The Backyard, April 9
In addition to classic rockers, fusion freaks, and guitarheads, Jeff Beck's audience teemed with local music illuminati, such as Eric Johnson, David Grissom, and Terry Bozzio, skinbeater on Beck's Guitar Shop. When Beck's three touring musicians (bass, drums, rhythm guitar) unceremoniously opened with "What Mama Said," from the excellent, decade-anticipated, new Who Else?, the middle-aged crowd responded with expected applause -- applause that turned into a standing ovation when the British stringbox deus joined in after a few bars. If you couldn't see the 54-year-old, mop-haired string maniac, the Marshall-stack-emanated squawks, slides, and slurs made it loud and clear that Beck was in the house. "Psycho Sam" strengthened the momentum, segueing into a third new tune, the open jam "Brush With the Blues." You'd think the last thing Beck would need is another guitarist, but credit the former Yardbird for enlisting gifted Jennifer Batten to play rhythm, MIDI tones, and duo leads. Blues-rock-jazz-else instrumentals were sampled from his influential discography, including the high-voltage jamathon "Led Boots," opener on Wired and a perfect vehicle for Beck/Batten harmony licks. Changing to another signature Stradivarius Stratocaster, Beck jumped into the melancholic ballad, "Cause We Ended as Lovers" from 1975's Blow by Blow, and later, "Savoy," from 1989's aforementioned Guitar Shop. It was a treat to hear these masterworks live, but new tunes were equally potent. In "Declan," bassist Randy Hope-Taylor jumped on guitar, while Batton conjured synth sounds, and drummer Steve Alexander switched to keyboard to create the thick atmospheric backdrop for Beck's mournful Celtic musings. And new song cautiousness be damned -- Beck inserted Gershwin melodies into "Space for the Papa." Peaks and valleys usually accompany instrumental guitar, and this show was no exception. Yet high points outnumbered the low, such as Beck's lyrical interpretation of the Beatles classic, "A Day in the Life." In spite of the torturous Backyard cattle-seating, the show had a loose, summer party feel, and Beck soaked it up. Eschewing stage banter, the influential strummer let his guitar do the talking, except after two encores when he thanked the audience, saying, "It was a gas!" He then lamented that he couldn't take the Austin audience to California, where "they need a little lively-ing up." Besides a hometown London gig, where could Beck find a more appreciative and familiar crowd? Closing zany stage antics proved the veteran had a grand time, and why not? Beck came to play, and the audience to be dazzled, both left satisfied.
-- David Lynch
THE FINAL CURTAIN
Electric Lounge, April 10
I don't remember my first trip to the Electric Lounge. It may have been an Ed Hall show, but I can't be too sure. The place just seems like it's always been there. Almost six years ago, some time in the summer of 1993 -- not too long after the club opened its doors -- I entered the Lounge for the first time. This past Saturday night, I walked out of it for the last time. Thoroughly dazed and slightly buzzed, with an evening full of anthems still ringing through my brain, I stumbled through the door, saying, "See ya" to the doorman, and wandered down the railroad tracks to find a friend's car. The Lounge lived through much change in the musical face of Austin as well as a fire that nearly gutted it a few years back, but it won't survive the new Target headed for Sixth and Lamar. Rob Bernard, guitarist for Prescott Curlywolf, said it best, rejecting sentimentality and diatribe and mumbling, barely into the microphone, "Man, I'm gonna miss this place." No tears, no wasted time, just a shake of the head and a launch into the searing riff of "Thicker." The room was fairly empty when Prescott went on just before 9pm, a situation to which the band is no stranger, but the people trickled in so that, by the end, a sizeable crowd got to see what they'd been missing by not seeing this band here when they had the chance. The famous cover segment of the show included Roger Miller, Guided by Voices, and Van Halen -- a dead-on rendition of "Hot for Teacher" that gave all in attendance a long look into Rob Bernard's closetful of metal. Fivehead had gone on first, taking the stage at 7pm in a much emptier room, but they played their asses off anyway, guitarist John Hunt busting two strings before borrowing a beat-up Stratocaster from Bernard. Can't Have Katherine, an acoustic duo with Archie the E-Lounge soundman on drums, played bare-bones roots music next, but the fire got started in earnest with Prescott, the flames fanned afterwards by SXIP, instrumentalist extrordinaire, and his long set of artistic interactions with recorders, tin whistles, and electronic microphone enhancements. "Devil's Daughters" and "Diamanda Sprinkle" were highlights of SXIP's set, as the onetime local transformed his breathing into percussive onslaughts and the hollow body of a flute into a massive pipe organ. He got an encore, but it was obvious what everyone was here for. If the Armadillo was all about Willie Nelson and Raul's was ruled by Scratch Acid, then the Electric Lounge can and must be pegged to the name of one man -- Hamell on Trial. Names like Joan Jett, Morphine, Cornelius, Cat Power, Sleater-Kinney and many, many more may bounce around as the best thing ever seen at the Electric Lounge, but Ed Hamell, this short, bald, sweaty guy with his beat-up acoustic guitar, came to symbolize the no-frills, raw-power approach to rock music that made the Lounge a mainstay. He attacked his guitar with a fury remarkable even for him. He told jokes, he flipped us the bird, and we smiled along with him. When he hit the last verse of "Big as Life" -- that part about looking around in any room in this building, any building on this street, any street in this town, any town in this world, and seeing that "blue, baby blue, that's the color we've all got," there was a peculiar spark in my sinus cavity, one that surged forward and welled up just behind both eyes, threatening release. And I wasn't the only one