Willie, ghosts, and the White Stripes all in all, a good week
Red, White, & Blue
The line stretched around the corner of Ninth and Red River streets down to I-35, as the newspapers and magazines awaiting disposal at the nearby Austin Recycling Center lay wilting in the unforgiving June heat. The occasion was the long-awaited local return of the White Stripes, the dichromatic Detroit ex-couple who have themselves recycled forgotten American folk-song texts into the most exhilarating music to hit the charts since Nirvana. In their first Austin appearance since September 2001, shortly before their breakthrough White Blood Cells blasted its way onto MTV, Jack White and his so-called sister Meg leveled the mountain of hype accompanying their return with two sets of torrential blues, ballads, and thunderous rock. The first show, played out as an early-evening breeze wafted mercifully over Stubb's outdoor amphitheatre, exposed the twisted roots lurking beneath the Stripes' façade of childlike innocence. Abundant references to motherless children and killing floors stood in sharp contrast to the unironic sweetness of "Hotel Yorba" and "We're Going to Be Friends." Jack's mojo hands exercised free reign over "The Hardest Button to Button," while a cover of Bob Dylan's scathing "Love Sick" and new LP Elephant's epic "Ball and Biscuit" both revealed the former upholsterer to be, at 27, already a fair approximation of the bluesmen he so reveres. But he's a rock star, too, a point driven home emphatically during the second set. Starting with White Blood Cells' frenetic "Little Room," the hardly winded duo stormed through several stompers ("Black Math," "Hello Operator"), pausing only for a tension-filled rendition of Dolly Parton's "Jolene." Factoring in totems like "Fell in Love With a Girl," "The Same Boy You've Always Known," and "St. James Infirmary Blues," the most telling song of the set was another cover, Kander & Ebb's "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago. His newfound celebrity may have Jack feeling transparent these days -- even as drummer Meg's studied nonchalance was so pronounced she hardly seemed to break a sweat -- but the Stripes' dynamic translation of the blues for a generation reared on Eric Clapton's Michelob commercial was seldom short of superb. In total agreement was Stubb's owner Charles Attal, beaming in spite of the fact that his venue barely broke even on these potentially back-breaking shows. (The late show sold out; 100 tickets were left for the early show, bringing the total number sold to approximately 4,400.) "It's the rock show of the summer!" he gushed, and it was impossible to disagree.
Lost Austin: 'Inquire 711 Red River'
Elysium, Austin's Goth/industrial/retro haven, has only been around since 2001, but the building at 701-711 Red River was erected in 1880, and by various people's reckonings has been home to a blacksmith, whorehouse/gambling parlor, police station, fire station, garage, and auto-parts store. Oh, and a stable for Gen. George A. Custer's mules. Since the Seventies, bygone nightspots such as Kilimanjaro, Sanitarium, and Atomic Cafe have been inhabitants. Among the more recent debris strewn across the club's rambling attic -- like large black crosses left over from the Atomic's bondage nights -- are remnants of earlier times: a dumbwaiter, a dressing screen, and chandeliers predating electric lights. The piecemeal roof, rebuilt at least once due to fire, contains a board with the cryptic instruction to "Inquire 711 Red River" -- about what, it doesn't say. Current owner John Wickham is content to leave the attic be, saying, "The only thing we've tried to do is get rid of some of the junk up there." The same, however, can't be said of some former occupants: Some current employees believe the place is haunted. Part-time worker Kyle Wadge says that when he and a pal were shooting pool alone in the club in April, he looked up and saw a man with long black hair, black ball cap, goatee, and black shirt sitting at the bar. He looked up again and the man was gone. Later, he described what he'd seen to a fellow employee, who produced a picture of Randall Goodwin, the former Atomic Cafe owner who committed suicide in 1999. "It was the same guy," marvels Wadge. Sarah Wickham, who oversees the club's Regression and Resurrection nights as DJ Pumpkin Spice, also reports seeing Goodwin's shade, describing him as a "sweet spirit," and while in the DJ booth, feeling a phantom tap on her shoulder more than once. Others report bizarre fever dreams involving mysterious vortexes and falling sensations, while Wickham himself is so accustomed to supernatural phenomena at his club that these days he hardly bats an eye. "I've walked in here plenty of times and seen stuff out of the corner of my eye," he says. "That happens all the time."
