Antone's house band bassist excerpts 30 years at the "Home of the Blues"
It's Dec. 31, 2015, and I've got a rare blues double-header: My regular Thursday happy hour at C-Boy's Heart & Soul with Paul Oscher – Muddy Waters' harp blower 1967-72 – followed by the New Year's Eve rebirth of Antone's Nightclub. Father Time and Baby New Year are no cliche tonight.
Shortly after the club relocated from the Drag to Fifth and Colorado in 1997, Clifford Antone shepherded two sweet, shy teens backstage, where they shook our hands respectfully and watched as we tuned and cracked wise. Gary Clark Jr. and Eve Monsees are now in their 30s, the former a part owner of this same venue, and the latter a co-owner of Antone's Records. As I enter through the back door of the club's sixth iteration carrying my bass, Monsees is onstage with Marcia Ball and guitarists Denny Freeman and Derek O'Brien.
The house band kicks in with a time-honored shuffle in E to anchor a night of blues tradition. Showtime for me is halfway through the set, so I have time to peruse the place. Too-white walls are covered with posters of gigs I attended or played, but there are photographs I've never seen before. As I examine them, three decades of my past flashes back into focus.
There's longtime local James Cotton kneeling on the checkerboard linoleum in his shiny suit, shooting dice in the Guadalupe back room. Here's a photo of another of Bobby "Blue" Bland's signature sidemen, Wayne Bennett, with Doug Sahm eying the guitarist's fingers close enough to graze his bow tie. And Rufus Thomas, "World's Oldest Teenager." I played with him that night, so I must be just out of frame. The photographer is John Mintz, one of the club's original bartenders, while other iconic images were lensed by Susan Antone.
Then I see a shot of Buddy Guy from the night he and the Eighties house band took "Yonder's Wall" over the moon. The stage lights reflect Derek O'Brien's face onto Buddy's guitar like Jesus on a tortilla.
My cue arrives, so I climb onstage and plug in. Eve counts off and the band launches Magic Sam's "You Belong to Me." We hit the distinctive intro full on. My amp sounds muddy, so I fiddle with the knobs. Fine-tuning won't be the order of the night, however, so I simply turn up and take off.
Saturday night in Austin – dedicated live music night. Every night is live music night here. The city busts at the seams with it.
It's been two years since I landed locally, after giving up on Boston. Texas has fed the world a steady diet of both raw and intricate musical styles ever since the cowboys, Mexicans, Germans, and freed slaves began buying each other's pawnshop guitars. Blues-flavored country, country-flavored blues; wild, free-form jazz and ballads of the plains; Mexican dance bands with R&B roots; punk-a-billy; pithy and elegant songwriters from regions east, west, north, and south, blasting cultural barriers away by marrying styles no one thought had a chance together.
At Antone's, the hangout for musicians during breaks is a parking lot just outside the kitchen door. For the players and staff, it's a place to smoke and talk. For those who want to dodge the cover charge, or celebrities who need to slip in their entourage without being seen, the lot provides easy backdoor access.
One night blues guitar marvel Albert Collins – "The Ice Man," "The Master of the Telecaster" – walked offstage in the middle of a set, still playing, and headed out the alley door trailing a guitar cord as long as Bo Diddley's "47 miles of barbwire." He strolled through the back entrance of Milto's, ordered a pizza, then turned and followed his cord back into the club, still soloing over the same shuffle in D, never repeating a lick. The crowd went nuts, and the pizza was delivered to the stage.
Tonight, standing outside, I hear some familiar voices and wander their way.
I come upon Clifford Antone, club founder and benevolent ruler, talking to Sugar Bear. Sugar's an old-style emcee in the blues revue tradition ("Ladies and gentlemen, at this particular time I would like to introduce to some and present to others ..."), as well as Clifford's low-key majordomo. The pow-wow includes Derek O'Brien, ace guitarist and compadre.
Clifford's a big man dressed in his usual uniform: a starched white shirt, untucked, with black suit pants and black dress shoes. He rocks slightly from side to side while looking straight ahead, running the back of his hand over his comb-over and discussing how the night will shape up. Control center is wherever Clifford happens to be standing, whether it's an alley or an Austin City Council meeting. The topics are familiar, though the edicts are subject to change.
