Live Shots

The Barkers

Continental Club, May 25

Last turn of the century, Americans in the rural South had to work a little harder for their entertainment than the click of a mouse or the push of a remote control button. They'd work sunrise to sunset (or later) on the farm or at the sawmill, and a few times a year seek respite from their humdrum, workaday existences when the medicine show came to town. Fast-talking hustlers, also known as barkers, would hawk their various elixirs, tonics, and snake oil potions (including Coca-Cola with real cocaine), while an accompanying assortment of freaks, geeks, and performers occupied the crowd with an early version of Showtime at the Apollo. As time passed and radio, television, and the FDA came along, medicine shows passed into the same chapter of folklore as kinescopes, muckraking, and San Juan Hill. But the spirit lives on, and has lately manifested itself Tuesday nights at the Continental Club under a familiar name. Dipping into a well-stocked medicine chest of American roots music and pop, Austin's Barkers concoct musical creations as potent, unique, and addictive as any under-the-counter homemade headache powder. The electric-piano bounce of opener "Mary" was an infectious doppelganger for the juicier cuts off Wilco's Summerteeth, but after a hard right into the lurching waltz "Drive to Nebraska," echoes of "Stardust" surfaced in Alice Spencer's languid, commanding vocals as she swept luxuriously through supple phrases that fit the dreamy lyrics "maybe the moon will sing you a tune." The rest of the set followed suit as the group veered back and forth between cabaret and roadhouse. When Spencer climbed out from behind her keyboards and strapped on an accordion, Gourds fans far and wide would have eaten it up had they been there, as would anyone looking for a rootsier version of Combustible Edison or a barn dance hosted by the B-52's. Later forays found the band paying homage to Dylan and the Dead via Will Walden's guitar-harmonica tapestries on "Traveling Song" and the knocked-out loaded ".44 Magnum." Shutting down with "November," a lonesome lament highlighted by Bill Gribble's bowed standup bass -- drummer Steve Van Balgooyen having had the night's toughest task in keeping it all together, which he did -- the Barkers loaded up the wagon 'til next Tuesday, leaving the crowd marveling at this band of modern-day gypsies and fiending for another fix as soon as humanly possible. --Christopher Gray


Shaver, Joy Lynn White

Stubb's, May 22

Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy
at the 1st Annual
Antone's Blues Festival

photograph by John Carrico

Even though Billy Joe Shaver is approaching 60, he proved at this show that he doesn't plan on slowing down. He continues to amaze with a dynamic, amiable stage presence and a white-hot band led by his son, Eddie, an up-and coming guitar hero if there ever was one. Of course the fact that Shaver has some of best country songs ever written in his catalog goes a long way to making any one of his performances memorable. With the recently released Electric Shaver, a return to the band's loud and rowdy ways after last year's solemn acoustic effort, Victory, Billy Joe and company took most of their set from the new album. The modest crowd knew this was not going to be a sit-down affair when they pulled out the highly charged "Georgia on a Fast Train" for the second song of the set and never looked back. Billy Joe danced his funny jig, told humorous stories, and put his songs across with phenomenal energy, while the band turned from the country stylings of "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal" to the Southern rock of "People and Their Problems" to a bluesy take of "Honky Tonk Heroes" with dexterity and taste; when the drummer took a drum solo in the middle of "Thunderbird," what could have turned into a big rock show cliche became a reasonably timed and entertaining interlude that showed off his prodigious chops. By the time the set ended with the animated boogie of "The Hottest Thing in Town," everyone was drenched in sweat and satisfied. There surely could not have been a better way to spend a Saturday night in Texas. Joy Lynn White, part of Nashville's talented but underappreciated underground, opened the show with a solo acoustic performance that was powerful and mesmerizing. Performing mostly new, as yet unreleased material, she literally stunned the assembling crowd into paying attention with her soulful and clear vocals. At times, White's stage presence recalled a young Lucinda Williams, but where Williams would have honored Robert Johnson, White sang songs from Loretta Lynn and Jim Lauderdale that proved her roots are firmly country. --Jim Caligiuri


