Twenty-five Years and Counting, the Tradition Lives On
At half past 10pm on a sticky night in late September, Antone's Monday Night Blues Band is already cranked up and wailing. Guitarist and bandleader Derek O'Brien is working on a shuffle and gives a nod to bassist Roscoe Beck, inviting to the stage local guitarslinger Chris Duarte as vocalist Mike Cross takes a break. Riley Osborn and George Rains fall into the easy rhythms of keyboards and drums respectively as Duarte sprints up the steps to plug in with the veteran crew onstage.
Duarte is a seasoned musician himself with all the right credentials, but next to these musicians, he's practically a newcomer. Still, he matches O'Brien's ultra-cool style with a fiery spirit and determination, thrilled to be playing with the Monday Night Blues Band and grinning happily between songs. When O'Brien calls up singer Lou Ann Barton and Preston Hubbard, former bassist with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Duarte's smile brightens by a few hundred watts as the band slides into Slim Harpo's loping "Scratch My Back."
Barton rarely plays the Monday Night Blues jams, but she's here tonight because Hubbard is an old friend who's recently been released from prison; since he hasn't played onstage in years, she's eager to celebrate by performing with him. Hubbard's jazzed to be holding a bass, and to be among friends in such a comforting atmosphere only makes it better. Duarte is enjoying the best of their world and his. O'Brien is just doing what he does best: playing guitar and making good blues music. Which is exactly what's been happening at Antone's nearly every Monday for more than 25 years.
The new millennium and all its attendant flash is light years from Antone's early days at Sixth and Brazos in the mid-Seventies, before Sixth Street became synonymous with frat bars and Jell-O shots. And with a peculiar symmetry, blues seems to be as unfashionable now as it was then. Other clubs like the 311, Babe's, and Pearl's book equally respectable blues acts, but nowhere is the current as electric as the one that ran through the Austin scene in the Seventies and Eighties.
Passing the Hat and the Tradition
The second band Derek O'Brien ever played with was Southern Feeling in the early Seventies, fronted by the estimable duo of W.C. Clark and Angela Strehli. He recalls that Jimmie Vaughan's Storm set the precedent for Blue Mondays back then, holding down a weekly gig for nearly five years at the One Knite, the predecessor of Stubb's.
"That's what shaped and fed all the other Blue Mondays, that pass-the-hat club," recalls O'Brien. "The One Knite has resonated through the years, and that's the tradition Clifford [Antone] continued, but to a better degree. He made them happen; even at the Rome Inn his influence was there. He later got Wednesdays going on Guadalupe with Angela in the Eighties."
O'Brien claims a faulty memory, but his recollection of events is quite good. When Antone's opened 25 years ago, the Fabulous Thunderbirds became the house band and held court every Monday. As one of Clifford's stable of young guitarists, O'Brien, then in his mid-20s, got to share the stage with blues royalty like Sunnyland Slim and Albert Collins.
Antone's various locations are often used to describe its eras. There's the original "downtown" location at Sixth and Brazos, "up north" in a warehouse off Anderson Lane, "Guadalupe" for its longest residence north of the University, and finally back "downtown." O'Brien also recalls that when Antone's moved north the club lost its accessibility as a hangout even though its concert capacity allowed for a variety of acts such as Asleep at the Wheel, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Jones, and Ray Charles. The club didn't thrive north, and when it closed at the end of the Seventies, the Blue Monday tradition moved elsewhere.
"Rome Inn," Lou Ann Barton's voice is rapturous. "The Thunderbirds did every Monday and Stevie [Ray Vaughan] and I did every Sunday. That was when Stevie and the Thunderbirds and I were all at our peak, before we started getting too out of control. The happenin', hot, killer Blue Monday started at the Rome Inn. That was big Blue Monday.
"It might have been we were young, but the Thunderbirds were so good. I mean, I was married to or going with one of them and singing in the band and still I'd go see them and they'd knock me out every time. It was a religious experience, like, 'Goddamn! Yeah!' I get a rush just thinking about it."
Even though Antone's didn't reopen until the early Eighties on Guadalupe, after the Rome Inn shut down, the local blues scene was still crackling with energy. When Clifford Antone revived the Monday night blues party tradition, the musicians packed the stage and the club.
"George Rains on drums, Sarah Brown on bass, Denny Freeman on guitar, Mel Brown on organ, me -- and usually Kim Wilson," says O'Brien ticking off names nonchalantly, conjuring great memories of hot bluesy nights. "Larry Fulcher, Charlie Sexton, Ian Moore, Mike Buck, Kaz Kazanoff, Jon Blondell, Angela Strehli, Frosty, and dozens of others have played off and on throughout the years. Kim and Stevie especially just loved to play and would play all night."