TFR's Dry Well
It's a tale as old as time, or at least as old as public funding for the arts: When budgets are in turmoil, expenditures in the cultural arena are the first to get axed. With finances in the crapper at state and local levels, Texas Folklife Resources finds itself facing an estimated shortfall of up to 60%. Adding insult to injury, private foundations that have been generous in the past are now diverting their funds to various social-services programs, whose public support has likewise been slashed. "We've never seen a year like this," worries TFR Director Martha Norkunas. "They're saying, 'We love your work, but we've been funding social services.'" As expected, TFR has had to pare its activities down considerably, refocusing its efforts on core programs such as Accordion Kings and community residencies. Like so many others, they're praying the economy eventually turns around. Happily, Norkunas says people have been "coming out of the woodwork" to help the beleaguered nonprofit: Mingo Saldivar and the Gulf Coast Playboys will play a TFR benefit Aug. 26 at La Zona Rosa, with another close to being confirmed for Aug. 5 at the Broken Spoke. TFR board members have been doing their part by hosting a series of house parties, while musicians friendly to the cause have been asked to donate the proceeds from one upcoming gig. "If those things come through, that'll cover our bases," says Norkunas.
Talking to Willie Nelson must be a lot like talking to the pope, except His Holiness probably doesn't tell blonde jokes. Some more words of wisdom from Texas' No. 1 candidate for sainthood:
TCB: What do you think of when you think of Texas?
Willie Nelson: Freedom. Don't ask me where it went. We used to have some. They still keep trying to take it away, but some of us are not going for it.
TCB: How do you keep cool at your Fourth of July picnics?
WN: Drink a lot of water ... or something. I try to find something.
TCB: How did you celebrate the Fourth of July when you were a kid?
WN: I grew up in Abbott, and it was a small town. There wasn't a lot to do there anyway. But on the Fourth of July, hopefully, we could find something to do. It wasn't that easy. We didn't have a lot of picnics in Abbott. Too many ants.
TCB: How much do you miss Waylon?
WN: Oh, I miss him a lot. He and I probably got along in some ways better than any two people I know, because we allowed each other to fuss and fight and cuss. Anything I did that he didn't like, I didn't care if he said anything about it, and if I didn't like something he was doing, I felt free to say something. A lot of people thought we had a feud going, but we were just being Willie and Waylon. Friends argue and fight or else they're not real friends.
TCB: What's the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
WN: I had an ex-father-in-law who used to say, "Take my advice, and do what you want to." I thought that was probably as good advice as I've ever heard.
TCB: What's your golf handicap?
WN: I lie so much. You just can't believe anything I tell you. But I don't really know. I'm not good, so I have to lie a little bit and try to act like I'm better than I am.
TCB: Whatever happened to your reggae album?
WN: I'm glad you asked. I thought it was all over, so I quit talking about it. Every now and then somebody resurrects it, so now I think it's back in the pipeline to come out. I heard it; it's really good. I hope someday it does come out.
TCB: What's a good joke you've heard recently?
WN: You know what you get when you turn a blonde upside down?
WN: A brunette with bad breath.
TCB: Your music has had such a profound impact on so many people. How do you deal with being a legend on a day-to-day basis?
WN: I haven't run into any problems. So far it's been fun. No complaints at all. I like this legend business.
TCB: Is it true that when people in Texas die, they get to go to your house?
WN: Yeah, if they're real good.
Willie's 4th of July Picnic is Friday and Saturday at the Two River Canyon Amphitheatre in Spicewood. If you don't have tickets by now, 888/597-STAR, you should probably be in France. For info: www.tworivercanyon.com, or call 263-4146.