Steady as She Goes
Li'l Cap'n Travis, in all their splendor ...
"Before all of this ever went down,
In another place, another town,
You were just a face in the crowd,
Out in the street walking around."
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, "A Face in the Crowd"
Here comes trouble. Skinny, bearded Mandon Maloney struts into the living room of his Zilker home bearing a tray of shot glasses, quartered limes, and a half-empty bottle of Sauza, a smirk on his face. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are chasing dreams on the vintage record player set haphazardly on the bar, while Christian Braafladt, Mandon's cousin and son of his mother's twin sister, is whipping up a seafood medley in the kitchen.
Jeff Johnston skinnier, bearded, and barefoot laughs when he sees Mandon's expression. He's been here before. Matt Kinsey just shakes his head and takes a swig of beer as Gary Newcomb sits down quietly without any notice of the tequila that's about to be digested.
This is Li'l Cap'n Travis, five grown Austinites taking life one breath at a time. Flip-flops and sunglasses are regulation despite the fact that the nearest beach is 300 miles away. Everyone's on a first-name basis: the boys, of course, but also role models, waiters, bar staff, venue owners. Last names are a formality and there are no formalities in Li'l Cap'n Travis.
This isn't a group of trained musicians the boys would have a hard time even calling themselves musicians but it works. And how. They don't know keys (with the exception of sometimes studio musician Gary), and they might not read music, but they feel it. Jamming together years ago at fish fries and barbecues was all they needed to start down this road.
That road, musically speaking, is somewhere between California and Kentucky, in an era that's long gone and therefore brand new to many. There are mountains and beach simultaneously, bell-bottoms or cuffed Levi's, T-shirts, and pearl-snap Westerns. The Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Band ... LCT is comfortably worn.
"Their songs have a real naive, Fifties and Sixties kind of charm," says Eric Zappa of Glurp Records, where LCT hangs its hat. "It's really hard to fake that."
With the release of their third full-length, ... In All Their Splendor, came exponential acclaim. Indie kids, shit-kickers, hipsters, and songwriters gather in relative mass at their shows, swaying brews to the tunes usually penned by guitarists Matt and Christian. LCT's inclusiveness is only one of the things lifting them out of a sea of rockers. Their music is resounding, poignant. Country sensibilities and rock & roll passion built up into a freestanding mountain of humor and sincerity.
"They're too humble to toot their own horn," laughs Christian's wife Jen Braafladt. "They need somebody tooting it for them."
The Continental Club's Steve Wertheimer is happy to oblige.
"They're unbelievably just the boys-next-door kind of guys, and I think that translates into everybody falling in love with them."
Named after the son of a redneck who used to rent party barges at Mandon's old job ("Me and Li'l Cap'n Travis are going fishin' today," dad would say), LCT holds on to that lakeside attitude. Lounging in Mandon's deep sofas, shots downed, the boys are relaxing. Breathing. Laughing. The things they do best.
"We speed up and slow down and breathe together," explains steel player Gary.
"It's a democracy that would probably be impossible to re-create," adds Matt.
"I never realized how hard it was until I talked to other bands," laughs Christian.
If only it were as easy for those other bands as it is for Li'l Cap'n Travis.
"Takin' my time, choosin' my lines,
Tryin' to decide what to do.
Looks like my stop, don't wanna get off.
Got myself hung up on you."
James Gang, "Walk Away"
Something isn't right. Everyone has off nights, even a band woven from golden straw and pounded out by wooden boot soles. Tonight, at the Carousel Lounge, it's those damn pink elephants the band sings about that are metaphorically crashing Christian's car.
The cause being honored by LCT and Fivehead this evening is a single friend about to give birth to a new life. In addition to a night of River City sounds, $10 gives patrons access to an auction whose highlights include an entire record collection and a dress allegedly owned by Lady Bird Johnson.
Christian, Jeff, and Gary are gathered around one of the bar's weathered booths, two on one side, one on the other. Glazed eyes don't fully explain the state of Christian. His shit-eating grin spreads ear to ear, and he giggles like a 12 year old. Jeff is smiling too, more out of apologetic embarrassment than membership in Christian's club. Matt and Mandon are elsewhere, drinking and conversing.
The boys sing about three things in particular: love, country, and drinking. There are other references throughout their catalog, beginning with 2000's eponymous debut and continued on '02's Lonesome and Losin', but those are the touchstones. Some might be exaggerations ("Cowgirl on Crutches"), but most aren't ("My Life in Amarillo"). Regardless, LCT focuses on the realities of life on Planet Texas.
Presently, they sit watching Fivehead unfold a crunchy, alcohol-induced set. John Hunt sways with bleary eyes as Beaty Wilson struggles to strum out comprehensible guitar riffs. It's not Fivehead's best show, but it's Saturday night at the Carousel. It doesn't really matter.
The set is complete, and a very modest crowd of friends and family applauds. Spirits are definitely high and often. Beers and setups are flying from the bartender's hands. The chatter grows louder as LCT sets up. The more alcohol flows, the louder the crowd grows.
