If You Have Ghosts
The 2007-08 Austin Music Awards' unbroken circle
"We were performance art: a thing of the moment."
So offered Walter Hyatt once about Uncle Walt's Band. "It's there, and hopefully it puts a better feeling in the atmosphere than was there before, and then it's gone."
Those sentiments, via Hyatt's final interview with Peter Cooper in April 1996, linger in the retrospective void rent by Hyatt's untimely death less than a month later in the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 (see "King Tears," Feb. 22). Indomitable even amid the loss remains the local-scene hero's music, testament to the honest beauty of both the man and his art.
Austin will always be a city inseparable from its ghosts, musical specters resolute beyond mere memory in an undissipating past. Larger than life, its legacies are imprinted inextricably into the soul of the city, however marked by change or development, the traditions of what was forever cast against the aspirations of what will be for new generations.
At the height of its success in the early 1980s, Uncle Walt's Band was already a legacy revived, reborn by posthumous popularity. The Spartanburg, S.C.-born trio of Hyatt, Champ Hood, and David Ball was as much Austin in spirit as it was indefinable in sound. Had residue of the group's first tenure not precipitated its reunion in Austin, collectively loath to imagine the music lost, artists like Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Lyle Lovett might not have absorbed as much influence as they did.
Nearly 12 years beyond Hyatt's death and almost eight years since Hood's passing, Lovett and Gilmore join Ball in a tribute dubbed South Carolina by Birth, Texas by Choice: The Songs of Walter Hyatt, starring a generation of artists following in sound and birthright: Hood's son, Warren; Ball's daughter, Audrey; and Hyatt's son, Taylor; as well as Colin Gilmore and the Belleville Outfit. Choice all right.
Bloodlines also flow continuous for Roy and Sundance Head. The former's 1965 hit, "Treat Her Right," co-written with Gene Kurtz, cemented his place among the legends of Texas soul, the San Marcos native shouting the anthem into throngs of frenzied, shrill screams, as the swagger of his gliding footwork and contortionist, head-to-the-floor twists unfolded with dexterous sexuality. As Margaret Moser suggests in her recent article on Head, "Had Sun Records' Sam Phillips heard Roy Head before he heard Elvis, Head would be known as 'the King'" ("Hey, Hey, Hey!" Aug. 31, 2007). Preserved in video clips on shows like Shindig!, Head's incomparable moves resurfaced when his son, Sundance, made a run last year on American Idol's sixth season. The opportunities of influence run both ways, with Roy now reassembling his players to return to the studio for a new album.
Joining the father-son soul revue, backed by the West Side Horns, Spot Barnett's tenor sax bleeds a storied history of its own, each note a connecting fiber of Austin's past and present. Summoning the heyday of the River City's Eastside, of a vibrant, juke-joint-laden 11th Street, Barnett's reed calls up the legendary spirits of Chitlin' Circuit blues and soul (see "Juke Joint Blues," July 13, 2007). It's palpable beyond the black-and-white nostalgia of photos that line the walls of the Victory Grill, last bastion of clubs like the Showbar, Charlie's Playhouse, and the Chicken Shack that have been lost to the march of time and gentrification. Yet Austin doesn't simply remember and commemorate the ghosts of its past. They inhabit the same plane.
Case in point: Gary Clark Jr., Austin's next-generation blues phenom, actualizing his inherited roots with his role this year as Sonny Blake in John Sayles' new film, Honeydripper. Clark's character stands at the crossroads of time rather than place, the 1950s watching those same juke joints confront the changes of economy and technology embodied by Blake's electric guitar (see "'Honeydripper' Blues," Jan. 18). If Clark bridges traditions in Sayles' film, he does as much with his own music today, alongside a host of young blues artists carrying the spirit of East Austin and Antone's well into the 21st century.
Punk, likewise, never dies, and Austin remains as forever dedicated to its punk past as its blues and country roots. In the 1980s, R.E.M. opened for the Judy's at Club Foot, so it seems strangely appropriate that the Houston trio of David Bean, Jeff Walton, and Dane Cessac should reunite for its first shows since 1994, as the Athens, Ga., superstars also make their return to Austin for South by Southwest 08. With the issuing of 1981's Washarama and 1985's Moo on CD for the first time, the Judy's minimalist pop-punk revives memories of lost Austin venues like Club Foot, Liberty Lunch, and Raul's.
This year's AMA show-headlining collaboration between Roky Erickson and Okkervil River epitomizes the pull of Austin's future on its past. Erickson is himself a ghost risen, revenant returned though always having been here before. Since his resurrection at the 2005 Austin City Limits Music Festival, the 13th Floor Elevator has proven continually resilient, last November taping an episode of Austin City Limits with his band, the Explosives, and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons blazing on guitar beside him.
Erickson's possessed wail defined Texas psych and ripped open the possibilities of music in the 1960s, and the traces of his cathartic eruptions are scarred into Okkervil River's own unhinged dark ecstasy. Will Sheff's songwriting lurks in the unsettled obsessions inhabited by Erickson's vision, his own manic howl conjuring the shambled ghosts of a postmodern collective unconscious. If Okkervil's 2007 breakout album, The Stage Names, was an exploration of the lines of reality and fantasy fatefully blurred by fame, then Roky Erickson is the surviving embodiment of that broken realization.
Like Austin itself, "Rokkervil" is a grappling of ghosts, the haunting and the haunted in tenuous harmony, the endless return of repressed and frayed threads always brought full circle. As Erickson declared, "If you have ghosts, you have everything."
2007-08 Austin Music Awards
Austin Music Hall
Wednesday, March 12
8pm: Walter Hyatt Tribute, featuring David Ball, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Colin Gilmore, Warren Hood, Taylor Hyatt, the Belleville Outfit, and Audrey Ball
8:45pm: Roy and Sundance Head & the West Side Horns
9:25pm: The Judy's
10:15pm: Gary Clark Jr.
11pm: Okkervil River with Roky Erickson