on whom the sadness was not lost. He closed with "Meeting," and when he sang, "You, me, the songs, guitar, and rock & roll" the sad smiles of many in the crowd were twitching at the edges. The Wannabes followed Hamell, a tough slot indeed, but one that this band has become adept at filling. Over their many, many years, this band has garnered much respect from fans and musicians alike, and it's no strange thing to see them headlining for bands with far greater crowd appeal. Sincola, Spoon, Sixteen Deluxe, all of them opened for the Wannabes when their stars were shining brightest. This night the Wannabes shined, engaging the crowd for a powerful hour of brittle-edged pop songs before Spoon took the stage. Like many bands this evening, Spoon grew up here by the railroad tracks. From novice trio to darlings of Matador Records to Elektra artists to jilted, unsigned veterans of the business, Spoon has traveled long stretches of the pot-holed road of the music business, always with the E-Lounge as a home to return to. And they were on this night. The old standards from their first CD, Telephono, were few, but the newer tunes, "Utilitarian," "Mountain to Sound," "Car Radio," and the rest from the last two albums, carried plenty of power. When the trio's set ended, a few people filed out, but anyone who had been to this joint before knew it wasn't really over yet. Spoon came back out, of course, playing the closest thing the club has to an anthem: "Waiting for the Kid to Come Out" from their Soft Effects EP. "This is the Electric Lounge. No one's afraid to laugh." At this point, the place was jammed, the crowd rubbing and stumbling and smoking all over one another, some singing along, some talking, some just looking around the room, fixing memories of the girdered ceiling and the brick walls, the twisted paintings by that dreadlocked guy who used to assault huge canvases during shows (yes, he was there, painting), the big red Electric sign hanging over the stage. "It's like being alive. It's a lot like what being alive is about," sang Daniel, and he was right. As the evening ended and the applause turned to shuffling feet, I stood fast, clinging to the wall next to the sound booth, watching people, some familiar but most not, file past and out the door, a squinty-eyed satisfaction on their faces. Under the glare of the house lights, Ed Hamell returned without a word and wrenched his guitar through "The Star Spangled Banner" to the bleary half-attention of the remaining audience. When he was done, he unceremoniously walked from the stage for the last time. It was a sad and beautiful moment. The perfect ending. Damn, I'm gonna miss that place.
-- Christopher Hess
THE MARSHALL ALLEN/TYRONE HILL QUARTET
Ceremony Hall, April 11
The Sun Ra experience was always about much more than just the music. The music was only the vehicle. You knew to check any preconceptions of reality at the door and let the sounds, sights, and spirits tranform and transport you into the collective cosmos. As spiritual gatherings should be, this, too, was intended as a communal experience. Le Sony'r Ra may have departed this planet, but the spiritual reverberations of his musical creations live on through his disciples, most notably alto saxophonist Marshall Allen and trombonist Tyrone Hill. Together with fellow Ra alumnus, drummer Luqman Ali, Houston bassist David Klingensmith, and locals Rashah Amen, adept percussionist for Cosmic Intuition, and the lovely vocalist/dancer Chandra Washington, who provided sparkling visual energy à la June Tyson, they collectively formed a mini Arkestra that, for the most part, successfully channeled the master's spirit through his music and ceremonial adjuncts. What was always particularly fascinating about Sun Ra was how he took the most fundamental elements of African-American musical tradition and used them in re-creating and rebirthing himself and his band into space-traveling futurists on a mission of spiritual enlightenment and brotherly love. Those elements were still very much in evidence as the standing-room-only throng of believers at Ceremony Hall for this Epistrophy Arts presentation proved openly receptive to the message and the messengers. Allen, Hill & Co.'s nearly two-hour set drew from jazz standards, originals, and, of course, Sun Ra classics. While Hill was the frontman, it was Marshall Allen who most embodied the essence of the Sun Ra mystique. An Arkestra member since the late Fifties and currently its leader/director, the 74-year-old saxman provided the most satisfying musical moments. Allen is most revered for his honking, outside flourishes, but his choice of Ellington's beautiful "Prelude to a Kiss" illustrates a sensibility more deeply rooted in the lyricism of Johnny Hodges than the harmolodics of Ornette Coleman. Which is not to say that he didn't contort Ellington's gorgeous melody into an interstellar declaration of free expression. Hill was equally at home with the fat, robust sound of an open horn or the guttural rasp of a plunger mute. His original, "Multiphonic Dreams," featured the trombonist belting out a sinuous melody reminiscent of Monk's "Epistrophy." The interplay of the horns was particularly complementary on Allen's "Angels & Demons at Play," a tune from the Arkestra's book and one that appears on the upcoming Tyrone Hill Quartet release with Allen, Out of the Box on CIMP Records. The crowd pleasers were, of course, the Ra sunbursts. A rambunctious reminder of Three Mile Island, perhaps just a coincidence to be hearing within a week of the 20th anniversary of the near nuclear meltdown, advised earth people to "kiss your ass goodbye." "We Travel the Spaceways" and "Mystery Mr. Ra" were classic Sun Ra intergalactic jams with drummer Ali turning the latter into a syncopated Bo Diddley raveup. The night ended in a communion of spiritual frenzy akin to a tent revival with band members chanting in the middle of the hall, while surrounded by a congregation of hand-clappping fellow space travelers. You just knew someone was peering down from the cosmos with a big smile on his face.
-- Jay Trachtenberg