Clifford Antone, founder of Antone's nightclub and one of the godfathers of the Austin music scene as we know it today, died early Tuesday at his downtown condominium; his body was discovered by police at about 1:15pm. The Travis County Medical Examiner's office said Wednesday morning the cause of death was unknown, pending results of a toxicology report, which they estimated would take about two weeks, but preliminary speculation is that Antone succumbed to a heart attack. He was 56 years old.
BLUES FOR CLIFFORD
"One of the primary reasons Austin is known as the Live Music Capital of the World is because of Clifford Antone," Austin Mayor Will Wynn said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. "His devotion to the music spoke for itself."
Clifford Jamal Antone was born October 27, 1949, in the East Texas seaside city of Port Arthur, scion of a well-to-do food-importing family. He acquired a taste for the blues at a young age, first from gospel music imparted to him by childhood caregiver Sister Mary Hinton, then by joining scores of other thrill-seeking Gulf Coast youth (including future Antone's fixture Marcia Ball), who ventured across the Sabine River to Louisiana juke joints Lou Ann's and the Big Oaks Club. Those venues later became models for his own, where regional acts like Clifton Chenier, Barbara Lynn, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Lazy Lester, the Fabulous Boogie Kings, and Warren Storm were always welcome.
Antone moved to Austin in 1969, originally planning to study law at the University of Texas but dropped out after he was arrested in Laredo for smuggling a bag of marijuana across the Mexican border (a case that was later dismissed). He ran the local branch of his family's business, a delicatessen on 15th Street, but his true passion was the Chicago blues albums he had discovered through his love of Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Rolling Stones, and the counsel of good friends like Angela Strehli.
On July 15, 1975, Antone opened Antone's nightclub in a converted furniture warehouse at Sixth and Brazos, in what was then a desolate patch of downtown, far removed from today's co-ed playground. Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band played the grand opening, soon joined by virtually the entire pantheon of blues and R&B legends: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Fats Domino, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Albert King, Albert Collins, and a memorable Independence Day 1976 show featuring B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland. Antone had a special affinity for, and struck up deep friendships with, several of the era's oft-overlooked sidemen, including Sunnyland Slim, Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Taylor, Walter "Shakey" Horton, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Calvin Jones, and Willie "Big Eye" Smith. He was responsible for moving Sumlin, Cotton, and Perkins to Central Texas in their later years, as well as assisting with day-to-day needs, such as doctor's appointments and hospital bills.
"People have no idea the things he did behind the scenes," says local bassist and trombonist Jon Blondell, a member of Antone's house band in the Eighties. "He'd pay you out of his pocket on a slow night, and I've seen him buy horns and [guitars] for people."
Antone's had a twofold effect on the blossoming Austin music scene of the mid-Seventies, then dominated by the progressive country sounds emanating from the Armadillo World Headquarters, Soap Creek Saloon, and Castle Creek. Besides bringing the aforementioned names to town, Antone further fostered the blues' local ascendancy by arranging for the stable of local musicians who adopted the club after years of playing out-of-the-way joints like the One Knite, Buffalo Gap, Ed's Cucaracha, and even the Back Room to act as their backing bands.
From this pool, springing from North and East Texas, with a few Lubbockites thrown in, arose bands that went on to challenge, and ultimately usurp, progressive country as Austin's reigning sound: the Nightcrawlers, featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Ferguson, and Doyle Bramhall Sr.; Southern Feeling, with Strehli, Denny Freeman, and W.C. Clark; Paul Ray & the Cobras, with Vaughan on guitar; the Fabulous Thunderbirds, with Stevie's older brother Jimmie, Ferguson, and California import Kim Wilson; and Triple Threat, with SRV, Clark, and Lou Ann Barton. Bands swapped nights, and sometimes members, and grew into a close-knit community headquartered at Antone's.
"Clifford showed up at the right time, when everybody was looking for a place to play," says Paul Ray. "It was like a family."
