Cedar Street, August 10
In recent years, Austin has seen a strange herd of non-traditional instruments take to its rock & roll stages, from the tuba to the ukulele to the didgeridoo - proving, if nothing else, that we've come a long way from guitar, drums, and bass. What next? The string quartet, of course, which can be seen in a number of Austin's hip `n' happenin' nightspots as Tosca, the nuevo tango ensemble whose word-of-mouth cache has grown from a distant rumble to a holy roar, landing the local act a spate of standing gigs and a spot on Waterloo Records' Texas Music Top Ten chart. Threatening to out-retro retro itself, Tosca's string quartet is actually a touch embellished, tailored for tango with the standard cello, viola, and twin violins, but augmented by piano, bass, and accordion (that adds up to seven: a septet, officially). Led by 81/2 Souvenirs' Glover Gill on squeezebox, Tosca is sleek, solid, and spare, classically trained (or good enough to fool you), and fully equipped with the instrumental grace their moody and intricate repertoire demands. Together, they work up a fine and delicate melancholy, a melange of mournful leads and sudden tempo changes; with nuevo tango, you're never quite sure what's around the corner, but whatever it is, it's likely to please and mystify - and occasionally move a few of the locals to the dance floor in a clumsy approximation of the elaborate dance of the same name. There were more cigar smokers than tango dancers at this weekly, three-sets-and-out Cedar Street show, and amidst the swirling smoke and tinkling glassware, Tosca was in danger of being reduced to mood music, drowned out by the considerable chatter of the stuffed-shirt, martini-swilling set. But what a mood it was; playing from an extended song list, and joined once a set by romantic tenor Robert Kraft, Tosca gave full rein to the imaginative possibilities of tango, and sitting close, cradled in one of Cedar Street's stylish rockers, it was easy to get carried away, to suppose yourself a Paraguayan heiress or the brooding hero of a European art film. It's scintillating, soulful stuff, a welcome break from three chords and the truth (or syncopated swing, for that matter). It ain't rock & roll, it's tango, and it's more orchestral, more haunting, and more exquisite than anything you're likely to hear on Sixth Street. Bravo. - Jay Hardwig
Black Cat, August 11
"Come on, this is our audition. Give us a break." This plea came from the lead singer of the US Rockers, the first of two live auditions being held at the Black Cat last Tuesday night; strange, since it seemed the audience was made up entirely of friends of theirs and the other auditioned band, the Chris Toast Trio. Neither was bad, and neither was good - both appropriately rough and ambitious, and nervous - and the sprinkled claps and hoots attested to this. Yet by the time the real band came on, at a mere 11:30pm, the joint was empty. Nonetheless, Val Paradise, a local five-piece in the sixth week of its Tuesday night Black Cat residency, came on and played for the five of us who remained; a long set full of the hills and valleys of a band trying to find their audience. Most of their songs lean into the confused area between country-flavored roots-rock and blues-inspired hippie-jams, and due largely to the proficiency of the bass and fiddle players, they can pull it all off - at times. At other times, the band sounded disjointed, working through (overly) inventive melodies and catching up with each other at frequent time changes and sudden stops, making it all seem jumbled. But again, there they were all of a sudden, entirely together and ripping out a near-holy jam that made the confusion seem more like a prelude. The lead singer has a bit of rock-star charisma, an agile voice, and a funny way of playing funk (all up tight on the neck of his big hollow-body electric), while the other guitarist has his share of fancy fretwork; some of the tunes stay in your head after you leave. In other words, they have the makings of Sixth Street success, and just need an audience - other than the one at the Black Cat this night: There was an older gentleman, thin, hunched over his own Stratocaster on a bar stool along the wall, playing silently along all night; a girl taking photos; that guy who used to paint pictures at the Electric Lounge while bands were playing was there, messing with the rhythm guitarist's pedals and recording it all on a micro-cassette recorder; and a couple of others wandered in and out. Down the street, Maggie Mae's was packed with people singing along to covers of "American Pie" and other stuff. On a Tuesday night on Sixth Street, Val Paradise is a good bet - though it'll be a better one when they practice up and get a Thursday. At least now you don't have to fight a crowd. Come on, it's their regular gig. Give 'em a break.
- Christopher Hess
BUCK OWENS BIRTHDAY BASH
Continental Club, August 12
Buck Owens was probably the best thing that ever happened to the Continental Club's Buck Owens Birthday Bash. That sounds obvious, but when the country legend dropped in on his own soiree a couple-a-three years back, it transformed the show from a gathering of Owens' disciples to an institution of sorts. Moreover, it guaranteed that as long as Owens was still alive, there would be enough annual speculation on whether or not he was going to show up to fill the Continental and provide a tidy little windfall for the Children's Advocacy Center of Travis County (the evening's beneficiaries). Well, the Buck didn't stop here for the B-day party - our eighth, his 69th - but that doesn't mean nothing notable happened. After an early highlight of Doug Sahm joining Alvin Crow for "Together Again"; after Don Walser ran through his three-song mini set, which included his creation "Buck and Merle" and a laudable version of "Sam's Place"; after Herman the German; after two Lynnes, a Janet and a Kimberly, participated in the festivities; after ace songwriter Clay Blaker brought out his band to run through "Act Naturally" and "Love's Gonna Live Here"; and after Kim Richey stood at the back corner of the stage with more than just a little envy in her eyes as she watched Libbi Bosworth do "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line"; only after all of that (and only one Hee Haw joke) did longtime Buckaroo bassist Doyle Holly take the stage to do something he figured he hadn't done in about 17 years - perform. After a nervous moment where he looked like he had to convince himself he'd remember all the words he'd be singing, Holly launched into "Hello Trouble," following it up with the night's second rendition of "Tiger by the Tail," and an abbreviated version of "Streets of Laredo." It wasn't the birthday boy himself, it probably wasn't even the next best thing, but it was a treat nonetheless. With apologies to Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison as well as Richey, all of whom had yet to play, I left, figuring it wasn't going to get any cooler after that. Hell, that was probably cooler than whatever Owens himself did for his birthday.
