The news broke late last Tuesday afternoon, so terrible and unbelievable it was all too easy to dismiss: Clifford J. Antone, the best friend the blues ever had, dead of a heart attack at 56. By the third or fourth phone call into the Chronicle, it was obviously not a rumor, the TV crews setting up outside the club bearing Antone's name further confirmation. Finally, someone from inside handed the media a one-paragraph statement from lead counsel Michael McGuire, though seeing it on paper didn't make it any easier to process. Throughout his on-camera interview with Andy Langer for Austin's News 8, Carlos Sosa of Boombox, one of the innumerable local musicians to experience Antone's generosity, couldn't help referring to Antone in the present tense.
GOING BACK HOME
The truth wasn't any easier to swallow at the club's wake the next night, not least because TCB would swear on a stack of Bibles that he saw Antone himself out of the corner of his eye at least twice. Antone's filled up the moment the doors swung open at 4pm and stayed that way until closing time 10 hours later; people lined up around the block, for two hours or more, to pay their respects. Tears and beers flowed in equal amounts, and the chatter was heavy with disbelief ("The first thing I did was load a bunch of music on my iPod").
Onstage, Tyrone Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. opened the marathon with licks that have been around longer than they have; neither of the guitarists had been born yet when the first Antone's opened on Sixth Street in 1975. Ruthie Foster, LZ Love, and Leeann Atherton paid tribute with stirring gospel numbers, the former two a cappella. Guy Forsyth, assisted by Malcolm "Papa Mali" Welbourne, took over for a lengthy set that fluctuated between raw-boned blues and hand-clapping gospel. "There ain't no jail in heaven," he assured the crowd.
"I'm trying to keep it on track," Forsyth, one of the impromptu memorial's chief talent wranglers, said backstage later. "I wouldn't be in Austin if not for Clifford." New Orleans represented with Cyril Neville & Tribe 13 and Big Chief Kevin Goodman. Latin rockers Del Castillo, assisted by Ivan Neville on B-3, worked their way through a low-down set that recalled Antone's alumnus Albert Collins' Adventures in Babysitting exhortation that "Nobody leaves this place without playing the blues." Monte Montgomery evoked another of the club's fallen heroes with an acoustic "Little Wing," and two Texas music legends, Roky Erickson and Ruben Ramos, stopped by to salute another.
Exchanging condolences and looking on were author and actor Turk Pipkin, King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, KUT's Paul Ray and wife Diana, ME Television's Kevin Connor, Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon, and Pinetop Perkins. "I'm going to go over where they shine the shoes so I can smoke a cigarette," plotted the irascible 93-year-old pianist. In Antone's upstairs inner sanctum, Jimmie Vaughan and Derek O'Brien rehearsed for their set, for which they were joined by several generations of Austin blues history: W.C. Clark, Denny Freeman, James Cotton, Charlie Sexton, and Chris Layton of Double Trouble and ex-Fabulous Thunderbird Fran Christina doubling up on drums. Antone even made his presence felt during the Eric Tessmer Band's finale: Allen Daniel's pleas for a bass were answered by someone fetching Antone's own from upstairs.
Thursday afternoon, the fact that Antone was really gone sank in at his Cook-Walden funeral home viewing. As his friends and family stood clustered in small groups, some openly sobbing while others just looked stunned, Antone lay at peace in a sharp black suit and ever-present Longhorns national championship cap. Always the gracious host, and a bit of a rogue, the hint of a smile played around his lips.
By Saturday's funeral, with St. Mary's downtown cathedral as packed as Antone's was Wednesday, others slowly found their own smiles. It may have been the only Catholic funeral in history to follow Schubert's "Ave Maria" with Clifton Chenier's "Going Back Home," and to have incidental music from a pickup band of Perkins, Vaughan, O'Brien, Kim Wilson, and Hubert Sumlin. Their rendition of Vaughan's "Six Strings Down" had the crowd clapping along, first tentatively, then forcefully. Immediately beforehand, Perkins broke the tension with an expertly timed "shave and a haircut two bits" riff, the first muffled snickers building into a wave of appreciative applause. Summing up Antone's eventful life, Father Tom Rafferty found unlikely wisdom in the sage words of Dr. Seuss. "Don't cry because it's over," he said. "Smile because it happened." Leaving the sanctuary for Antone's wake at the Headliners Club atop the Chase Building, his sister Susan could hardly stifle a grin. "I think Clifford paid Pinetop extra for that."
By the time of his death, even Clifford Antone couldn't pretend that his namesake club is Austin's home of the blues. Blues has more of a home there than any other local club, perhaps, but most of the old bluesmen Antone loved so much are dead, and those that aren't are hardly in any condition to tour. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Derek Trucks, Sue Foley, and Maceo Parker might drop by once in a while, but that's about it. The club's Blue Monday night survives, albeit on Tuesdays.
ANTONE'S A.C. (AFTER CLIFFORD)
Since Antone's left its moorings on Guadalupe Street for the Warehouse District in 1997, the club has made ends meet, sometimes just barely, with a combination of mainstream alt-rock (Bob Schneider, Vallejo), Texas country (Django Walker, Cooder Graw), radio-friendly singer-songwriters (Edwin McCain), nostalgia (Zombies, Cracker), and hip-hop (Bavu Blakes, Dogg Pound). Its current identity stems more from its size than anything else.
"It's definitely the finest 600-seat venue in the city," says David Cotton, who recently began booking Antone's alongside the Saxon Pub, Momos, and Threadgill's World Headquarters. "It's the only 600-seater, really."
Cotton wants to revive early shows for older clubgoers, who are loath to deal with Downtown's difficult parking and heavy foot traffic, while also going after young club-hoppers, who may not be ready to settle in one place until late.
"To really make some successful shows, you need to shoot for what's already down there," he says. "Mark Proct's been bringing in hip-hop that's done pretty well. Charles Attal brings in stuff that's too small for Stubb's and a little too large for the Parish. I think the young rock shows are the way to go."
Besides, argues Cotton, maybe the blues isn't quite as dead as people think. The runaway success of Los Lonely Boys, who played Antone's on their ascent, is proof enough of that.
"The blues has been thriving in Austin, Texas, for a long, long time," he says. "Gary Clark Jr. and Eric Tessmer, Tyrone Vaughan's got a new project, Jake Andrews is back in town. If you put those guys down there late night, you might develop a little thing happening again."