The blues was and is hardly lucrative, and Antone's original location closed in 1979 but reappeared months later in a former rug dealership on Anderson Lane, a location that hosted James Brown but only lasted a few months itself. In 1981, the club took over the old Shakey's Pizza Parlor at 2915 Guadalupe, and because of Vaughan's and the Thunderbirds' concurrent rise to national and international fame, this location became the definitive version of Antone's for many people in Austin and around the world. It's where everyone gathered when Vaughan's helicopter crashed in August 1990 and where U2 stopped by on the Joshua Tree tour. Here and at the club's current location at 213 W. Fifth, where it moved in 1997, Antone continued welcoming and nurturing new (and new-to-Austin) talent: Charlie Sexton, Doyle Bramhall II, Ian Moore, Bob Schneider, Toni Price, Sue Foley, Miss Lavelle White, Jake Andrews, the Keller Brothers, Jane Bond, Eve Monsees, Gary Clark Jr.
"Pretty much all the shows I saw at Antone's, I don't know why they spoke to me loudest, but there was something so deep," offers Ian Moore. "It was so much more real than seeing college kids with a bunch of angst, because it was the same thing, but it was real. It really made a big impact on me."
Antone's colorful life was also marked by convictions in federal court for marijuana trafficking in 1984 and 2000. He was forced to cede ownership of the club to a corporation headed by his sister Susan after the first one and started the ongoing series of "Help Clifford Help Kids" benefits for local nonprofit American YouthWorks while serving his sentence for the second. When he was released in December 2002, the gregarious Antone became a greeter at Güero's restaraunt, a regular at the Broken Spoke's hardcore country night, and beamed ear to ear the night in June 2003 his probation expired and he was again allowed to enter the club that bears his name.
Antone was a principal organizer of the Neighbors in Need benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims at the Frank Erwin Center last November. At the time of his death, he and Sarah Rucker were collaborating on a book, an outgrowth of his popular history of blues and rock & roll courses at the University of Texas and Texas State University. "My job is done if one kid is inspired to buy a Muddy Waters CD who didn't know who he was," Antone told the Chronicle in February 2004. The lifelong Longhorns and Houston Astros fan was seldom seen in public minus a Longhorn cap and an adoring young lady on each arm.
"He helped make music fun in Austin," Broken Spoke owner James White said Tuesday. "Everybody knew him, just like his good friend Doug Sahm. I can see him right now, in that suit and baseball cap of his."
Antone is survived by sisters Susan Antone and Janelle Antone Raad, a niece and nephew, and a city that would not, and will not, be the same without him. His funeral is private, but visitation today (Thursday) and Friday at Cook-Walden Funeral Home, 6100 N. Lamar, is open between 6-8pm. A free public memorial is scheduled for 6pm Saturday, June 3 at Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Rd.
After lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience in March 2003 she was ashamed to share a home state with George W. Bush, plenty of people wished the Dixie Chicks would just go away. In a way, they did. Most country radio stations immediately yanked the trio's songs from rotation their "Travelin' Soldier" was the nation's No. 1 country song at the time and some even organized Fahrenheit 451-like bonfires of Chicks CDs and merchandise. Turning on them most viciously was their former hometown: The FBI and Texas Rangers were called in after Maines received a very specific death threat for the Dallas stop of that summer's Top of the World tour, which sold out every date of its three-month run, and on a Metroplex freeway, someone aimed a shotgun at a radio-station van with a picture of the Chicks on the side. Even though the trio was (and is) the biggest-selling female group in country music history, country music wanted nothing further to do with the Chicks. The feeling was entirely mutual.
HEART OF DIXIE
Now they're back at a time when, The New York Times observed last Sunday, "America catches up with them," a reference to Bush's plummeting approval rating. Neither camp appears to have forgiven or forgotten. The first single from the Chicks' new album, Taking the Long Way (Columbia), is the lush, bitter "Not Ready to Make Nice" ("I'm still mad as hell," sings Maines), and radio has responded in kind; the song recently peaked at No. 36 on Billboard's country chart. Amazingly enough, right-wing mouthpiece Bill O'Reilly came to the Chicks' defense, opining on his show recently that radio "has no reason not to play it." Monday afternoon, TCB marshaled a battalion of MySpace friends to request it at KASE 101, the Austin country frequency that regularly dwarfs its competition in the ratings. Those that got through were told the song had not been added to the station's playlist "yet." Since it's been out for six weeks, that probably means "never." Other outlets have been kinder. One friend said she heard it on KASE sister station KVET. According to Radio & Records' Web site, KGSR-FM played the song 11 times last week, and Mix 94.7 played the entire album Tuesday morning. Though the video for "Not Ready to Make Nice" is nowhere near CMT's Top 20, it's currently the most-played clip on Austin's ME Television.
