Live Shots

Willie Nelson and Derek O'Brien
at Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic

Cactus Cafe, July 5

Youth is a very forgiving thing. When you're young and spewing bile, they call you enraged and celebrate your strength. Do it when you're old(er), however, and those same people label you crusty and deride your churlishness. Graham Parker is angry but he ain't young -- you do the math; another songwriter who's outgrown anger's usefulness, right? Wrong. At the first of his two sets at Cactus Cafe, Parker pulled off the perfect balancing act between youthful fire and old age cool. He was Billy Bragg minus the socialist bent; Lou Reed awakened from the coma; Ed Hamell plus hair, the remnants of a British accent, and a better sense of rhyme. Parker was Bono with passion but without the self-righteousness or a band (which, actually, would make him the anti-Bono). Maybe it was the "fucking heat" or the "11 hour hop" to Austin about which Parker continually kvetched, but something provided the right amount of irritant that ignited his performance in a way that never happened at his last show in Austin (a 1995 South by Southwest appearance). After opening with a stirring version of "Soul Corruption" that wandered straight into Bob Marley's "Lively Up Yourself," Parker began pulling from just about every period of career, tossing out bits from the acrid R&B of his first release, Howling Wind, through the now "deleted" Struck By Lightning and up to last year's Acid Bubblegum. He even threw in a handful of B-sides and live or import-only oddities. About the only thing Parker neglected was 1988's near-brilliant The Mona Lisa's Sister. It was a forgivable omission, because on everything he chose, Parker played and sang without pretense. He laid it all out as if to say, "Here's your swift kick in the arse," only he delivered the kick with his smarts, not his foot. It was the kind of spectacle that gives growing older a good name. -- Michael Bertin

Broken Spoke, July 8

It's a strange thing watching a band "up front" at the Broken Spoke. Normally, those tables, the booths -- the shuffleboard game by the door -- are merely obstacles to the dancing rink in back. On this lonely Tuesday night, however, that gateway was closed. You could sense it from the parking lot, full up with crickets and little else. Six people inside, seven including me. Walt Lewis and his band -- Boomer Norman on guitar, Carl Keesee on bass, John McGlothin, Jr. on drum (just one) -- ordered dinner as they set up: "How many songs?" asked Lewis. "One," replied the waitress. "Unless I get busy. Then, give me two." On nights like these, a couple songs is all the cook needs to prepare several chicken-fried steaks and some salad. Keesee watches the all-star game on the television set in the corner. The band opens with the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Brand New Heartache Coming On," and in this room, amplification is almost redundant. Lewis' parlor-smooth voice plays with Norman's twinkling leads, which sound like rain. Lewis asks if anyone is from out of town. Couple Number One raise their hands. Kentucky. They look pleased at their discovery. Twenty minutes later, warm bodies nine, 10, and 11 kick in some dust from the parking lot. A few minutes later, 12 through 15 come in -- then 16. This will be the evening's high water mark. Lewis sees his opportunity. "That one little dollar looks mighty lonesome there [in the tip jar]," he says. "We take requests. Just write 'em on the back of a $20." Lewis' easy manner matches his singing and his originals. Everyone is at ease. "Crazy Arms" precedes Lewis' set centerpiece, the "Prison Medley," featuring songs by Johnny Cash, Leadbelly, even his own "Alabama Does." Merle Haggard's "Sing Me back Home" finishes it up on a good note. Cal Ripken makes a nice grab at third. A George Jones song, 75 minutes later, signals the waitress to start getting the grub together. By now, that $1 isn't quite so lonely. The parking lot is fuller by a few cars, but the blinking Broken Spoke sign and a sliver crescent moon are still the only beacons to the country music that plays "up front" on this quiet Austin night. -- Raoul Hernandez