"Get Mel up, get Angela up, then get Buddy up. And Stevie may come by."
Clifford created the "Home of the Blues" as a Texas stronghold for Chicago blues, Memphis blues, Mississippi blues, California blues – blues of any stripe – by sending plane tickets all over the country, inviting the men and women whose work we all worshiped to come to Austin and play on his stage. Clifford devoted himself to treating blues royalty like royalty.
I'm a member of the house band at Antone's. I'm the fan that became a player. I'm a commoner next to the likes of Albert Collins, but I've earned the right to share the stage. The house band backs up most of the stars that come to play, and I feel confident in saying these artists don't mind leaving their ace bands at home to come play with us. We know how to play their music.
I won Clifford's approval when I was traveling with a band from Boston and ended up in his club backing harmonica virtuoso Big Walter Horton. A pioneer of the modern blues harp, Walter's playing was loose and ever changing. I had to keep my ears wide open and think on my feet to follow him. Big Walter liked my playing, and that was good enough for Clifford, so I made the Antone's house band, a pretty secure perch for a blues bass player in the Eighties.
The club packs them in, but even a blues mecca struggles to break even. So much of the club's profits go to make life easier on these true artists. Clifford has helped them with their medical needs; necessities like glasses and teeth; replaced stolen guitars; paid for a roof over their heads. He made sure there was a headstone on the great Eddie Taylor's grave.
Soon, I'm back in the club and heading for the low stage, wearing a pink satin jacket with huge shoulder pads, some kind of polyester too hot for this weather. Slung around my shoulders is a solid-body Silvertone with red and black sunburst finish, a long, long neck, and a mock tortoiseshell pick guard twice as big as the one on my Fender. It looks like someone poured a bucket of tortoiseshell under the strings and around the pickups, and somehow it dried to a perfect fit. The bass is a gift from Clifford, who makes sure his players are set up with the right gear.
Freddie King's "Hideaway" is our set opener. The house band – Mel Brown on organ, guitarists Derek O'Brien and Denny Freeman, and George Rains on drums – knows the Freddie King hymnal chapter and verse. The song is spelled out in the first few verses, with trademark stops and riffs.
"Ladies and gentlemen, at this particular time I'd like to introduce to some and present to others ... Austin's Queen of the Blues: Miss ... Angela ... Strehli!"
Angela moves smoothly to center stage, taking the mic from the stand. She doesn't just sing the words, she tells their story, and you know she means every word. Her voice is finely hewn, but smoky, strong, and sweet and truthful. She raises her hand to the band, then lets it fall, kicking us into "Big Town Playboy," Eddie Taylor's song.
Afterward, she slips offstage and we wait for a minute, then another, and another. I start getting uncomfortable. Too many beats of silence coming from the stage is like dead air on the radio. We're as restless as the noisy audience and, like the crowd, straining to get a view of the action behind the dressing room door.
Buddy Guy bursts out of the dressing room and bounds onstage, grinning while skirting a block of fans and jumping up the shallow steps. He's a middle-aged man with the energy of a kid about to enter a high-stakes playground basketball game, and in his sleeveless T-shirt, he's all biceps. He's already wearing his guitar.
Clifford grabs the mic and has just enough time to say "Our good friend Buddy Guy!" before the guitarist rips into the opening riff of "Yonder's Wall." For a glorious moment, it's just him on guitar – Buddy Guy announcing himself to the universe, head back, squeezing life into his strings.
George immediately answers with snare and toms in the same rhythm Buddy just stated, and we're off. I'm pumping away at a single note, eight of them to a measure. Denny's put down his guitar and moved to the piano, close enough that a flexed elbow from me won't do the back of his head any favors. He's picked up the same double-time triplet tempo and pounds it out on the high keys. Derek is just to the right and behind Buddy, playing the driving rhythm. Mel sits at the Hammond B-3 organ perched at the edge of the stage, choosing not fight it out with Buddy's guitar.