More than an hour has passed since LCT's appointed set time, but no one seems to care. The auctioneer begs the audience for donations and consumption. Fifteen minutes pass. Suddenly the day switches over, and the stagecoach begins to change into an orange mass of fleshy creases.
LCT slowly waddles onstage, one by one. Matt steps up front, decked out in a red vest one of the auction items, no doubt and greets the audience with an exaggerated drawl. These are, in fact, Texas' sons, all but one. Gary takes a chair with his lap steel, while Mandon's kit sticks in the elephant's ear.
Jeff, wearing a brown vest and still laughing at Christian, picks up his vintage maroon Danelectro bass. A Grizzly Adams beard and long, curly hair hide his boyish face. Christian the third and final vest-wearer, in circus-y red and black is drunker than a groom at his bachelor party, but behaving better than that. Still, there's a look of fear in Matt's eyes.
The boys warm up with an instrumental, and immediately realize they shouldn't expect too much from this performance. This is what benefits are: friends and family getting together to drink and help each other out. It's not really about pleasing the audience.
Gary's steel sets the sad, lonely tone to which the tunes happily oblige, and the boys try to fall into place. Mandon's simple drumbeat is a little shaky; everything is a little messy, just a hair out of time. The energy's low, the crowd's talkative, but the boys are in their own world.
"You should try wearing a vest," jokes Matt. "It'll mess with your mind."
The opening chords of "Jaded Reno" reverberate throughout the small room, and finally, the quintet starts to cohere a bit. Matt and Christian are practically standing in the audience, as is always the case at the Carousel. The latter's twang is stronger than usual, the result of whiskey probably, but he hits his lyrics.
Maybe a cover will fix what's ailing the band. Matt hugs the mic, and the boys launch into the James Gang's "Walk Away," an LCT staple. Things seem to be running a little smoother, but the lights are too bright. Nothing's hidden, not looks or sounds.
"More quesadillas at table six," cracks Matt, a victim of his vest, but no one is listening.
His bandmates chuckle, and after minimal tuning, they launch into a slow ballad. Harmonies are off, but that's part of the LCT charm scratchy vocals, off-key and beautiful. Gary takes a backseat to Matt's guitar, and the song gains the attention of nonfans out front. Suddenly the chatter stops, and hands clap in time, cheering on the awkward construction and sharp notes coming from the tiny stage.
"Rock solid!" someone yells from the back of the room. Another cover, this one courtesy of the mountain man. Jeff's are the most cherubic vocals in the group, although seldom used.
"I am the lineman for the county," he croons with a spot-on Glen Campbell impression. This is one of LCT's favorites, because at the end of "Wichita Lineman," when the words end and the drumming begins, all hell breaks loose.
All of a sudden, a rock & roll band is onstage and they're playing as one. Grins all around audience, band, bar staff. Saturday night has just come true.
"The fishing's thrillin',
But I hate cleaning out the bones,
Drinking all alone, talking to myself.
Shiver me timbers, the stars are big and bright,
Another romantic night, no one else."
Li'l Cap'n Travis, "Steady as She Goes"
Time to practice, at Matt's house, hidden behind the insanity of SoCo, right around the corner from the Continental Club. It's the perfect abode for the brains behind Li'l Cap'n Travis. The home is Matt Kinsey: lush, green yard; small vegetable garden right out the front door; small, tidy, with wood floors, many books, and friends' paintings on the walls. As Matt is a glimpse into the past, so is his house.
On the wood-framed television, Gene Kelly dances on air. All five Cap'ns are half watching, half preparing themselves for another rehearsal. They stand up slowly and filter into the practice room in twos.
In the back den of Matt's two-bedroom is a myriad of vintage instruments. Mandon's kit is crammed in the corner; he'll be the dunce of the evening. Christian is fiddling with the array of pedals at his feet. There are the typical chorus, delay, and wah-wahs, but then there's a handful of nameless, chromeless, colorless metal boxes. Only Christian knows what they do.
Gary starts wailing with his lap steel situated caddy corner to Mandon. No one says a word. The boys flow seamlessly from one tune to the next, jumping albums and years without warning. Gary's opening chords pick up with Jeff's thump and Christian's cry. Matt laughs into the mic, and Jeff croons into another, tinny but aesthetically pleasing.
"It's cool to use a mic like that," grimaces Gary, "but they just don't work."
Comfort over fashion, or is it the other way around? The songs of LCT don't require proof either way. The band plays with old instruments because they love the cachet of wear that leaves guitars with nuances of age. Matt picks up a guitar; slabs of wood overlaid with metal, wires splayed awkwardly, strings whiskered dangerously.
"I hate that guitar," Gary mumbles.
"Are you saying that guitar doesn't work, too, Gary?" asks Matt.
"No," says Gary quickly.
"Yeah you are," laughs Matt.
Matt loves the red-headed stepchild axe. It's plain that this is his baby, his Trigger, his Lucille. But Gary's comments are taken in. The mess is placed back on its stand in the corner.