Cactus Cafe, July 9

Well, the good news is, from a self-preservation standpoint anyway, that shortly after the Richard Buckner show I regained consciousness quickly enough to suture my wrists back up. Wow, talk about depressing. Country and Western McSadness has nothing on this guy. The emotional progression downward is something like disappointment, then heartbreak, then devastation, then whatever the hell keeps happening to the Bay Area-based singer-songwriter that moves him to write. Emotionally taxing, yes, but this one- man display of torment and loss was also gorgeous. Three songs into the first set, Buckner delivered "This Is Where," and from that moment on, one man and his pain held the whole room rapt, I mean dead silent enthralled, keeping it up for the entirety of the first set, which was dedicated almost exclusively to material from his debut, Bloomed. Then, as if with planned symmetry, three songs into the second set, Buckner played "Pull" from his major-label bow, Devotion + Doubt, and from its opening line ("He said, `I'll pull you down.' She said, `Yeah I know you will'"), he commanded the same kind of attention, killing the carryover conversations from the break that had been bleeding in as background noise up to then. It was a show that was at times difficult to sit through, but it was so unbelievably powerful that you couldn't turn away. Even if you wanted to, you couldn't get away from the despondency and the gloom. You could try to tune out the lyrical content, but the pain still permeated the timbre of Buckner's voice. It was inescapable -- unless of course you left. Remarkably though, over the course of about two hours, the music never lost its beauty or its efficacy. I've got scars on my wrists to prove it. -- Michael Bertin

Hole in the Wall, July 12

Saturday felt like prom night at the Hole in the Wall -- well, except for people being more comfortably dressed, a bit older and uglier, and no one was hiding their drinks. The evening's host was the King of Space, who kept the proceedings moving as best he could, handing out free stuff and telling bad anecdotes from his native Alpha Centauri. The Adults shone in their supporting role, though something seemed to be distracting the crowd. Everyone was paying attention -- at least it appeared so -- and the local band was kicking ass, but no one was responding. I think the glazed gazes were a result of too much of the special Ursa Major chocolate-pit sheet-pie that was spread out in the back of the room. One bite was all I took. I lost three teeth and was bouncing off the walls at Mach 4. This only helped me enjoy the spastically charming hyper-riffs and time changes of the Adults, who succeeded in demolishing the lovely stage decor of tin foil and tinsel, which was obviously meant for the star attraction and belles of the ball. As Ursa Major came on, trying to repair the stage as best they could, I settled into a peaceful but jittery choco-coma, while the local trio proceeded to wade into many a sanguine amalgam of simple chord progressions, enhanced by the lilting singing of Andy Maguire and the mildly caustic sing-speak of Pam Peltz. They hit their share of clinkers, some of the songs lacking a strong enough hook or good enough set of lyrics to set them apart from the song previous to it. They did succeed by night's end in outshining their new CD, especially on "Supersonic," my choice for the first single, a much stronger song than "Seventh Heaven." As a new band, the potential of Ursa Major to establish its own personality and following is glaringly evident. "Am I getting drunker or are they getting better?" asked a friend long about 1:20am, midway through their set. It may have been too soon to tell for sure, and I was still in the throes of a sugar and Shiner freak-out, but the answer was very likely "Yes." -- Christopher Hess

Mozart's, July 13

Those lucky enough to catch one of Taj Mahal's select west coast concerts in the late Seventies were treated to his consistently hot band augmented by a steel drum player. Mahal was well aware that this unique instrument adds, like a reggae drop beat, a sweet, soulful flavor to whatever it accompanies. This percussive instrument, which sounds more like an overgrown thumb piano than a drum, is a steel container with pounded-out sections that produce particular notes when struck with mallet sticks. A single drum, which has the diameter of a Texas BBQ smoker, can elicit as many as seven or more individual notes, but far from providing discreet pitches, it also produces complex and beautiful overtones. As such, the steel drum is anything but a novelty island instrument in the hands of someone as proficient as the New Orleans-based Gregory Boyd. Silvery notes and luscious overtones poured forth with unbelievable fluidity during both the vocal and instrumental songs of the evening. Boyd was at times able to gracefully manipulate the instrument so well that you'd bet you were hearing 88 keys instead of a duo of steel drums. Mozart's Coffee, out on Lake Austin, is, geographically speaking, the right backdrop for these soothing steel sounds; the subtle notes and tubular overtones of this instrument intertwined with the light breeze blowing in from the Colorado River. Not everyone can lose themselves in the solo sound of steel drums, but it's hard to resist their peaceful pings when combined with like-minded musicians, as when Correo Aereo's acoustic playing joined Boyd on stage for a few numbers. Like sugar cane, the evening's musical gestalt was a little rough in spots, yet overall mellifluous. Boyd's increased playing around town in recent and upcoming weeks is a welcome addition to an already vibrant local live music scene. -- David Lynch

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