Playback: Crazed for Christmas

Grammy nominations, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions, and eight days of Christmas

Carson McHone
Carson McHone (Photo by Shelley Hiam)

Austin's music community barely contains its holiday spirit. Like department stores that begin playing Christmas jingles on December 1, we've already blown our festive wads with heavy metal Christmas concerts, hip-hop toy drives, and ugly sweater dance parties. The "Playback" advent calendar now counts down the actual week of Christmas with eight melodious events to provoke credible holiday cheer – or at least give you an alternative to awkward family gatherings.

Thursday 18

Local jazz vet Paul Klemperer hosts his annual "Festivus" celebration at the Spider House Ballroom, 8pm. The skilled saxophonist observes the Seinfeld-inspired holiday with a variety show dishing jazz, soul, Latin, and Bollywood dancing in view of an undecorated aluminum pole.

Friday 19

Robert Earl Keen gathers rellies around the hearth annually at the Moody Theater, 8pm. Those who bought ahead (it's sold-out) can count on hearing what could one day become a holiday standard, "Merry Christmas From the Family," with the lyric, "Little sister brought her new boyfriend. He was a Mexican. We didn't know what to think of him until he sang 'Feliz Navidad.'" As Keen preps a bluegrass disc for February, his backing band just released a seasonal album as the Xmas-Men, titling it Santa Is Real as a nod to the Louvin Brothers' "Satan Is Real."

Saturday 20

Gerry Atric, Wes Texas, Machete, and the rest of the "Keep Rock Evil" gang hit the small screen when The Bulemics Save XXXmas on cable access essential DaveTV, airing 5pm on Ch. 10 (Time Warner & Grande), Ch. 99 (U-Verse), and streaming on The Austin Music Awards 2014 "Best Punk Band" has a new album in the works.

Sunday 21

Honky-Tonk Holidaze, the twangy Christmas musical about a magic-dust addicted Santa killing time in Texas after Mrs. Claus files for divorce, will be on tap at breakout brew congregation ABGB, 2pm. The play, directed by alt-folksinger Wild Bill, casts entirely local musicians including Jacob Jaeger as creepy villain Karl Krampus, and Kelly Galvin as an atheist named Christian.

Monday 22

Ever since queen folkie Sarah Elizabeth Campbell took a trip to heaven last December, Christine Albert has kept her "Bummer Night" gig at El Mercado alive as Mystery Monday, 7:30pm. This week, Marcia Ball and Rich Brotherton pay tribute to "Sarah Liz." In the spirit of giving, the Liver Foundation will donate $33,000 to HAAM in Campbell's honor.

Tuesday 23

Last-minute shoppers at the 39th annual Armadillo Christmas Bazaar in the Palmer Events Center will be serenaded by fiddle ace Warren Hood (noon) and young blues trio Peterson Brothers Band (3:30pm). Alpha Rev, whose new Christmas album options a personalized greeting from singer Casey McPherson in Santa suit or Speedo, headlines (8pm).

Wednesday 24

Country songstress Carson McHone hosts a free songwriter night at Saxon Pub on Christmas Eve, 8pm. The 23-act lineup offers a revue of Austin's rootsy strummers like Haydon Hoodoo, Robert Banta, Leo Rondeau, Robert Alan Caldwell, and George Reiff. Don't miss McHone, the beauty with a bankroll in her boot, who writes with depth and sings with gritty confidence.

Thursday 25

Like another guy with a big belt and white hair, Dale Watson works his ass off on Christmas. The country crooner entertains at the Continental Club, 10pm, with holiday originals like "Santa and My Semi" and "Christmas Without an Angel."

Rainey Street Renegades

Mrs. Glass at Blackheart
Mrs. Glass at Blackheart (Photo by Kevin Curtin)

Of all Austin neighborhoods worth naming, Rainey Street may be the most emblematic of the city's urban proliferation. The entertainment strip, boasting a dozen bungalows-turned-bars beneath high-rises in various states of completion, amounted to a mere side street until 2009 when Lustre Pearl trail-blazed the house/bar hotspot. Today, it's largely treaded by the leather shoes of well-heeled twentysomethings as one of Austin's fancier party zones.