"We'd come off a grueling tour and head straight for Antone's to jam some more," remembers Preston Hubbard, evoking the Thunderbirds' most successful era. "Nothing felt more like coming home than being on that stage."
Nationally, the Fabulous Thunderbirds took off in 1985 with the multi-platinum Tuff Enuff, while Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble were introducing blues to a new generation all over the world. On the home front, O'Brien and the Monday night crew were keeping the blues fires smokin'. To O'Brien, the spirit of play was most important.
"The music held everyone together, because it sure wasn't the money," he chuckles.
Chris Duarte was present for many of those magical nights.
"I used sit at Derek's feet," he offers. "Still do. I'm still in awe of that man."
Not surprisingly, Antone's on Guadalupe gave Duarte a memorable course in the blues during the Eighties -- lessons he remembers well.
"I started playing with Bobby Mack & Night Train every Tuesday for a month, every Wednesday for a month -- sometimes the door take would be $10, $12 and Clifford would throw in enough money so that we walked out with about $20-$25 each," recalls Duarte fondly. "Clifford has always been the man. He still calls me 'young maní' because he remembers me at 19."
Not surprisingly, Stevie Ray Vaughan's death in August of 1990 is often cited as the end of that golden era of blues. O'Brien sees that and Jimmie Vaughan's departure from the Thunderbirds as a turning point, almost stunned by the realization that it's been a decade of "no Stevie and Jimmie gone from the 'Birds."
"I've let this just sit in the lower part of my consciousness for a very long time," says O'Brien thoughtfully. "The soul wasn't gone, but the heart was. Stevie had such a short run, really. He came from the blues school everyone loved. Stylistically, he was in so many arenas. He and Jimmie both had been in practice for what they wanted to do since they were kids. And Blue Monday helped shape Jimmie and Stevie."
In Lou Ann's impromptu set, she finishes singing two more Slim Harpo numbers, "Hip Shake" and "Tee Ni Nee Ni Nu," then calls for songs by Wanda Jackson ("Let's Have Party"), Lazy Lester ("Sugar Coated Love"), and Dorothy LaBostrie ["You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don't Take My Man")]. These names meld seamlessly with Chicago favorites like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Buddy Guy and Southern favorites like Jimmy Reed, Albert Collins, Howlin' Wolf, and Albert King. Unfortunately, there's only a dozen people in the club to witness the proceedings. What happened to the audience for this great music? Isn't Austin a blues town?
Where Did the Audience Go?
"Hell no, Austin's not a blues town," states Barton flatly. "I don't know what it is anymore. It's all died off."
Not everyone responds so colorfully, but Lou Ann was there for it all, so she gets her blunt say about the scene. She doesn't think the music's gone out of style, but says it's hard to get the audience's attention these days.
"Even when Antone's is completely packed for Jimmie's shows, they just stand there," grouses the singer. "We used to dance and scream. Something's wrong."
Brad First has been managing clubs in Austin since the early Eighties and has been at Antone's for nearly two years. He's proud to continue Clifford Antone's Blue Monday tradition but admits it's not going particularly well.
"It's sad to see only 25 or 30 people show up," he sighs. "The band's not making any money -- not that they're doing it for money, but they'd like to be able to pay for gas and dinner and drinks. It's also surprising the impact that Monday Night Football has."
First laughs ruefully.
"It's unreal," he says. "Half the house disappears when Monday Night Football starts."
First notes that Guy Forsyth brings out a young crowd on Sunday nights, but is otherwise at a loss to explain the lack of audience except to echo a popular sentiment: "Austin is just not a blues town."
He should know. The very vital, distinctly American sound of blues is not what is supporting Antone's these days. The club's current good health owes more to George Devore and Monte Montgomery than Buddy Guy. Although the club has been called "The House that Muddy Built," it's necessary to amend the phrase "and Bob Schneider Refinanced." Most of the audience attending the Scabs' funkfests wouldn't know Slim Harpo from Iceberg Slim or Guitar Slim, much less which of those three was a pimp and not a blues musician.
Still, they stand on hallowed ground, if by default, in the club that has brought in so many legendary names it practically reverberates. And for those who were too young to see Willie Dixon or Junior Wells, the Monday Night Blues jam carries on the tradition. It's where the musicians get to indulge themselves in what inspires them the most.
Lou Ann Barton features a few Slim Harpo numbers in her set, but her favorite is Jimmy Reed and she says he always will be.
"I heard that music as a little girl," she explains, "but when I heard it again as a teenager, I found my place in life. I found what made me feel good. Life was worth livin'."
For Chris Duarte, the opportunity to play his favorites with veteran musicians is irresistible, even to an empty house.