- Michael Bertin
HONKY, BARNYARD PLAYBOYS, BIGFOOT CHESTER
Emo's, August 14
"Hi," said Walter Daniels, courteously. "We're El Flaco." With that, Bigfoot Chester's frontman, looking more like an engineer than the hard harp-blowing steam engine behind this underappreciated Austin quartet, tore into guitarist/singer Davy Jones' "I Believe It," Jones all but drowned out by Daniels' caterwauling. Most of the 20 people in Emo's large downstairs stage clapped. One guy left. A plug for the band's latest release, Tabernaclin', along with its lead-off track "Mad Mad World" and "Police Wrecker" followed, but only the furiously feral "The Whale Swallowed Me," displaying all of the gut bucket graveyard blues these locals can shovel out by the plotful, showed any real signs of fire. What was there to get fired up about, anyway? Everybody was three blocks up Red River at Stubb's, where Austin's heavy metal trio El Flaco were playing their last respects to their still born career. It was practically a riot. Emo's, on the other hand, which had home-field advantage for El Flaco's other "last show" several weeks earlier, was as dead as Sixth Street on the Monday night before Thanksgiving. Barnyard Playboys, a New York City trio proclaiming their love of dirge mongers Kyuss and truck driving songs, played to an even smaller number of corpses, not that they deserved better; "Truckdriving Joe," "Flat Butts & Beer Guts," and "My Heart's in the Right Place, but My Head Is Up My Ass" weren't nearly as entertaining as their titles. Still, you felt sorry for the guys. Some "Live Music Capital." For their official CD release party, headliners Honky managed to get courtyard courtesans and upstairs bar patrons to converge downstairs, and the room actually swelled to a not-quite-so anemic crowd of approximately 150 people - er, headbangers. Like El Flaco, Honky is all about Seventies raunch; Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent. With the "Amazing Whitney Westlake" on "Fernandez guitar," cigarette sewn to his lower lip and a dirty T-shirt full of dust and bones, and partner Jeff Pinkus thumbing a flying V bass like it was your sister - Lance Farley striking a Bonzo pose on drums ("He didn't get fined for not wearing his camouflage hat," said Pinkus) - Honky rises like the South at a swamp-bound 7-Eleven on a Saturday night. "We wish our friends in El Flaco a good show down the street," said Mr. V at one point, meaning it. "Of course would you rather catch a band on the way down or on the way up?" How 'bout one not putting out a CD then vanishing? Or one just getting their CDs back from the factory in time for their CD release? "The CD will be out next month," said Westlake lo around 2am after the first encore, "Rock & Roll Hootchie Koo" (or "Rock & Roll Hootie Hoo" according to the ever-cackling guitarist). "We promise." Their pledge of good faith? A set-ending version of Skynyrd's "Simple Man." Excellent. Who needs "Freebird"?
- Raoul Hernandez
Mercury Lounge, August 15
Originating from the stage, the words rang clearly and matter-of-factly from the PA: "That's pretty good, considering you're all loopy on Sudafed." Perhaps it was an inside joke. Or perhaps it was the band's gentle way of chiding the Mercury's post modern lounging audience into interacting with the music. Either way, the comment, coming right after a round of slightly-more-than-polite applause for the first set's initial tunes, was a fitting prelude to the following jam, a hypnotic loop that featured a trumpet cameo by the keyboardist. Looking like Dr. John after reading too much Charles Bukowski, he held the audience's interest even while his front stage neighbor on guitar was out of the loop wrestling with technological gremlins. A vital component was the super-solid rhythm section: drum kit, hopping-like-popcorn percussion, and pendulum swinging bass. The product: spacey, jazzy, groove-jam rock, an idiom that lives and dies by group interaction and improvisation. And group improvisation is like trapezing with a net: individually if you flub up, you only lose face - the groove is (hopefully) kept alive by the rest of the band. But if the aerobatic gamble pays off and you start a new mutha groove, you're the king. And local quintet Tunjii lived and died by these rules. When they were on, you didn't need to see the smiling, motorin' twentyish crowd to know that there was something happenin' on stage. Yet the loosely sketched song format produced instrumental valleys just as readily as intensely packed peaks, so some tunes came off a bit disjointed. Masters of the idiom like Medeski, Martin & Wood are not only gifted players, they're also able to turn these inevitable low points into something interesting, perhaps even scary - if nothing else, entertaining. This groove combo aren't quite there yet, but they have the right tools and the right intent. And damn if the band didn't have fun making it happen. And infectious fun at that. - David Lynch