Every time Townes Van Zandt played the Cactus Cafe in the late 1990s, my roommate went. My must-see at the premier listening room was Alejandro Escovedo, beginning in 1992-93, with his solo debut, Gravity. Austin's best song practitioners grab that inner sanctum by the hair.
In 1997, the year Butch Hancock released his first of only two solo albums since then, You Coulda Walked Around the World, my onetime $105-a-month Hyde Park abode dilapidated into a pile worth being sold and turned – same as a recent romance. A year or two later, in a newly mortgaged house I'd never envisioned, You Coulda Walked Around the World soothed me time and again. Rarely thereafter did a Butch Hancock gig at the Cactus pass without my attendance.
The venue's booker, Griff Luneburg, scheduled every one of those shows. In 1990, when the Terlingua-loving folker wanted to put on an evening of covers there, Luneburg countered with a week of Butch Hancock songs – No Two Alike, five nights that spilled over onto a sixth. Twenty years later, on the eve of KUT taking over the local landmark and Luneburg's role with the club undecided, fate had it that he and Hancock had already looked at this month for No Two More Alike.
Only my set list consultation calls with the Flatlander every morning last week, Tuesday to Saturday, hold a candle to experiencing any single Butch Hancock show at the Cactus Cafe – ever.
"Was anyone here 20 years ago?"
Austin's old guard hoots and hollers.
"None of those songs will be played!"
Sporting a black hat, black T-shirt, and jeans, with a denim work shirt and boots – looking Robert Duvall rugged – Butch Hancock waves a thick stack of paper off the stool next to him onstage.
"As you can see, I've got a lot of lyrics. I've been studying them. I don't know if it'll do any good at all."
In fact, that stack's a few sheets short of a full deck since a box of lyrics blew off the top of Hancock's car in Wimberley, where traffic halted as he and his family scrambled onto the roadway to pick them up.
"That's an example of how my mind is," nods Hancock.
Where does one begin a five-night siege of no two tunes alike? On the Buddy Holly charisma of Joe Ely's 1987 Hightone Records roundhouse, Lord of the Highway. In the Hancock-penned lead-off title track, Ely floored his West Texas lust for life. As the No Two More Alike christening, "Lord of the Highway" gains a road hog regality, Hancock and Ely's guitar hero and high plains comrade, the late Jesse Taylor, spiriting into the room.
"One down," quips an audience member when the applause ceases.
Hancock snorts. Nervous as he is, you can only tell by the overabundance of his campfire chatter in the velvet-lined corner stage of the Cactus Cafe. "Be Careful What You Say to Trains," "Iditarod," and "Song From a Sad Bassoon," all ancient and unrecorded, belie any butterflies, greatest hits caliber Hancock now left to memory.
"Did anyone major in memory?" wonders Hancock.
"I invented forgetting songs," announces Jimmie Dale Gilmore shortly thereafter, the first guest given to perfect demonstrations of what he calls Jimmie Dale Gilmore songs written by Butch Hancock.
Yodeling open the second set, Hancock's rolling now, mowing through "Eats Away the Night" and "Black Irish Rose" before pausing briefly.
"Well, I tell you who I miss tonight is Jesse Taylor. He played every one of those nights 20 years ago."
Out in Terlingua where Hancock lives, he spends his time "looking for spirits," and one day he found a dead owl, wings spread, hanging upside down in the morning glory vines out back of his house. A cappella show closer "Owl" stuns the Tuesday-night throng, any rushing air in that enclosed space too big to be some ghostly fowl.
Same black hat, black T, and this time, a crimson work shirt and bolero tie clipped with a silver steer; Hancock once again is introduced by Griff Luneburg.
"This is my favorite run at the Cactus since 1981," gushes the proprietor. "Butch has been our muse."
"Good to see some of you again," jokes Hancock to another overflowing house. Fatigue has already and obviously set in – mine, not his.
"I'd Just as Soon Catch a Star," another unrecorded song, opens – instantly familiar.
"Thank you so much. Glad that one's over with. Oh wait. I forgot four verses ...."
So he compensates with a one-minute ditty called "The Dog of Intermittent Love."
"Sometimes the song tells you how long it is: 'Stop. Stop here – please,'" he explains.
Woody Guthrie wrote reams and reams of lyrics and songs, inspiring Dylan and in turn Springsteen. Throw Austin's Bard onto that puppy pile.
"Nice day in Central Texas today. It cooled down a bit – by increasing the humidity."
