Live Shots

Tom Russell

Cactus Cafe, May 7

By the time Tom Russell broke into "Gallo del Cielo," perhaps his most often covered and best-loved song, a heartwrenching narrative about Carlos Saragosa's gambling journey through Texas to California with a famed fighting rooster, undertaken so that he could buy back the land stolen from his family by Pancho Villa, the songwriter had long since won over the raptured Cactus Cafe crowd with an extended folk tale of his ancestors' tumultuous settling in the new world of America. With the exception of the opening song, a lovely waltz through "St. Olav's Gate," Russell's entire first set was the Reader's Digest version of the song cycle from The Man From God Knows Where, his latest release. The album is loaded with guest stars, but at the Cactus, it was up to Russell and guitarist Andrew Hardin to tell the tale, which prompted them to skip most of the songs featuring female guest vocals; he could do a good Dave VanRonk, but why try to best Iris DeMent? Russell's bell-clear baritone, smooth as honey, as mournful and beautiful as any voice can be, is the best kind for storytelling, which suits his songs perfectly. Yet, for all the charm and brilliance of Russell's songs, there was another force at work during this show: Andrew Hardin's guitar. The lanky New Yorker ran down country and flamenco on his acoustic with all the flair of 100 mariachis and 1,000 honky-tonkers. Not since David Rawlings stood next to Gillian Welch on the UT Ballroom stage has a guitarist seemed so adept at accompaniment. Singing only occasionally, to add the perfectly timed and inflected flavor to a chorus, Hardin made Russell's gems shine like diamonds. A turn through "Rider on an Orphan Train," "When Irish Girls Grow Up," and especially "Throwin' Horseshoes at the Moon," a song about his father, were highest of the high points -- and that was only the first set. The second included Russell favorites like "The Rose of San Joaquin," "Down the Rio Grande," and "Halley's Comet," all of which were excellent and more-than-ably accompanied. When it was finally time for Carlos Saragosa to leave his home in Casas Grande when the moon was full, the Cactus crowd, who had much more elbow room than this show should have allowed, knew that they were in the presence of one of America's finest songwriters. --Christopher Hess


GODZILLA MOTOR COMPANY, ANGEL ROT, TRANSFIXR

Ray Price at the Broken Spoke May 14
Ray Price at the Broken Spoke May 14

photograph by John Carrico

Emo's, May 10

Heavy metal, like two other musical movements that came of age in the Seventies -- punk and disco -- has proved more or less impervious to critical and cultural disfavor over the last two decades. Regardless of public opinion, it survives intact, assimilated into current music fashions, while remaining unaffected by time and trend at the fringes. Fringes like Emo's front bar on a Monday night. Playing to less than 20 scragglers, Tranfixr rained down thick sheets of Ride the Lightning-era Metallica, the local trio's deafening attack punctuated only by the sharp, unintelligible screams from the guitarist and bassist -- the groove as elastic as dance music despite progressive chord constructions. This was no dance music, however, the guitarist's t-shirt unabashedly announcing the band's musical mindset: Unsane. "Who are you?" yelled someone at the bar. "We're from this place," replied the bassist before the band stomped on another hornets' nest from their '98 self-released debut, Tincture. "This one is the theme of all our fucking songs -- making something of your fucking life." Not surprisingly, Transfixr's 35-minute set was arguably the best of the evening, flashing by like an all-too-brief thunderstorm. Inclement weather would be one way to describe New York trio Angel Rot, whose recent Man's Ruin debut, Unlistenable Hymns of Indulgent Damnage, said everything about their interminable set that screamer Tom Five's Flying V axe, squirrel skin guitar strap, and Manson family looks (Charles not Marilyn) didn't. "Step up closer," he entreated the crowd, which had doubled, "We're very sensitive as you can tell from our sound." This, of course, never works in Texas. "You're not responding," he sighed. A mad, raunchy gallop through the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive" proved the only highlight of Angel Rot's 40-minute set, which meant that by the time local heavy metal faves Godzilla Motor Company took the stage going on 1am, Monday was well past unwelcome. Nevertheless, the Austin fourpiece, led by ex-Dangerous Toyman Jason McMaste,r tore through their hour-long set like it was Saturday night at the Whiskey. The most conventional metal sound of the three bands, GMC managed to triple or quadruple the crowd, and for the McMaster, they did in fact "step up closer." They were not disappointed. Better yet, they made it clear they'd be there for the following show, and the one after that. Good, but next time, show up early for Tranfixr. Even heavy metal enjoys a little favor, sometimes. --Raoul Hernandez



