her face, Corin Tucker's expression alone was enough to kill the hype-driven anticipation. The modulating of her voice, more unsettling than any phase shifter or theremin, didn't help either. Sometimes though, Tucker's angst, contrived and superfluous as it often seemed, cut right through the mug and made you forget all about the sweat in your shorts. (The Electric Lounge's summer slogan: Come for the music, stay for the sauna). With three girls, two guitars and no bass, the immediate reaction has to be Jon Spencer Chick Explosion, but Sleater-Kinney has more of a Kathy and Kim (Hanna and Gordon respectively) thing going. And, whoa, there are some damn fine songs emerging from the trademark indie sound of ragged bar chords and borderline dissonant half-step melodies. Right from the opening notes of "Dig Me Out," the band showed its hand in full. They have the substance but no style. Sorry that the suburbs ruined your life, Corin, but everywhere I go the kids want to rock. Not bad, but not really worthy of Newsweek, now, is it? -- Michael Bertin

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