Brian Setzer Orchestra, Br5-49
First off, I don't dance. Aside from occasionally twisting like Chubby Checker with a slipped disc, my efforts at dancing resemble a trained bear shambling around with two left feet and fallen arches. BR5-49 almost made me cut loose, though (footloose). The Nashville combo paid their dues on Music City's Lower Broadway scene longer than most bands have been around, and their razor-sharp chops show through in their live show. Every member of the band is good, but the star of the show is the Mechanic of Hillbilly Music, Don Herron, switching effortlessly from fiddle to pedal steel to mandolin to lap steel and proving himself equally adept at all of them. With a sound that harkens back to forebears like Faron Young and Hank Sr., BR5-49 are nevertheless not so traditional that they would have made it on the Grand Ole Opry in, say, 1953; listen to their lyrics sometime for their dope-smokin' references (esp. the fable of the lost Andy Griffith episode, "Me & Opie Down by the Duck Pond"). The Backyard crowd of Levi's Dockers folks, rockabilly cats, and even the occasional mohawk-head was disappointed when their set lasted only 30 minutes, but the malaise vanished when the Setzer big band came on stage. With a horn section blasting away loud enough to knock a house down, the ex-Stray Cat wore a godawful star-spangled suit and the grin of a man who's extremely happy and comfortable doing what he's doing. The band did their part, no doubt, especially a trumpet man who bore a resemblance to Mark Katz and Al Hirt both, but it's all Setzer's show. With his guitar riding over the top like the surfer in the opening of Hawaii Five-O (the kickoff to their set), he ripped open licks that came more from Joe Pass and Barney Kessel than Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore. Brandishing an assortment of fat candy-colored Gretsch guitars, Setzer pursued his true love, jazz guitar, but also did some fingerpicking stuff that was as clean as Chet Atkins himself. His astounding instro version of "Stranger on the Shore" was pulled off with less effort than most people use to parallel park. Of course, no Brian Setzer set would be complete without covers of "Stray Cat Strut" (segued nicely into "The Pink Panther Theme"), "Rumble in Brighton," and "Rock This Town"; he may be sick of them, but the crowd wasn't. Think what you want about the whole swing/big band /jump blues thing, but this is obviously what Brian Setzer is happy doing. Damn, all too soon it was over, leaving more than a handful of ham-fisted guitar dawgs seized with the urge to go home and beat themselves unconscious with their Les Paul copies. And I almost danced, too.
-- Jerry Renshaw
BIG BILL MORGANFIELD & THE ROLLING FORK REVUE
Antone's, August 7
What's in a name? For Big Bill Morganfield, quite a lot. The son of the late great McKinley Morganfield -- aka Muddy Waters -- Big Bill and his legendary last name came riding into Austin with a solid buzz preceding them. A strong debut on Blind Pig Records, a place on the top of the blues charts, and Pinetop Perkins and Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin in his band were enough to get Big Bill top billing at Antone's and $15 at the door to boot. It was no small matter, then, that a half-hour into his headlining set, Big Bill still hadn't hit the stage. When the self-styled rising son finally did come out, he pulled up a chair and laid into the microtonal Delta slide of Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues," singing with a babble and moan that suggested John Lee Hooker more than his famous father. Muddy simply sang, and it moved the world; Big Bill relied more on tricks and stutters, having something of the timbre, but neither the confidence nor the simple steam engine power of his pa. No matter: The crowd went wild whenever Big Bill pulled out the palsies, as he did on any number of his father's signature