Gary joined the band in early 2000 after the boys made several attempts to replace Adam Bork, the original keyboardist who jumped the train to NYC only to return a short time later after Gary was a permanent member. Bork still plays on all LCT's recordings, and there's no regret about decisions made, but for some reason, Gary still feels like an outsider. The others know how much he's brought to the table, though, and they don't let him forget it.
"It sounds like angels are emanating from the sound hole," Christian says of Gary's playing.
In fact, while all five boys have control of their respective instruments, Gary's the only one with formal training, and he's played since an early age. The others were raised on AM radio blaring in Ford pickups or on wrinkled cassette tapes in an older brother's tossed-aside Walkman. Cousins Christian and Mandon took care of the metal basics in Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe, and Van Halen, but as they grew older, the Seventies seeped in.
"You'd sing just as hard to the Carpenters as you would to Jim Croce," admits Christian.
The others are right there with him. Matt's brother introduced him to the Clash, while Jeff stuck to arena rockers UFO and AC/DC with a little ELO to spice things up. And as Gary was practicing the trumpet, Benny Goodman mixed with Prince. There were also hints of Willie Nelson, Charlie Rich, and Tom T. Hall, but for the most part, LCT is a bunch of rockers, born and raised on the classics they've learned to twang out and make their own.
Individually, the Li'l Cap'ns bring their own mixers to the bar. Mandon says Christian is the master storyteller with "simple ideas and a lack of knowledge." As for Mandon, he lacked his own drum kit until a couple of years ago. Jeff, meanwhile, is LCT's music reference, a deep well of knowledge, not to mention an accomplished bassist.
"What makes the band great is the fact that some may not know what they're doing and others do," states Gary. "It's that weird clash in the middle. It's chemistry. If someone says, 'I'm a good lover,' well, you're only a good lover with someone else and with chemistry.
"I was never a good lover until this marriage."
"If we'd go again, all the way from the start,
I would try to change the things that killed our love.
Yes, I've hurt your pride and I know what you've been through.
You should give me a chance, this can't be the end, I'm still loving you."
Scorpions, "Still Loving You"
Jeff steps up to the mic. This usually signifies "Wichita Lineman," but not tonight. He immediately announces, "This is Matt's dream," and with that, the country boys with roots turn into German metal rockers. "Still Loving You," the Scorpions ballad, lights up the crowd, Jeff hitting every note regardless of its pitch. Nobody's without a smile in the Parish.
A night devoted to cover songs was right up LCT's alley, being that the aforementioned "Walk Away" and "Wichita Lineman," as well as the Beach Boys cover they've become well-known for ("Don't Worry Baby"), have found permanent residence in their set list. Tonight, Moonlight Towers and Grand Champeen rotate four-song sets with the Cap'n.
"Moonlight Towers and Grand Champeen are such formidable rock & roll outfits," Matt had warned nights before. "We could get out-rocked if we're not careful."
While Moonlight Towers are less excitable than the full-blast Grand Champeen, the two are definitely more rock & roll. AC/DC, The Who, Television. Li'l Cap'n Travis, meanwhile, sleeps on the bottom bunk: country rock and twangy edge. But this night isn't about outdoing one another. Tonight is for fun, homage. A mural of influence paints the thick, smoky air.
Jeff's precise impression of Klaus Meine is the highlight of the evening, just above Champeen's brilliant segue from Boston's "Foreplay/Long Time" into AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," and the Towers' killing "Marquee Moon." The covers shared by all three bands represent a coming together of scene and scenesters, pulling in a diverse group of fans to Sixth Street for an unoriginal night.
With LCT, there's always a family on stage, one that has become so tight over the years audibly and mentally that no one would suspect otherwise. Impressive would not describe the sensation accurately. It's awe-inspiring to glance up from a drink and see the sentiment onstage, as though no one's watching. These boys have found a home in one another.
"I was trying to play country steel, and it just wasn't working," explains Gary, shaking his head. "It's like a violin player that tries to play classical music his whole life then suddenly decides he needs to play fiddle. Then everything makes sense. I hadn't ever played as good as when I played with these guys."
This is pure sincerity. These five musicians have evolved Li'l Cap'n Travis out of half-baked rock bands and accidental songs. Regardless of musicianship, harmonies, or the songs, these boys have something other bands sorely lack: humility, empathy. They don't see it that way, though.
To the men in Li'l Cap'n Travis, they're just like other bands: doing what they love. But they're not like other bands. Their personalities produce music others find difficult to put into words, but with their talent and mutual respect, they'll continue down this particular path of righteousness. There is not now, nor will there ever be, a leader of this pack.
"There are so many dipshits in the group, so many wizards," ventures Mandon, a few drinks into the evening.
"One day you're a wizard, the next you're a dipshit," adds Matt. "It's an ever-evolving cauldron."
Li'l Cap'n Travis twangs Thursday, July 1, at the Continental Club and Friday, July 9, at Room 710.