Neil Young

Bass Concert Hall, May 27

Surrounded by a semicircle of eight acoustic guitars and a banjo, Neil Young sat in a chair, looking slightly rumpled and supremely comfortable, and played. "I wanna live like a free-roaming soul on the highway of our love," he sang to the hushed ecstasy of every person who squandered their savings and half-filled the acoustically supreme Bass Concert Hall this Thursday night. "Songs fill the air, but there's no singer, just an old wooden guitar playing," the tune went on, and though the power of Young's playing was that of a junkyard magnet, pulling at the gut with every powerful strum, it was his voice, the thin, high tone that has haunted airwaves and rock & roll imaginations since 1969, that made the audience gasp again and again. The dark stage embellished only by three candlelit keyboards -- an upright piano, a grand piano, and a small, ornate pipe organ -- came to life as Young affirmed "No one wins, it's a war of man" in a wash of blood red light on the back wall fading to blue and back to red. Though visual stimulus was minimal, the simple sights proved profound, as Young moved through a large selections of brand new tunes, love songs all of them, trading guitar for guitar, playing harmonica, and shuffling to and from the keyboards. At one point, Young announced that one of his guitars belonged to Hank Williams ("This one ain't never gonna be in no Hard Rock Hotel"), and there were as many ghosts in the songs that came out of it as there surely were in the instrument's hollow body. All too soon, the hipster-doofus contingent who felt their ticket entitled them to participate began to yell out requests and comments (Tom Waits syndrome?), but the man on stage just grinned, taking it all in, playing his music. He did the hits, including "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," "Harvest Moon," "The Needle and the Damage Done," and "Sugar Mountain" in the second half of the show, but for the most part, the first night of Young's two-night stand in Austin was about new material, and the audience seemed glad to hear it. At the end of the second set, the performance reached its emotional climax as Young sat at the upright piano, harmonica in his mouth, and glided into "After the Gold Rush" to the uproar of the crowd. After the second verse, he blew on through the harp and made his way over to the pipe organ, where he brought the song to an unforeseen and impossible swelling of emotion and a crescendo of a conclusion that surely left not a dry eye or unlumped throat in the house. --Christopher Hess


20th Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards/Deborah Coleman/El Vez

The Orpheum/Rum Boogie Cafe & B.B. King's Blues Club/Elvis Presley's Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee, May 27-30

Jimmy Vaughn
Jimmy Vaughn
at the 1st Annual Antone's Blues Festival
photograph by John Carrico

It's an amazing thing standing in Sun Studio. Standing in the room the owners proudly proclaim as the "Birthplace of Rock & Roll." Having the tour guide take a heavy, stainless steel mike stand from against the wall of this one-room studio, place it on the "X" taped on the floor and say, "Elvis would have stood here, in front of this very microphone." Suddenly you can't take your eyes off that mike stand, listening to how it would have been the first microphone the poor, 18-year-old, simple country boy had ever sung into. Presley's first recorded vocal fills the room, the youngster's sweetly sincere voice blushing through an old reel-to-reel on which the Sun Studio tour revolves. The guide puts the mike stand back against the wall under a picture of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash all gathered around the Presley at the Sun Studio piano in the early Fifties. They are so young. The reel-to-reel punches up snippets of "Great Balls of Fire," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "I Walk the Line," all recorded in this one room -- maybe with that same microphone, echoing off the same floor tiles, same ceiling. Then comes an unmistakable sound -- one not necessarily associated with Sun Studio: B.B. King. Turns out the King of the Blues recorded some early sides at Sun Studio, a picture of the blues guitarist and Memphis' other King standing together also on the wall. The two of them, again, so young, so much of their incredible lives and careers still ahead. Half a century later, the two remain side by side more or less, in the form of the bustling nightclubs that bear their names on Memphis' famed Beale Street. Catty-corner from each other on a five/six-block strip of music venues and eateries that make Austin's Sixth Street look like a mall, B.B. King's Blues Club and Elvis Presley's Memphis (opened last year by the estate) crown the musical soul of a depressed city still scarred by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Only W.C. Handy, the turn-of-the-century "Father of the Blues," has a presence to rival the two Kings, his tiny, two-room shack the last outpost of one of this country's oldest centers of black entertainment. At the opposite end of Beale Street, one block up from Elvis Presley's Memphis, stands the Orpheum, a majestic old theatre in the tradition of Austin's Paramount Theatre if it were the size of Bass Concert Hall. On this last Thursday of May, the Orpheum could well have doubled for the Austin Music Hall, hosting Memphis' version of the Austin Music Awards -- the W.C. Handy Awards. As a matter of fact, the awards ceremonies could have been one and the same at various points in the evening, despite the AMA being local in scope and the Handy Awards representing on the national blues scene. Not only did Double Trouble back Kenny Wayne Shepard a day prior to their last Arc Angels reunion gig at La Zona Rosa, after the intermission and a two-song set by the W.C. Handy All-Stars (Pinetop Perkins on piano, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, drums, and Ronnie Earl on guitar among others), Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon came back out and presented an absent B.B. King with the "Country Blues Album" award for last year's superior Blues on the Bayou. That came after W.C. Clark, in competition with none other than Lloyd Maines, won the "Blues Artist Deserving Wider Recognition" award and following Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson duetting on two songs from their popular Sing It! album. In between, blues and R&B greats like Johnny Adams, T.D. Bell, Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson, and Joe Williams were remembered, while newcomer guitarist Susan Tedeschi, who electrified locals during Antone's Blues Festival two weeks ago, was presented with "Best New Blues Artist" honors by one of her contemporaries, Deborah Coleman. Koko Taylor ("Traditional Blues Female") received a standing ovation and gave a short, touching speech before Robert Johnson's stepson, 84-year-old Robert Lockwood Jr., treated hard-core genre disciples to two acoustic blues numbers, one of them Johnson's infamous "Love in Vain." Rod Piazza and Roomful of Blues played long, bland sets before honorary emcee Rufus Thomas, another favorite son of Memphis and Sun Studio, closed the show following B.B. King's being crowned "Blues Entertainer of the Year" by telling the predominantly white, not-quite-full house, "The blues was and will always be." Certainly it was the next night at Beale Street's Rum Boogie Cafe. With Tracy Nelson ably demonstrating what might have become of Janis Joplin if she'd matured enough to tame her fierce mojo -- the bigger half of the dark, comfortably worn, and roomy club hung with guitars owned by everyone from Willie Dixon to AC/DC's Angus Young -- and Deborah Coleman's guitar scorching the brick walls of the smaller stage next door, the Beale Street beacon pulsed like its neon sign out front. Coleman, especially, a dead-ringer for Angela Bassett, confirmed what her two releases for S.F.-based blues indie Blind Pig Records indicate: she's one to watch. The Virginia-based 42-year-old's charisma and welcoming stage presence, combined with an ability to coax fiery solos out of any of her solid originals -- as well as her terrific soul singing -- mean Susan Tedeschi and Sue Foley aren't the only ladies that look good in blue. A reworking of Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow" and her own "Feelin' Alright," both from Coleman's debut, and "The Dream" from last year's Where Blue Begins were set highlights in a 75-minute show with many, the crowd appropriately adoring. Another audience, found the next evening at B.B. King's Blues Club, was even more appreciative -- delighted when Coleman paid tribute to the club's namesake with an extended take on "The Thrill Is Gone." At this point, midnight Saturday night, Beale Street resembled what one wishes Sixth Street could be on weekends instead of a giant frat drunk: a racially integrated street party. Since open containers are legal in Memphis, there were more people on the street than in the clubs, which was just as well since none could have gotten into the best performance that night on Beale Street: El Vez -- "The Mexican Elvis." The first Elvis impersonator -- ahem, "tribute act" -- allowed to play Elvis Presley's Memphis, the punk rocker formerly known as Robert Lopez put on a private performance for a gathering of the worst sort: the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). And not just any performance. If the man who once led L.A.'s Zeroes with Javier Escovedo didn't put the best live set this Hard Rock Cafe knock-off is ever likely to witness, then only the real Elvis could have been better. Putting on his patented one-man Broadway-style tribute to the King, Lopez's wickedly satirical Mexicanization of the Elvis myth -- "Aztlan" for "Graceland," "Viva la Raza" for "Viva Las Vegas" -- had of course found its perfect home. For more than an hour, Lopez, backed by a quartet of cholos that included drummer Slim Allen from Austin and two Elvettes, retooled Presley-associated material and oldies radio staples like "Black Magic Woman," "Johnny B. Goode," "and "Sympathy for the Devil" to meet a decidedly Chicano agenda. By the time the grand "Viva Las Vegas"/"Suspicious Minds" finale finally rolled around, another King had been born. Viva el Rey! Taking care of business in a moustache. --Raoul Hernandez


