Beastie Boys, Rancid, Asiandubfoundation
It was like a Martin Scorsese movie -- hyperreal. Twenty thousand Texans jumping up and down, shouting at the top of their voices, rattling San Antonio's Alamodome like a rice-paper aviary. The moment the Beastie Brothers' DJ Mixmaster Mike stepped into the ring -- the stage an island in the middle of the cavernous arena's floor, the scoreboard lowered down from the ceiling like a canopy -- the San Antonio Spurs' home court went into a frenzy. Thousands of fans on the polished basketball hardwood floor pushed towards the stage, and the aisles leading to the floor filled instantly -- not to empty for the 90-minute show. The entire structure surged. And when Mixmaster Mike's turntable wizardry gave way to three skinny Jewish kids from NYC dressed in matching orange jumpers chanting into their handheld mikes, "Money making, money, money making," you'd have thought the forces of nature centered on this one giant hall. It was larger than life, bigger than big. It was tremendous energy -- adulation -- focused on a 16-year hip-hop institution that's never known the meaning of the phrase "white-boy"; the Beastie Boys traffic in primal funk, a Bootsy Collins/James Brown type funk! Never mind that there were few blacks in the Saturday night throng, this was the natives going tribal. Chanthems like "Skills to Pay the Bills," dropped the suddenly intimate Alamodome into verbal lockstep, harnessing the fervor like nuclear energy. That was before the Beasties played tribute to Long Island neighbor Billy Joel by picking up traditional garage accouterments for a punk rock version of "Big Shot." Huh? Everyone was a bit confused with the impromptu live instrumentation, a set device used several times throughout the evening, and one that was equally disruptive every time. When a generic Super Fly jam came soon after, the total dissipation of energy hung in the air like the clearing of a smoke bomb. Vanished. A somewhat desperate plea from Mike D to "keep the energy up" failed to do so, and for the performance's remaining 50 minutes it was hit and miss -- mostly miss; "Remote Control," for instance, from the group's new, critically dismissed Hello Nasty, gave up the pogoing, yet somehow drew attention to the fact that the Beasties were treading in Devo territory with their chants, matching outfits, and goofy demeanor. After the rallying cry of "Three MC's and One DJ," and an awe-inspiring display of turntable mastery from Mixmaster Mike (proving said discarded stereo component is an instrument unto itself), Ad-Rock then launched into a preachy dedication to Martin Luther King, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, and an editorial against American missiles in the Middle East. Not exactly what arena-bound rawk shows need. "Sabotage," in the encore, amidst strobe lights and a bashing rock beat, had the Alamodome going atomic once again, but it was over in three minutes, the tune's length seeming to indicate that the band was cutting its losses. At least Rancid had paced their 45-minute set, building steadily to the climax, while the opener, Asiandubfoundation -- this year's Space Monkeys -- never had a chance on their one-sixteenth of the big circular stage. No, where the Beastie Boys ultimately failed and therefore crippled an experience one step shy of social and cultural spectacle was in their disregard for the basic rules of theatre: Always build towards the third act. On second thought, rather than Scorsese, make that a Brian De Palma picture. -- Raoul Hernandez
ROBERT EARL KEEN'S LABOR DAY UPRISING
Luckenbach, Texas, September 6
NOON: Pitch tent, sweet tent in the RV-ghetto and have a psychedelic experience from hyperventilating while blowing up the double-size air mattress. Can't feel my hands or feet while setting up camp.
1 PM: Pie and coffee at a diner in Fredricksburg. Note to self: Come back the next day for breakfast.
2:20 PM: Hotter than hell, listen to soundcheck, dig the nice sour taste of a cold Lone Star. $3 a beer -- just like bar prices. Stake out some territory by the stage with lawn chairs and a blanket, load up on the KFAN stickers. Get ready to sweat and get nasty in the merciless sun; sporadic clouds leave a grand total of 9 raindrops while we sit and wait. Unbutton that shirt and give that beer gut some air.
4 PM: Monte Montgomery takes the stage and gets a fairly monstrous sound from acoustic guitar, bass, and drums; the songs almost rock, but not, not, not quite. The lack of memorable hooks is more than made up for by some berserk-sounding solos. How he gets that sound from an acoustic totally escapes me.
4:45 PM: Bandera's Charlie Robison Band brings on a set of Steve Earle-ish tales of small-town boredom, desperation and crime, hell-raisin' and beer-drinkin' -- stories tempered by a feeling of a life of settling for second best. The intelligent lyrics are dark as hell without ever sounding somber; the band features a Hammond organ that could easily have been deleted from the lineup, but at the same time adds a lot to their sound. Watch out for these guys.
5:25 PM: Shade! Thank God!! Toni Price starts a set of blues-and-whiskey-tinged elegance, relaxed and intimate as a backyard jam session. Price's voice is full of sultry promise, singing songs of love and loss, faith and betrayal -- leaving the crowd ready for...