He launches into an anecdote about song don Terry Allen "tricking" the Lubbock Mafia into helping him put on a play in Philly, 1994's Chippy. Hancock's part involved a barbershop quartet delivering its number in boxer shorts and cowboy boots. Soundtracker "Low Lights of Town," re-recorded aboard You Coulda Walked Around the World, glows panhandle panorama.
Lubbock's song consigliere tops that with his own West Texan "Born to Run," "Dressed to the Nines" ("When I picked her up at half past 8, she was dressed to the nines"), rambling and shambling its many-chorus glory, crooked chords unrecognizable.
After the break, melancholic You Coulda Walked Around the World earwig "Roll Around" halts after a minute.
"I'm gonna stop because I can," proclaims Hancock happily.
Restart it as many times as you want, Butch. Sadly, the second attempt is flawless. We won't be hearing it again.
Welcomed back from the end of the first set is guest fiddler Darcie Deaville, this time accompanied by Lost Gonzo Band bassist Bob Livingston, plus Flatlanders drummer Pat Manske on cajon and Wimberley's Eppy the Hill Country Clown (aka Leon Epstein) on "harmonica, not harp." Their roots ripple sounds almost rehearsed. Hancock recalls the Yak & Yeti club in Nepal with fellow alum Livingston, then launches into a still-water tune written in the aftermath of his friend Townes Van Zandt's death, "Long Sunsets."
"Mama Does the Kangaroo," unrecorded youth smash, rocks Peter Pan's hometown.
Not all songs learn to fly.
"I think I'll start with a Townes song," offers Hancock first. "I'll just do a whole night of Townes' songs."
In the light and half shadows, when his voice hits a high reedy note, Hancock looks and sounds like Willie Nelson. The 65-year-old Lubbock native belongs on that same ticket, the LBJ of Lone Star songwriters. TVZ's "No Place to Fall" stirs.
"Here's an old Woody Guthrie song that I wrote," grins Hancock, then launches into a mild socialist rant while blowing his harp like the boogie-woogie bugle boy of company B for Butch.
"Has anyone been to Terlingua, Texas?"
You Coulda Walked Around the World's "Barefoot Prints" leaves footprints, all right, Jesus. Then something that's not happened happens – the songs fall off the rails, the next run of unreleased chestnuts more than mildly cracked, notes falling into place at angles not quite right. Even Philadelphia-based Hancock acolyte John Train can't shave off enough strokes to bring the whole back up to par.
"They don't teach the A, B-flats, and C's in school," winks Hancock.
First set sealant, "Eileen," from another recurring Hancock set-piece, 1994's Eats Away the Night – coming up on reissue – erases everything before it, flickering like the lights of Marfa. Even then, it can in no way prepare the room for the second set 40 minutes later.
Tonight is the night the Flatlanders go downtown – all the way, out of the park. Joe Ely begins, and even his two bandmates listen in awe to his reading of "Tennessee Is Not the State I'm In." Jimmie Dale Gilmore pulls the same stunt on the succeeding "Stars in My Life." Crosby, Stills & Nash at Woodstock big: "Down on the Drag." Cockeyed stories, West Texistentialism, bonhomie – its Flatlanders central augmented by Ely band bassist Jimmy Petit and Kevin Carroll on guitar. On last year's Hills and Valleys mystic "After the Storm," Gilmore's high lonesome contrasts Hancock's deep vocals on LP-mate "Thank God for the Road," Ely studying the latter singer like he's getting his first look at a steam engine.
J.T. Van Zandt, the spitting image of his father, slays "Ira Hayes" in a walk-on one-off, and when "West Texas Waltz" ends the 75-minute blow-out three firecrackers later, the house is a-rockin'. Hancock's solo encore, "Row of Dominoes," from his high plains drifter The Wind's Dominion, stokes Ely's interpretation of it on 1990 barn burner Live at Liberty Lunch.
Riding Thursday's momentum, Butch is all business Friday night. His most recent disc, 2006's War and Peace, reigns. Comic relief falls to his introduction by Griff Luneburg.
"It's been quite the six months," announces the room's guardian of 29 years.
"This is the last night of the crew under the umbrella," points Luneburg at the bustling bar, behind which Susan Svedeman and Chris Lueck have been doing their best Cocktail act for four nights running. Lueck's only two years behind Luneburg in Cactus seniority; Svedeman, dubbed "the Quiet Fire" by honorary Texan Tom Russell (according to Luneburg), remains the Ronnie Wood of the troika at a mere 18 years.