Troy Young Campbell

Central Market South, May 30

Aaah, South Austin, my part of town. Drive the streets near Central Market and you'll see neighborhoods that don't look a lot different from a photograph from 1965. The trees are bigger, the cars are (hopefully) newer, but aside from that, it's much the same. It's a neighborhood with well-kept yards and modest, nicely landscaped homes, clean, quiet, and safe. Old timers will tell you about how Ben White used to be a two-lane blacktop with a flashing yellow light at Congress, and how a drive into town took about 10 minutes up Lamar. Well, mid-South Austin, welcome to the late Nineties. Central Market has changed the face of things, and not for the worse either. This fine Sunday afternoon found shoppers taking a break from the cheese bar and fresh produce section to sip an iced tea and take in the sounds of Troy Young Campbell, ably backed by Jon Sanchez on 12-string guitar. Campbell's songs are reflections on love, loss, and life in the big city Austin has turned into. There are no yearnings for life among the cedars in the Hill Country, no paeans to the open road, no beer-joint reminisces, or hell-raisin' anthems. Campbell's songs are pretty personal-sounding stuff, with threads of bitterness and regret running through many a composition. With the Loose Diamonds frontman's voice, however, and 12-string-and-upright-bass backing, his set never lapsed into overly sensitive singer-songwriter drivel. His vocals are strong. The only problem with Campbell's songwriting is that like his recent release, Man vs. Beast, too many songs have similar melodies and begin to run together after awhile; a few more uptempo numbers interspersed into the set would have been welcome. His songwriting is strong enough, though, to make up for a lack of diversity in style; the lyrics can carry the weight of nearly every song. Central Market is a damn fine place to see an acoustic set, and Troy Campbell is a good choice for the semi-outdoor setting of the Café. --Jerry Renshaw


Susan Tedeschi
Susan Tedeschi
at the 1st Annual Antone's Blues Festival
photograph by John Carrico

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