6:45 PM: Jason and the Scorchers!! I'll admit a certain amount of partiality toward these Eighties favorites, having seen them at least a half dozen times back in the day. They're a little older and uglier now, but I'm glad to report they still play with all the subtlety of a Budweiser 18-wheeler crashing through a trailer park, Jason Ringenberg jerking around like a rubbery scarecrow, all arms and legs. Bring on all the old songs, the covers of "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" and "Country Roads," watch the crowd go nuts like it was l983.
7:50 PM: Cowboy Mouth separates the crowd into the white-T-shirts-and-khaki-shorts college bunch up front and the Remember-The-Armadillo, cain't-party-like-I-used-to crowd toward the back. Guess I show my age by not jumping around and clapping whenever the singer exhorts the crowd to "put your hands together." Now jump up and down, now holler yeah!, now stand on your head and whistle "Dixie." The better half and I move toward the back and floss our teeth from the steer-on-a-stick we had earlier. I don't get it.
9:07 PM: Robert Earl Keen's Jerry Jeff Walker-meets-Seventies-Bob-Dylan set would sound just fine with an acoustic guitar, but sounds much better with a full band in tow. The perfect Southwestern feel to cap a fine afternoon of music, although Jason was a hard act to follow (I already fessed up to my bias on that subject). Time to head back to RV headquarters. -- Jerry Renshaw
IAIN MATTHEWS & THE SWINE LAKERS
Cactus Cafe, September 8
Well, Iain Matthews is back. He's gone again, actually -- to Europe for a spot of touring -- but he was back long enough for the Cactus Cafe to host the world damn premiere of his new band, Iain Matthews & the Swine Lakers. Veteran of a number of storied folk-rock outfits (Fairport Convention, Matthews Southern Comfort, and, more recently, Hamilton Pool), Matthews has assembled an experienced cast, including Bradley Kopp on guitar, Mark Andes on bass, and Larry Thompson on the kit. "We've been rehearsing like maniacs for six days," Matthews said, presumably trying to tighten up for the European tour. They're not quite there yet, but at six days, the mistakes -- false starts, missed chords, dribbled endings -- were to be expected. Even without a whole lot of polish, it wasn't hard to tell where the Lakers were headed: straight down the ol' folk-rock road. And if they entertained some of the lyrical innocence of folk, singing of Greyhound buses, fishin' poles, and Reno, Nevada, they also indulged some of the excesses of rock: self-important guitar work, a penchant for the screamed vocal, and an over-reliance on the submissive effect of the decibel. It was a loud show. Perhaps the Swine Lakers were gearing up for the notoriously rowdy Norwegian beer halls, but it seemed unnecessary for a Cactus crowd that scarcely scratched 30. Still, sullen critics were clearly in the minority; most of the assembled Iainmates wore the pleased expressions of folks returning to a strong drink they'd enjoyed in younger years. For the aforementioned critic, however, the noise was not inventive or engaging, and the headache that followed was downright upsetting. Matthews' sets proceeded to blend into long, strong, major-chord medleys; whatever else it is, this is sturdy, macho, muscular folk. There were some discernible brightspots, including Thompson's drumming, but not enough of them. His long pedigree notwithstanding, it's unclear what Matthews contributes that we don't already have plenty of. At six days, the eyes on this baby are barely open, but it's not hard to tell where it's goin'. I've got a feeling we've been there before. -- Jay Hardwig
Stubb's, September 9
Let's face it, if Liz Phair weren't a pixie-ish sex pot who used shamelessly lewd lyrics liberally, her popularity would probably be a small fraction of what it is; she'd have a hard time filling the indoor room at Stubb's much less packing in a couple of thousand people into the outdoor amphitheater like she did. But Phair is both physically attractive and explicitly frank and that's her crux appeal. Want proof? The two biggest crowd reactions of her hour-long set were for the line, "I'll fuck you 'til your dick turns blue" from an a cappella version of "Flower" and the encore, "Fuck and Run." And while many of the male audience members were content to simply watch the 4*5ths scale model of Meg Ryan stand on stage in her glittery glamorous halter top, Phair was there to play live music, which is obviously not something she's particularly good at. Phair, who never met a bar chord she didn't like and another chord that she could actually play, is simply a crummy musician -- a fact made painfully obvious by the competent musicians she had around her. That lack of skill wasn't particularly detrimental to material like "6 Foot One" from her Exile in Guyville debut, because the complete lack of technical competency was a big part of the album's success and what made Phair an indie rock queen. Unfortunately, the almost pure pop material like "Johnny Feelgood," "Uncle Alvarez," and "Polyester Bride" from her latest, whitechocolatespaceegg, was killed by the slop. Moreover, musicianship aside, Phair was simply a boring performer. Any excitement she did generate was the result of cheap, sexually suggestive undulations she employed to trade on her sex appeal. And the standard stage fright explanation, which has been bandied about for the last couple of years as the reason for her lack of touring, won't fly because if anything, Phair looked extremely comfortable in front of the adoring crowd. The crowd did love her, but she gave little justification for the adulation. If Liz wants her surname to be a phonetic assessment of her onstage abilities, then she needs to change it to "Bland." -- Michael Bertin