"I like singing like Howlin' Wolf," he enthuses. "I don't have his voice, but it's that depth of emotion. Playing Antone's on a Monday night is great, because you're playing with the cream of the crop of local if not national musicians. I know I can step on the stage and pull some Howlin' Wolf songs out of the bag and Derek and Roscoe and George and Riley will fall into it, because they can play anything. That's the great thing. It's not just a blues party, it's a real musical party."
Derek O'Brien wants one thing made clear.
The Champion of Blues
"There's no way to really discuss the Monday Night Blues Party without bringing Clifford Antone into the picture," asserts the guitarist. "He always gave younger players the chance to play with the authentic bluesmen, and that's the greatest gift."
O'Brien is right to name Antone as a champion of the young musician. It was the clubowner's whisper into Albert King's ear that led to a young Stevie Vaughan venturing onstage with the guitar great. Antone has presided as headmaster, schooling several generations of young musicians, including David Murray, Charlie and Will Sexton, Ian Moore, Chris Duarte, Sue Foley, the Keller brothers, Jake Andrews, and most recently, two teenage guitarists named Gary Clark and Eve Monsees.
Monsees is a remarkably self-composed young woman of 17 who got her first guitar at age 12 and was opening for Jimmie Vaughan at Antone's 24th anniversary, an event she modestly shrugs off to being in the right place at the right time. There's no question that being at Antone's has been the right place for many, many blues players before her. Monsees just hopes it's the right time for her.
"I'm still in high school and have to get home at a decent hour, but I try to sit in with them sometimes," she says. "It's always cool to play with people who are better than you. That's what's good about playing with John McVey -- I'm really learning to play. It's great to be around people so willing to share what they have learned."
She's getting her blues schooling in the slot before O'Brien and company, with a band called Eve Monsees & the Stroll, which she freely admits is just John McVey & the Stumble with her in the group. It's a form of "band-sharing" that suits both of them. More importantly for Eve, the shows are life lessons, and she completely understands their value.
Clifford Antone himself handpicked Monsees as one of the musicians to develop, and First agrees with the call, even though she hasn't generated a draw yet. First can rattle off a number of up-and-comers he admires, enough to make the showing by the younger generation impressive.
"I like her, I like Gary Clark -- I love Carolyn Wonderland. Jake Andrews is back, I like this new singer Linda Freeman with the band."
First's ability to reel off so many names goes a long way in easing concern for the future of the blues, but Eve Monsees experiences frustration with her age group.
"Gary Clark and I are always talking about how funny it is to be a couple of kids in high school who want to be part of the blues scene and play with the musicians that made it," she reveals. "Then we go to school and are in a group of people just listening to Top 40 and hip-hop and punk. Blues just doesn't get the attention it deserves."
Sometimes the attention comes in ways that aren't obvious. During Antone's 25th anniversary show last July, Monsees was invited onstage to play with Big Bill Morganfield, Muddy Waters' son. The high schooler held her own and took her bow when she was done. What she didn't see was Angela Strehli standing by the side of the stage taking in the young guitarist going lick-to-lick with Morganfield.
Strehli was nodding and smiling, watching Monsees' gutsy performance, and no doubt remembering her own experiences as a young girl singing and playing bass and harmonica. Strehli looked like the Queen Mother watching the investiture of the next wearer of the crown. For Monsees to have gotten that kind of nod from Morganfield and Strehli is as good as it gets.
On a freezing December night, Malford Milligan is joining the Monday Night Blues Band. The popular singer for Austin's late, great Storyville, Milligan knows the value of these Monday night gatherings. He's played enough of them in his day, especially when he's in-between bands, and both Derek O'Brien and Brad First refer to his returning to the fold with great enthusiasm.
Back to Basics
Monsees has finished her set with John McVey, another longtime club vet and is hanging around for a little while, watching Malford before going home. It's a school night for the teen, but she's pragmatic about the lack of audience.
"Right now Antone's may not have the strength it once did," she says sagely, "but Blue Monday keeps that soul going. They've all been there, they're passing it along, but I get frustrated when there's only 15 people in the club to hear it."
First wants audiences to know how easy the Monday shows are.
"Truly great musicians for $5!" he enthuses. "Malford is coming around again and so's James Cotton, because he lives here now. Besides him, Chris Duarte and Jake Andrews are probably the most national names; Jake put out that record last year, toured his brains out, and then took a year off. So we're bringing him out of retirement at 19."
He laughs. The laughter is not hollow. If anything, it's filled with hope. Playing to tiny audiences isn't profitable, but it's more natural to blues than spotlights and concert halls.
"Those kids like Gary and Eve -- that says it all," declares Barton. "There will always be blues lovers for blues bands. It's got so much soul and that good drivin'í rock & roll. There's no denying how damn good the music is. The blues will never go away."