DUKE ELLINGTON ORCHESTRA

Spiros, May 13

The timing couldn't have been any better. Two weeks to the day after many of us had had a veritable love fest in celebration of Duke Ellington's Centennial Birthday, the orchestra that bears his name came high-steppin' into town to inaugurate the city's newest wood-paneled, upscale venue, Spiros. The intimate, classy joint was an appropriate setting for this most elegant of jazz orchestras, now under the energetic leadership of 20-year-old grandson Paul Mercer Ellington. While the most renowned members of the incomparable orchestras have, of course, long since passed, this particular edition of the band has several members that go back at least 25 years to when the Maestro was still leading the group. Of these musicians, trumpeter and featured soloist Barry Lee Hall was the most outstanding, taking his turn alongside previous Ellington trumpet legends Bubber Miley, Ray Nance, and Cootie Williams, all of whom could growl that distinctive jungle siren with a plunger mute as well as blow a clarion call with an open horn. It's one thing to listen to Ellington's music on recordings and it's quite another to actually hear and see the music being played live. You get a much deeper appreciation for the orchestral textures and coloration when, for example, you see the trombone section rise and blow contrapunctually from the saxophone section as on "In A Mellotone" or when the multi-layered tones of the trumpet section blow through the roof as they did on "Rockin' in Rhythm." Opening the first of two sets with the jaunty "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and continuing through "The Mooche," "Sophisticated Lady," and "Satin Doll," it wasn't until about 20 minutes in that the band exploded in all its glory on the obscure blues rave, "22 Cent Stomp," a tune originally recorded in 1947 as "Slammer in D Flat," but never released until its subsequent re-recording to commemorate the 22-cent Duke Ellington postage stamp issued in 1986. Besides the classics, the orchestra also performed an original composition by the young bandleader, "The Jam," a sprightly piece that retained the spirit, if not the grandeur, of his grandfather's music. The first set ended with the two Ellington Orchestra themes: first, a rousing ride on Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," which featured James Bolden, B.B. King's long-time trumpeter and bandleader, and then the saucy original jungle-era theme, "East St. Louis Toodle-oo." By all accounts, it was a stunning performance, especially for an opening set, and quite a majestic christening for this new club. --Jay Trachtenberg


ARCHIE BELL & THE DRELLS

Top of the Marc, May 14

A lot has changed since 1968, but Archie Bell still works the "Tighten Up" onstage like it's the latest dance craze sweeping the nation. And why not? The most famous slice of soul Houston ever cut remains one of the most irresistible morsels confected in a time when the airwaves were flush with savory R&B nuggets. It's so indelible that merely playing it once was not enough this breezy Friday eve. Not twice, not thrice, but four times in the first two sets did that famous bassline sound out its Morse code to the hips and lower vertebrae. It first struck about 9:45pm, after a couple of warmups by the Drells -- three shaggy, sunglassed guys, and a close-cropped, goateed drummer -- after which Bell bounded onstage in resplendent violet, flanked by two backup singers/dancers fully clad in scarlet. Their infectious energy carried the band through "Soul Man," then "I Just Can't Stop Dancing," as Bell made good on his exhortation, "make it like a Baptist church in here," shucking, jiving, leading singalongs, and even doing push-ups in his excitement. "In the Midnight Hour" indulged Bell's freakier side, as did his repeated cracks about "squeezing the Charmin" and changing the words of "Under the Boardwalk" to "on a blanket with my baby, on top of me." We all know what dancing leads to, right? Then it was "Tighten Up" time once again, the extended version, as the bass, drums, guitar, keys, Archie, and the lubricated, inhibitionless audience all tightened up to the point of ecstacy for a good 10 minutes. After ample time to refill and refuel, Bell, now in black, returned for more oldies ("Knock on Wood," "Dock of the Bay"), sex talk (he's as fond of "Cherry Pie" as Warrant), and close-dancing medleys (for all the lovers). Nobody seemed to care that he only knew about half the words to "Mustang Sally" and that real horns always beat synthesizers, because -- you guessed it -- it was time to do the "Tighten Up" once again. Making the second full version longer, sweatier, and friskier than the first, it was obvious Bell knew what the people came for, and he delivered like UPS. All he needs now is a "Tighten Up '99" remix featuring Scarface, Eightball & MJG, and Lil' Ke'e. Somebody give him Master P's phone number. --Christopher Gray


THE HELLACOPTERS

Emo's, May 15

Going down into the cave-like confines of Emo's main stage, you pass the bands' merchandise booth. On this Saturday night, the small commercial outpost offered T-shirts, albums, and stickers from the Nomads, Quadrajets, and Sweden's electric metal outfit, the Hellacopters. Eyes were immediately drawn to the bright hues of the Hellacopters' stickers, featuring souped-up Fifties autos and the words "High Fidelity Audio Action." At the bottom, a devil mechanic offers to trade souls for a hot-rod engine. Next to the pile of stickers was a handwritten note encouraging fans to take freely, if possible reciprocating with recreational pharmaceuticals. Apparently those working were just as eager for a spring saturnalia release as those who paid the modest cover. Looking and playing like a Seventies hard rock band, the quintet (guitars, bass, keys, and drums) was led by two heavy-duty electrics, one played by a lefty, the other by a right hander. Utilizing these different playing orientations, the cock rockers frequently created a lead riff mirror image. Drawing from their upcoming Sub Pop debut, Grande Rock, and last year's Man's Ruin U.S. debut, Super Shitty to the Max, the Abba-antichrists melted like the club's interior -- hot and sticky. Not very diverse, but intense, loud songs played at a shotgun clip. Vocals got buried under the sonic wall, but the punk-metal set didn't care. Throughout the hour-plus set, mosh pits formed like coalescing Texas tornado storms, occasionally emitting lightning in the form of bottle-throwing brawls. Adding carnivalesque flavor to the outing was the band's comic/ironic delivery, like the bassist licking the keyboard. The Hellacopters pay an obvious theatrical debt to Kiss (for whom they opened a recent tour), but not because they wear lipstick and gothic codpieces. Rather, the Hellacopters play both sides of the campy fence, at times appearing as though they're not even sure which side they're on. At best, this playful attitude added tongue-in-cheek punch, at worse, caricatured self-parody. The throng by the stage did thin a bit when a new tune, "The Devil Stole the Beat From the Lord," chugged toward the end of the set, but this was probably due to crowd skirmishes, which led to several forcible ejections from the club. Encored back onstage, the band wisely led off with the incendiary "(Gotta Get Some Action) NOW!," the lead track on their superfine, melodically metallic Super Shitty to the Max. Release achieved. --David Lynch

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