songs -- "Mannish Boy," "Got My Mojo Workin'," and "Hoochie Coochie Man." Seven songs later, Big Bill was back off the stage, no doubt resting regally in the wings, and Pinetop Perkins came out for his own natty set, lookin' good as ever with his gray head, green hat, and powder blue suit. Pinetop, part of Muddy's last great band, ain't what he used to be, but he ain't no slouch either, and it's awful nice to hear him play them keys when most men his age are pushing up daisies or, at the least, taking an awful lot of naps. And so it went, first set and second, a bluesman's round-table that saw Pinetop, Morganfield, and the Rolling Fork Revue swapping time, with plenty of guests attending. Margolin logged thrice as much stage time as Morganfield, but then he deserved to: The old man can flat-out play circles around the rising son. An underwhelming show, when all was said and done, but give Big Bill credit for this much at least: a sharp mustache, a commanding stage presence, and at least a li'l of something in the old blood, something that moves mysteriously in the night, something worth hearing again. Was it the second coming of Muddy Waters? Of course not. It was, however, the first coming of Big Bill. To Austin and Antone's, anyway. -- Jay Hardwig
LUCIANO, DEAN FRASER & THE FIREHOUSE CREW
Flamingo Cantina, August 8
It's hard to remember when anyone in the reggae world rolled through Austin with a comparable set of pipes. Luciano's smooth, deep, clarion tones reminded this jazzbeaux of soulful crooner Lou Rawls. From the moment he hit the stage, following warm-up segments of two tunes each from the Firehouse Crew, singer Mikey General and saxman Dean Fraser, Luciano had 'em eating out of his hand. While many of the dates on his current tour have found this entourage at reggae festivals playing to thousands and thousands of fans, or, conversely, to a pathetic 100 people the previous night in Houston, Luciano & Co. seemed delighted with the full house in Flamingo's intimate environs. Running back and forth diagonally across the small stage in order to serenade both sections of the adoring audience, he often seemed to have trouble containing himself, as if he were seeking a stack of speakers to climb upon. In a genre often dominated by self-centered, gangsta-style DJs, Luciano has amassed an impressive string of hit records preaching a positive message of reverence, hope, and racial unity. Augmented by a trio of female vocalists plus Fraser on vocals and sax, Luciano opened his segment of the show with a rousing "Must Ragga Muffin" riding Aswad's crucial Love Fire/Promise Land riddem. The first part of his set then settled comfortably into a series of older, roots-style riddems that had the crowd grooving effortlessly. Unfortunately, the operation soon seemed to lose momentum and bogged down midset. It also became apparent that, disappointingly, Dean Fraser was going to do more backup singing and band directing than sax playing. Not a great soloist by jazz standards, his tone and delivery are, however, ideally suited for reggae and on the rare occasions when he did blow, the crowd went wild as he boosted the energy level skyward. Things kicked back into gear with a heartfelt, two-song tribute to the late and very influential Dennis Brown. Luciano then came down the home stretch pulling out the stops. With the well-oiled Firehouse Crew cranking out some of the hot Xterminator riddems that have dominated reggae down yard in recent years, he let rip his big hits "Who Could It Be," "Sweep Over My Soul," "Chant Down Babylon," and of course the international smash, "It's Me Again Jah." While this fan dearly loves the old school, roots & culture bands that visit Austin every year or two, it's certainly a nice change to experience a currently popular reggae star, such as Luciano or Beenie Man, for, among other reasons, the excitement they generate and the diverse crowd they draw.