Rainey's collared-shirt-to-black-band-tee ratio finds equilibrium at the Blackheart, the strip's only full-time music venue, where tourists, rockers, and condo-dwellers enjoy free local music nightly in the small, wood-planked chamber that was probably once the living room of Austin's weighmaster Augustus Basnett, who built the structure at 86 Rainey in 1889.

In late November, I witnessed alt-blues ringers Mrs. Glass moan southern comfort to the blackhearted as they have weekly since October 2012. The next evening, Blackheart turned on a dime, hosting darkwave marauders the Dead Space and jangle-rock delinquents Grape St.

"The Blackheart treats us like gold," Mrs. Glass sideman Ivan Evangelista offered. "It's rare for musicians to be treated like a valued commodity in Austin. Mrs. Glass would not be where we are without Jeremy – he's fucking legit."

That's Blackheart co-owner Jeremy Murray, who along with booker Amarah Ulghani, boosts the bar's association with local music via the Live at the Blackheart vinyl series, which launched with Mrs. Glass in October. Murray says the records, available for purchase at the bar, are a way to show appreciation to Blackheart favorites. Look for a live LP early next year from a second resident group, hard pop partiers Sweet Spirit.

"When we recorded Mrs. Glass in February, it was freezing, there was a whopping 30 people in the house, and it was amazing," recalls Murray. "Sweet Spirit's recording was the opposite – middle of July, brutally hot, door and windows open, loud, beer flying everywhere. Together they represent the space in totally different ways."

Rainey's rough territory for music supporters. Often, Blackheart's sound engineers stand outside talking decibel readings with the goal of keeping under 60dB – considerably quieter than traffic on nearby I-35. Rainey Street bars risk citation if music can be heard at the property line after cutoff hours, which vary by day.

And the Blackheart appears tied to the street's whipping post, racking up neighborhood complaints and tickets for noise and capacity from patrolling authorities even though they've largely abandoned their outdoor stage. Last year, Blackheart's noise citation related expenses tallied five digits.

"You get used to fines, attorney bills, and going to City Council, Music Commission, and neighborhood association meetings," shrugs Murray, whose experiences have galvanized him into an outspoken figure regarding sound issues facing venues. "The hope is to initiate a two-way conversation about sound issues, not just the current model of 'Do what you're told.'"

Despite hardships, rocking Rainey comes with personal and cultural rewards.

"It makes me happy to expose people to good music," Murray grins. "Mom Jeans played here one night to a group of people who had no idea they existed, and I couldn't get the smile off my face."

Half Notes

South by Southwest prognosticating: Winter's rife annually with promotional blasts announcing spring releases and this year's no different. Will we see D'Angelo maintaining his Black Messiah hype through March (likely) or Bob Dylan showcasing his Sinatra covers album (doubtful)? So far, some possible candidates given their upcoming albums and gaps in tour schedules include the Decemberists, Fall Out Boy, Theophilus London, Of Montreal, and – if they can squeeze in a gig before a March 18 Euro tour – reunited femme-rock trio Sleater-Kinney, playing April 17 at Stubb's. Reanimated local noise rockers Cherubs may also show since their first album in 19 years, 2 Ynfynyty, arrives March 3. SXSW's Music Conference runs March 17-22.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on April 18. The local Stratocaster master, eligible since 2008, received his first nomination this year, initially as a solo artist, then amended to include Double Trouble featuring Chris Layton, Tommy Shannon, and Reese Wynans.

Grammy nominations have been posted. Austinites in the running for golden gramophone statuettes: Ruthie Foster's Promise of a Brand New Day (Best Blues Album), Eliza Gilkyson's The Nocturne Diaries (Best Folk Album) – see "Music Listings" for interviews with both – and Conspirare's The Sacred Spirit of Russia (Best Choral Performances). Dave & Phil Alvin's Common Ground, featuring local bass badass Brad Fordham, also contends for Best Blues Album.

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Blackheart, Paul Klemperer, Robert Earl Keen, Bulemics, Wild Bill, Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Carson McHone, Dale Watson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ruthie Foster, Eliza Gilkyson

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