Playback: I'm Sorry, I Can't Rock You All Night Long
An epic GrulkeFest fires the fall season, including John Prine
Maybe it's every music lifer's underlying wish – or at the very least an idle daydream – but I sincerely hope that when I die, all my friends' bands get back together and play a concert for me.
GrulkeFest wasn't sorrowful. It was all powerful – an epic night for the long and storied annals of local music. As vestiges of Austin's first-wave indie bands tore up the ACL Live at the Moody Theater stage with spirited rock & roll sets, a good old-fashioned family reunion was taking place in front of the stage – not to mention outside on the landing, upstairs in the mezzanine, and even out front of the venue by the statue of Willie Nelson. No one was dwelling on death. This was life at its fullest and most benevolent.
Because he was the creative director of South by Southwest, Brent Grulke was a leader in the global music industry, but for those gathered onstage Saturday night, Brent was a friend, a peer, a father. Or as one of the Wannabes (the first band up) joked, a roommate who selflessly doted on his flatmates' dates.
"He was our soundman for a few years," noted producer John Croslin of the reunited Reivers. "He would turn us up real loud and everyone liked it."
Grulke's involvement at every level of local band business sounded a familiar refrain throughout the six-and-a-half-hour concert, which ran like clockwork. Sixteen Deluxe thanked Grulke for giving them a prime slot at SXSW one year, while Mike Hall of the Wild Seeds credited his late co-writer with originating the riff to underground hit "I'm Sorry, I Can't Rock You All Night Long." The former group worked up a heartfelt cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" for the show's absent guest of honor, and the latter rocked Grulke favorite "Cinnamon Girl."
"Brent was the heart of so many bands in Austin," proclaimed Hall as he introduced the three-note riff to "I'm Sorry, I Can't Rock You All Night Long," and as the song came to life, a mob of family and friends including his little boy, Graham, took the stage for a massive choir of backup vocals. Friend or stranger, that was a powerful moment to witness.
Million-seller Fastball sparked early, and Kathy McCarty of Glass Eye reiterated her ex-husband's selflessness with "the ladies" in an era and genre of music where women still had a hard time being taken seriously for anything other than being female. Doctors' Mob unleashed Glenn Benavides high on the drum riser as the Wannabes' ageless Jennings Crawford stood in on guitar for Don Lamb, who sent his regrets from Seattle where he was celebrating a quarter-century of being married. All told, that's a raucous and emotional run of bands, but in the end, the evening belonged to one of Brent Grulke's great life passions: the True Believers.
When it was announced that the Eighties powerhouse would have No. 1 fill-in and Scratch Acid drummer Rey Washam driving the band, that was enough to predict that the guitar trinity of Jon Dee Graham, Alejandro Escovedo, and Javier Escovedo would come out blazing. That wasn't the half it.
For an hour, the all-star Austin aggregation ran through one slamming string-bender after another, getting hotter/faster/louder as the set caught fire with "Rebel Kind," "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over," and "Hard Road."
"We spent a lot of nights singing Velvet Underground songs," said Alejandro about the band's bond with Grulke, before launching into a battering-ram version of VU's "Train Round the Bend."
Graham's wistful "Lucky Moon," the three guitarists side by side at the front of the stage for Javier's "I Get Excited," and Velvet ramrod "Foggy Notion" made Alejandro's closing sentiment obvious.
"We love Brent Grulke very much. We just want you to know that."
Monday, live on KUT, Jon Dee Graham added one key capstone.
"We were never as good as we were Saturday night."
Fall Arts: Primed for Prine
My introduction to John Prine came through his 1971 deep cut "Sam Stone," chronicling the life of a Vietnam veteran who, upon returning home, slides into heroin addiction and dies a slow, sad death. The haunting couplet that begins the chorus consumed me: "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothin', I suppose." The friend who introduced me to that song became a heroin addict himself and now lives a similar tragedy. Those kinds of connections don't surprise me because Prine writes so close to life, tapping into the loneliness, warmth, and absurdity of existence in a unique way.
His oft-covered "Angel From Montgomery" plays from the perspective of a desolate housewife watching her life "flow by like a broken down dam" and longing for escape. It's a song mostly sung by women and, because the emotion is right, no one ever complains that a man wrote it. Prine's songwriting sometimes borders on the prophetic. In the early days of the Iraq war, his "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" became one of my favorite songs to play because it seemed like a cutting commentary on current events, even though Prine had written it 30 years earlier.
In 1998, Prine got cancer and doctors removed a portion of his neck. "Hopefully my neck is looking forward to its job of holding my head up above my shoulders," he wrote to fans. He came back with one of his finest albums, In Spite of Ourselves, and demonstrated that his strongest attribute, his wisdom, wasn't something time could kill. John Prine plays Bass Concert Hall on Sept. 29. That's what I'm excited about this fall.
› Swans' show Friday at La Zona Rosa doubles as a homecoming for drummer Thor Harris. The legendary experimental group, which reformed in 2010 with Harris in the fold, storms a three-week national tour after warming up with dates in Europe last month. "I'm the only Swan that calls Austin home, but Michael [Gira] loves it and we all realize it's a wonderful place," says Harris, who's lived here since 1980. The group's gargantuan new album, The Seer (see "Phases & Stages," p.56), was recorded in an old East Berlin radio station and a dairy barn in upstate New York. Along with adding vibraphone, piano, and clarinet to The Seer's dense mix, Harris also played two of his homemade instruments: an electric hammered dulcimer and an electric viola. "I try to use as many homemade instruments as I can so it sounds like something completely new," affirms Harris.
› Emo's East owner Frank Hendrix madehis prime time television debut last week on Discovery Channel series Texas Car Wars. The reality show follows four local body shops as they bid against each other on junked vehicles and then try to fix and sell them. Hendrix, who owns Old Skool Kustoms and is portrayed as a "kingpin" with "deep pockets" in the show's introduction, is an endless well of one-liners: "If this auction was a beauty pageant, there wouldn't be a winner or a runner up," and, "Maybe he knows something I don't. Did the price of scrap metal go up?" Catch the show at 9pm tonight, Thursday.
› The Beaumonts, purveyors of satirical country music and wearers of fine Western garments, are throwing a benefit concert for their friend Molly Hayes, who sang on their song "East Texas Girl." Hayes recently had a kidney removed due to cancer and doesn't have insurance, so the boys are raffling "a ton of shit – including three guitars." Expect Beaumonts' classics "Money for Drugs" and "The Devil Went Down to Lubbock" as well as performances by their alter-ego rock band Hognose, and Unsurpassed Profit, the Whiptails, and Mojo Queen at the Triple Crown in San Marcos on Friday. The Beaumonts' new album, Where Do You Want It, drops this winter on Prairie Dog Town Records.