"Chris and Susan planned this whole thing to take over the Cactus," reveals Luneburg. "So you're fired!"
Hancock, wearing a blue work shirt over his regulation black T-shirt – both tucked in, a first – follows with the stark a cappella opening of War and Peace, "Give Them Water," then segues into "Between Wars." Line after line, verse after verse, his words cement a larger mosaic of song. Decades of occasional lyric flubs now come into relief against countless bundles of 99 other lines per song that Hancock's delivered time and again in perfect synchronicity.
David Garza, sitting with me tonight, guests on a quartet of assists, the last, "Dry Land Farm," leading off Hancock's 1978 debut, West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes. Having requested the hardscrabble hell-raiser, Garza proclaims: "No two shirts alike! Butch hasn't worn the same shirt twice."
Flatlanders staple "Julia" jump-starts the second half, Hancock quickly calling Colin Gilmore onstage. Apparently, The Big Lebowski runs in the family: Gilmore's spry back and forth with Hancock could stand in for that of his father, Jimmie Dale, just as the elder songwriter's fellow Coen brothers alum Jeff Bridges is the next best thing to the Dude.
War and Peace triptych "Damage Done," "The Master Game," and "Brother Won't You Shake My Hand" is leavened by the unrecorded rollick of "Tombstones" ("Baby, stop sending me tombstones – I'm taking it easy, but the mailman's taking it hard"). Butch Morgan adds ringing licks on his heart-shaped guitar.
And leave it to someone from "North Texas" to cause the first double-up, Jimmy LaFave inhabiting "If You Were a Bluebird" as had Joe Ely the previous night. The next morning Hancock admits that he requested the Lone Star standard from the Okie crier, but while it unfolds, one of his few asides for the evening boomerangs back.
"What about no three alike?"
"The first artist I ever saw in Austin was Butch Hancock," reckons Griff Luneburg to a final standing-room-only crush.
Three years later, 1981, the UT government major was spooning cream and sugar for the newly renovated Cactus Cafe when Hancock debuted at the campus coffeehouse. The next time the thirtysomething singer-songwriter played there, Luneburg had booked him, second of what the venue's minder estimates after the show as approximately 300 performances – an uncharted gold standard compared to any other single troubadour.
When the promoter finishes by recalling the room's motto, "Life if possible ... Art at any cost," Hancock launches into its lyric mother ship from The Wind's Dominion, "Mario y Maria." Along with four Townes Van Zandt covers, two Jimmie Dale Gilmore vocals, and the BettySoo showstopper that follows, the "semi-sad ballad" of the Latino twosome acts as groundwork for the last 20 minutes of the first set, which still manages to creep up on the expectant crowd like a summer storm. The ensuing hard rain finds Gilmore loading in not one but two lyric-prompting iPads for the first part of Hancock's Gettysburg Address.
Seven minutes of "Split & Slide" evaporate in the tongue-twisting face of the song's double runtime follow-up, "Split & Slide II: Apocalypse Now, Pay Later." Where the original mashes Dr. Seuss with Mark Twain, the follow-up makes the original sound like a haiku. Then again, countless snake-and-ladder verses of "Split & Slide II" also add up to child's play in the face of the mythical "Split & Slide III," promised for a generation and finally unveiled on Saturday near midnight as a 21st century treatise on reincarnation, stretching from heaven to hell, Paris to Pakistan.
Ten minutes of talking dustbowl blues ramble by, now 20 minutes, dozens upon dozens of "shaggy dog stories" strung together – one constructed out of palindromes and another sung in alphabetical order. Finally the singer's forced to hydrate. He's in no hurry. At the 30-minute mark, with another five to go, Hancock sees the light at the end of the Texas Union.
"This might be the last time I play the Cactus for a while if Griff's not here," he says.
Raging in the all-told hour of "Split & Slide," Jesse Taylor whispers one of its choruses in my ear.
You can't always win a fight, baby.
You can't always see the light.
And a rose can't bloom all year long.