Frank Erwin Center, September 10
Considering the size of their venue, it was awfully nice of the folks at the Frank Erwin Center to host an "Amateur Night." In just over two hours, the university's massive stage showcased two teenage audience members, a radio contest winner singing an entire tune all by her lonesome, a pair of toddlers, the Westlake High choir, the Austin High Marching Band, three fiddlers, a drummer introduced as the "groove regulator," and three other musicians/models. All those folks were clearly there in attempt to distract the healthy audience from the featured amateur herself, Shania Twain -- a middling talent famous for stretching her 15 minutes of fame into six years and 14 million units sold by not touring once. It's a shame she started now. Twain, who looked suspiciously like Kathie Lee Gifford trick-or-treating in a Green Lantern costume, didn't just lack sex appeal, she was devoid of just about everything you'd expect from an arena-caliber star -- including confidence, charisma, and competent backing. You'd think a big crowd and a set full of hits would have calmed her nerves, but the only time Twain seemed comfortable was in her post-song routine of signing autographs, kissing babies, and announcing seat upgrades -- campaigning that still failed to prevent a noticeable midshow exodus. And by the time she got around to introducing "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?" with the typically insightful "I hope you got your boots on...," we all knew why: It would take some mighty big boots indeed to wade through all the clunky bullshit her band was churning out. They looked a lot like beefcake refugees from a Six Flags' music pavilion and played only slightly better. And not only did they often play plainly unamplified instruments just so they could dance -- an impressive set of synchronized Jamiroquai moves -- revolving mini-risers made it so they didn't even have to move their feet. For her part, Twain exerted a bit more effort, with some passable singing, three costume changes, and a Vegas-style magic trick whereby she disappeared in a flurry of flashpots and reappeared on the arena's floor. Unfortunately, she made it back to the stage in time for a couple of anti-climactic and charmless sing-along anthems ("Any Man of Mine," "Rock This Country") so limp, lazy, and non-threatening, they did the unthinkable: They made one yearn for husband/ producer John "Mutt" Lange's overblown pop metal thrills. Could there be any better proof that this was the worst arena show in recent history? -- Andy Langer
Antone's, September 11
If things always went as planned, there probably wouldn't be blues music, so maybe that should console us when a headliner doesn't show for his own CD release party. But the absence of Chicago R&B soul man Syl Johnson threatened to reduce this affair to a total drag, especially when Houston blues vet Pete Mayes couldn't light any sparks with a backup band roughly 30 years his junior. Not that the former guitar sideman to Texas blues greats Junior Parker, Clarence Brown, Johnny Copeland, et al. didn't show impressive form. Sticking mostly to songs from his new CD, For Pete's Sake, Mayes embellished standard licks aged satin-smooth with just a touch of jazzy slide and starburst. But the band in tow, Antone's own Keller Brothers, couldn't really dance with it. The bass and organ seemed to weigh the sound down with that bad ol' blues tedium, which Mayes could only occasionally transcend. Rock/swing numbers such as "Johnny B. Goode," which Mayes crafted into a tasteful jump blues, andMayes' own "House Party," with its nostalgic double-bass walk, were the only moments that saw the tables empty. Much of the time, the old classicist seemed more museum piece than entertainer. "Loveain't worth the price I pay," as Mayes' mentor,
T-Bone Walker, wrote, and you had to wonder. It wasquickly over, at least -- for a little while, anyway. AfterMayes left the stage, resident guitarist Derek O'Brienled an ensemble of original Antone's housebanders through a set of instrumental tedium that could've put a Tulsa blueshouse audience to sleep, finally capped by an appearance from Lavelle White, who warmed up nicely on "Take Me to the River," (Syl Johnson's big hit) before boogying through "Wrappin Up My Love." Then, in the wee hours of the morning, after much of the crowd had dispersed, Mayes came back. It had been a long night, but that didn't matter. Perfect. This time, Mayes' sideman, "Cousin" Bert Lewis, reduced to little more than a leisure-suited stage prop behind an electronic keyboard during the first set, took the upright piano, and O'Brien's crew stayed to support. Mayes eased into the low-down "Love Me or Leave Me," then threw body and soul into "Pretty Baby." Lo and behold, we had a blues show, Cousin Lewis hammering our responses to Mayes' guitar like a chorus of "Amens." Laying into T-Bone Walker's "Society Woman," Mayes' fingers finally showed a mind of their own, pushing up a tubular fuzz slide that ran right up against the backbeat and locked it in a rapturous embrace. Then Cousin Lewis took over on the Hammond, throttling those organ pipes into gurgling devil-screams fit for a Sunday service in East Austin. Mayes' own licks, mere glass-encased showpieces in the first set, built into furious climaxes that cascaded back on themselves like crashing Gulf swells. For those who didn't have an early appointment with a croissant the next morning, gritty old Houston came to visit, if only for a little while. -- Kevin Fullerton