EARL POOLE BALL BAND
Ego's, August 10
Even when legends play Ego's cozy parking-garage hideaway, it's still like a performance in the basement from The '70s Show. Earl Poole Ball spent 20 years tickling the ivories for Johnny Cash, five years with Buck Owens, sat in for two Flying Burrito Bros. albums and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and even appeared in 1993's Nashville drama, The Thing Called Love. Thus, this Tuesday date at Ego's was one of those situations, like Kelly Willis at Threadgill's or a surprise Damnations show at Hole in the Wall (it could happen!), that still makes Austin somewhat more unique and exciting than killing a case of Bud after getting off at the local Pottery Barn. Plus, there's nothing more uniquely Austin than lousy vocal miking. Other cities surely have their sound problems, but deciphering lyrics in Austin barrooms is an exercise worthy of Stephen Hawking. Thankfully, Ball's piano came through loud and clear even if his vocals didn't. That was the important thing; a few bars of "Swingin' Doors," "Long Black Veil," or "Blue Suede Shoes," and the lyrics run through your head like Jesse Owens anyway. Pounding the keys as if his Kurzweil PC-88 were an eight-foot Steinway, Ball turned weepers like Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe," Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors," and a version of "Sing Me Back Home" oddly reminiscent of Dylan's "Desolation Row" into loser anthems where the sheer force of the chords laid bare the raw emotions behind the songs, rendering the lyrics irrelevant (or almost). Animated versions of "Great Balls of Fire" and "My Babe" had the spry Ball stretching bassist Bill Campbell, guitarist John X. Reed, and drummer Teri Coté to their limits -- "Johnny B. Goode" even drew a noise complaint from the neighboring apartments. Once a set, he would turn over the mike to a fetching young chanteuse -- Floramay Holliday for a husky "Hickory Wind," a woman named Sharon for a spirited "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down," and Christina Marrs for a frenetic but virtually inaudible "Got My Mojo Workin'" -- and play sideman again, a sprightly twinkle in his eye and magic in his fingers. Maybe Santa can bring Ego's a new PA this year, because it's a shame to see Ball, Ted Roddy, Dale Watson, Bobby Doyle, or anyone else in such close quarters sounding like their voice is being piped in through four feet of attic insulation. -- Christopher Gray
'N SYNC, JORDAN KNIGHT, SHANICE WILSON, THIRD STOREE
Alamodome, San Antonio, August 17
Homemade banners and posters filled the garbage cans at the Alamodome's entrance, girls scrambling to rip off cherished photos right before the guards snatched them away. Stripped of her sign, one teen scrawled "Justin" across her burgeoning chest, the statement blurry with summer sweat. The security guards watched the mayhem with tired eyes -- it'll be even worse when Ricky Martin comes in November -- but for the other 25,000 congregated here, this was anything but business as usual. Pop sensations Britney Spears and reigning boy wonders the Backstreet Boys dissed San Antonio on their tour schedules, but on this night, the crowd will get to see 'N Sync. And they want to make sure of one thing: that 'N Sync gets to see them. An earlybird concert with a 7:30pm kickoff time, the show also boasted three opening acts: hip-hoppers Third Storee, R&B diva Shanice Wilson, and ex-New Kid on the Block Jordan Knight. Easily the most anticipated of the openers, Knight swiftly proved that even six years as a Jay Leno punchline can't squash some egos. But the shameless self-promotion was nothing compared to the 28-year-old Jordan cooing to an audience ranging mostly between a wee 4 and 15: "You know what I've noticed about San Antonio? All the fine laaaadies." Yuck. When 'N Sync came onstage at 9:30pm, the sexual innuendos were replaced with googly-eyed fun, jumpstarted by a bombastic entrance in which the quintet were lowered onstage with ropes to the "Mission: Impossible" theme. It was only the first of many reminders that pop concerts today are a new breed: theatrical and video-heavy, with equal billing given to product placement, costumes, choreography, and -- wait, it'll come to me -- music. If the show's decade-themed concept numbers seemed more than a tad numb-brained -- including a Seventies sequence in which the quintet donned Afro wigs (!) to imitate the Jackson 5 and a Sixties tribute in which the chosen song was "That Thing You Do" (?) -- none of it seemed to faze the screaming teenage girls, who waved their $6 glo-sticks, clutched their $9 glossy photos, and hugged each other in excitement. When it came time for the last song of the evening, "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You," a contagion of hand motions spread through the audience. The girls pointed at the sky, shook their hands down to their sides, swept them across invisible space palm-side up, and generally acted out 'N Sync's video. For the rest of us, it looked like some secret campfire ritual. When the group exited after an hour-long set, they were quickly rallied back for more encores, but it couldn't last too long; girls filled with dreams and emptied of their babysitting money scurried to get home by the stroke of midnight. After all, tomorrow is another school day. -- Sarah Hepola