"Lord of the Highway"
"Be Careful What You Say to Trains" (first time performed)
"It's All Coming Back to Me Now" (unrecorded)
"Danglin' Diamond" (new)
"Song From a Sad Bassoon" (unrecorded)
"See the Way" (w/ Jimmie Dale Gilmore)
"My Mind's Got a Mind of Its Own" (w/ Jimmie Dale Gilmore)
"Just a Wave, Not the Water" (w/ Jimmie Dale Gilmore)
"Moanin' of the Midnight Train" (Eats Away the Night)
"Pickin' Up Steam" (unrecorded)
"Eats Away the Night"
"A Place Where You'll Believe" (unrecorded)
"Pumpkineater" (Eats Away Night)
"Black Irish Rose" (You Coulda Walked Around the World)
"Road Map for the Blues" (War and Peace)
"Hidin' in the Hills" (You Coulda Walked Around the World)
"One Good Time" (You Coulda Walked Around the World)
"Naked Light of Day" (You Coulda Walked Around the World)
"I'd Just as Soon Catch a Star" (unrecorded)
"The Dog of Intermittent Love" ("the shortest one I got")
"To Each His Own" (Eats Away the Night)
"Low Lights of Town" (You Coulda Walked Around the World)
"Dead Man's Road" (unrecorded)
"Dressed to the Nines" (unrecorded)
"Pine Cone" (new)
"Smoothest Operator" (unrecorded)
"Circumstance" (You Coulda Walked Around the World; recently recorded by Joe Ely)
"Roll Around" (You Coulda Walked Around the World)
"Blind Boys" (new)
"You Can Take Me for One" (Diamond Hill)
"Elmer's Tune" (performed by Leon Epstein)
"Long Sunsets" (You Coulda Walked Around the World)
"Number of Names" (first time performed)
"Mama Does the Kangaroo" (unrecorded)
"You Coulda Walked Around the World"
"I Know You" (Al Strehli cover)
"No Place To Fall" (Townes Van Zandt cover)
"Pleasures of Love" (unrecorded)
"Bare Footprints" (You Coulda Walked Around the World)
"One Last Chance To Change Your Mind" (unrecorded)
"Prisoner of the Moon" (unrecorded)
"The Road You're Standing On" (unrecorded)
"Already Gone" (w/ John Train) (Cause of the Cactus cassette)
"Blue Red River Train" (unrecorded)
"Eileen" (Eats Away the Night)
75-minute Flatlanders set
"Tennessee Is Not the State I'm In" (Joe Ely)
"Stars in My Life" (first Flatlanders LP)
"One Road More" (first Flatlanders LP)
"Down on the Drag" (Joe Ely's Down on the Drag)
"After the Storm" (Hills and Valleys)
"Wishing for a Rainbow" (Hills and Valleys)
"Homeland Refugee" (Hills and Valleys)
"If You Were a Bluebird" (Firewater; Eats Away the Night)
"Wheels of Fortune" (Wheels of Fortune)
"Ira Hayes" (performed by J.T. Van Zandt)
"Borderless Love" (Hills and Valleys)
"Pay the Alligator" (Now Again)
"Thank God for the Road" (Hills and Valleys)
"West Texas Waltz" (West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes)
"Row of Dominoes" (The Wind's Dominion)
"Give Them Water" (War and Peace)
"Between Wars" (War and Peace)
"No Thing" (new)
"Bottom of It All" (new)
"When the Good and the Bad Get Ugly" (War and Peace)
"Chase" (You Coulda Walked Around the World)
"Feast or Famine" (new)
"Dry Land Farm" (West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes)
"Julia" (Now Again)
"Own and Own" (The Wind's Dominion)
"Circles in the Yard" (Colin Gilmore)
"Damage Done" (War and Peace)
"Brother Won't You Shake My Hand" (War and Peace)
"The Master Game" (War and Peace)
"Room for Rent" (new)
"Junkyard in the Sun" (Eats Away the Night)
"If You Were a Bluebird" (sung by Jimmy LaFave)
"The Wind's Dominion"
"What a World This Mess Is In" (new)
"Mario y Maria" (The Wind's Dominion)
"Billy, Boney and Ma" (Townes Van Zandt cover)
"Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold" (Townes Van Zandt cover)
"New Jersey Lily" (No Two Alike tapes)
"Man on a Pilgrimmage" (Firewater)
"Red Chevrolet" (Jimmie Dale Gilmore)
"Pancho & Lefty" (w/ BettySoo)
"Dead Sweetheart Song No. 1" (w/ Jimmie Dale Gilmore)
"Split & Slide" (w/ Jimmie Dale Gilmore)
"Split & Slide II: Apocalypse Now, Pay Later"
"Please Quit Giving Your Man the Blues" (unrecorded)
"She Never Spoke Spanish to Me" (performed by Joe Ely)
"Leo y Leona" (The Wind's Dominion - vinyl)
"Split & Slide III" ("first time ever sung through in its entirety")
"To Live Is To Fly" (Townes Van Zandt cover)
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