I feel like Buddy is playing my spinal cord, twanging my core with each note. He's whipping his poor guitar, giving it a split second to howl before he whips it again. The band and audience follow as one note suddenly soars into outer space and arcs back to Earth in a meteor shower. Then he takes us even higher, way, way up there, leaving us hanging on his next notes. He knows we can't breathe this far up in the stratosphere, so his next move is to play the same four-note riff 20 times in a row fast – fast enough to fit into one or two beats – and making sure we all believe what he's telling us.
I'm holding on to my bass guitar for dear life, running, not walking, from chord to chord. I know the territory well, but it's going by so fast it's like viewing my hometown from a runaway train. There are tiny spaces between the sonic bursts of Buddy's solo, and in these spaces you can hear people yell and whoop. They're on the same locomotive.
So how did a white girl from the Midwest end up in the thick of the blues? I was born in Chicago, raised in Ann Arbor, and came of age in Boston. My father was a professor of Russian literature at the University of Michigan, so when I declined college in order to hang with the cool guys – musicians – he didn't speak to me for six months.
At Antone's, for a good, long while, Blue Monday was the most happening event in Austin. I still run into music lovers who consider those nights an education unsurpassed. We had visits from Dr. John, David "Fathead" Newman, Junior Walker, and Bonnie Raitt. I could go on and on.
This is a special Monday because my folks are traveling through Austin on their yearly trek to Washington state. They've called to say a savage rainstorm blew into Waco as they were driving south on I-35, so they're waiting it out under an overpass. I've left word with Ilse Haynes, the beautiful Swedish woman who's taken in the door money every night at Antone's from the beginning of time, to get a waitress to show my folks to their table when they arrive.
The Monday crowd is smaller, but there are still plenty of blues lovers happily giving up sleep on a work night to see what's going down. Denny Freeman, later a guitarist for Bob Dylan, counts off the set opener, another Freddie King instrumental called "In the Open." I squint into the floating smoke and chatter and discover I've missed my parents' entrance! After the song, I step up to the mic and tell the crowd it's a special night for me because my folks are in the audience, and I point to their table.
Taking what she assumes is her cue, my mother stands and, with the sweeping gesture of a general on the battlefield, waves to the crowd. It's a gesture she comes by honestly. Think Washington crossing the Delaware.
My mother is a Washington, born Glenora Washington. She is the great-great-great-great-grandniece of the Great General, the First President of the Republic, the Father of Our Country. Yet Gerry Brown doesn't wear a badge of honor or anything like it. She considers her heritage arbitrary and isn't interested in patriotic worship.
"The music is wonderful tonight," she says when I make my way to their table after the set.
Clifford, no stranger to the superlative, comes over to tell my parents that their daughter led the parade.
"And how are you?" my mom asks him.
To Clifford, "you" means "the club."
"Great! We have some really excellent shows coming up. W.C. Clark's here tomorrow, Buddy Guy played this last weekend, Bobby Bland is coming in –."
My mother holds up a finger and gently but confidently corrects him.
"Don't you mean Bobby 'Blue' Bland?"
"That's right, Bobby 'Blue' Bland," says Clifford, leaning back and looking away with a slight smile.
She knows she's hit his sweet spot. She's paid attention. Mom knows her stuff.
The thing is, the Washington family owned slaves up until Emancipation, and the music celebrated night after night at this same club was born of this greater injustice. My path to the Antone's stage that night was very different than the legendary players I learned from. It's possible I've played the blues with descendants of someone my family enslaved. I'm currently working on a book that explores the clash between my family's image and the blues.
Now, walking back for another set, I grab my bass. I'm a fan who's thrilled to be onstage, and I know a secret. At the mic now, Clifford has an announcement.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a surprise guest star tonight. One of the best musicians in the entire world!"
George Raines counts off a fast shuffle, and the band digs in. Buddy Guy has decided to stay over in Austin a few more days, so once again he jumps up the steps at stage right already wearing his guitar. All he has to do is plug in.
Antone's Nightclub is now open at 305 E. Fifth Street: www.antonesnightclub.com.