Appropriately, then, Taking the Long Way acts as the Chicks' divorce from country music, right down to the music itself. Ironically, "Not Ready to Make Nice" is the most country-sounding song on the album. Drums and electric guitars, absent from 2002's Home, are back in force. Twelve-string guitar dominates over steel. Emily Robison's banjo only shows up occasionally, most notably on the fiery "Lubbock or Leave It." Martie Maguire's fiddle parts are indentured to producer Rick Rubin's pop and folk-rock arrangements rather than anything honky-tonk. Much of the album resembles another one of Rubin's efforts, Tom Petty's Wildflowers; "So Hard" sounds lifted straight off Full Moon Fever. This in no way damages the true cornerstone of the Chicks' sound: Maines' resonant vocals offset Maguire and Robison's pristine sisterly harmonies.
Lyrically, those looking for further tirades against Bush and the war will have to make do with Neil Young's new album. References to what the Chicks now call "The Incident" are plentiful, but politics are almost completely absent beyond a certain personal distance. Unsurprisingly, the dominant theme of Taking the Long Way is perseverance, but as much in the face of infertility ("So Hard") and a relative's Alzheimer's ("Favorite Year") as intolerance ("Lubbock or Leave It") and crashing commercial fortunes ("The Long Way Around"). "I Hope," which the Chicks debuted during last fall's telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims, closes the album with a gospel-tinged vow to forge ahead. Though it's two or three songs too long, if Taking the Long Way tanks, it won't be for lack of quality.
But it's not going to. Between the Times, 60 Minutes, and the cover of this week's Time magazine, the Chicks aren't hurting for publicity. They deserve a lot of credit for making a thoughtful, personal album when they could have just as easily and justifiably so released a series of anti-Bush potshots like Young. Besides, when the Incident happened, they already had millions of fans squarely in their corner, making radio superfluous at best. Those fans may not have agreed with what Maines said, but they never questioned or impugned her right to say it. This is America, where the most important voting people do is the voting they do with their wallets. So how was Taking the Long Way selling its first day of release?
"It's selling really well," said a clerk at Waterloo Records Tuesday.
Would she say it's flying off the shelves?
"I would say that."
Tickets for the Chicks' Oct. 1 Erwin Center show, on sale June 10, will no doubt go at a similar pace.
Austin's Octopus Project got two nice surprises when they played the Coachella festival last month. First, they got their own trailer, and when they took the stage promptly at noon April 30, "We were expecting like 50 people to stagger in after waking up, but there were probably a couple hundred people sitting there," says guitarist Josh Lambert. "Right when we started, 1,500 people ran up there screaming. It was really awesome." The band tossed tambourines and stuffed animals to the enthusiastic crowd and, since they were the first band to play, had plenty of time to enjoy Sigur Rós' sunset performance and engage in a bit of celebrity-spotting. "At one point we saw the entire Coppola family hanging out together," says Lambert, who also glimpsed Karen O several times and noted indie-rock fan Danny DeVito once. The theremin-powered quartet plays Emo's outside Saturday before returning to the road for another month.
WORKS IN PROGRESS
The Kerrville Folk Festival runs today (Thursday) through June 11 at the Quiet Valley Ranch on Texas highway 16 south of town. This year's lineup features Guy Clark, Michael Fracasso, Slaid Cleaves, Django Walker, Peter Yarrow & Paul Stookey, Keller Williams, South Austin Jug Band, Ruthie Foster, and Jon Dee Graham, plus the popular New Folk competition and myriad workshops and informal song circles. Several special events are planned to mark the festival's 35th anniversary, including a closing-night concert by the Festival Memorial Orchestra and soloists Jimmy LaFave, Albert and Gage, and Trout Fishing in America. See www.kerrvillefolkfestival.com for ticket packages and more details.
The University of Texas announced last week that its board of regents has approved $14.7 million for an extensive overhaul of Performing Arts Center centerpiece Bass Concert Hall. Slated to begin after commencement exercises next spring, the 18-month project will add a glass facade to the hall's exterior, expand the lobby, atrium, and restrooms, and improve the theatre's lighting and acoustics. During the renovations, the PAC will continue to schedule events at other campus venues, many of which are also expected to undergo similar improvements. Tickets for the PAC's 25th anniversary season, featuring Carol Burnett, McCoy Tyner, Joan Baez, and Mozart's Requiem, go on sale June 15 at Texas Box Office locations.