Playback: Armadillo Tales
A review of the best book on Austin’s 1970s music scene since The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock
A book can cure the worst case of boredom. I'd know.
Following a post-South by Southwest road trip to perform at a secret music fest fueled by gas generators and psychedelics in the Chihuahua desert, our band van blew a tire on the West Texas interstate. Its rubber missile shot off the hub and decimated the gas tank and exhaust pipe, leaving our wagon as dead as a roadside 'dillo squashed by a semi.
Passersby rescued our seven human and one canine passenger, while I rode a tow truck back to the lifeless town of Ozona, where I camped for days in the desolate dirt lot of a diesel garage. With no phone, funds, laptop, TV, or electricity, I excavated the van's only reading material: Armadillo World Headquarters, a memoir by Eddie Wilson.
Most know Wilson, the impresario behind the Threadgill's restaurants and the titular concert hall, as a Texan amalgam of concert promotions legend Bill Graham and circus tamer P.T. Barnum, but the memoir reveals a Mark Twain streak of insightfully folksy prose. Co-author Jesse Sublett played the 'Dillo in homegrown punk pioneers the Skunks. The duo's storytelling functions as a biography, local cultural map, and a scholarly snapshot of Austin's vaunted 1970s music scene.
As such, Wilson deflects any reductive pigeonholing of cosmic cowboy oneness inside the walls of the old South Austin armory that he transformed into a good-times hippie compound 1970-1980. Country outlaws Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings appear aplenty, but eye-level stories about Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Zappa, Bette Midler, Freddie King, Bruce Springsteen, and Linda Ronstadt demonstrate genre diversity while ushering in an appeal beyond the borders of the Lone Star State.
In one anecdote, Van Morrison's accompanied by a young woman serving as his "masseuse/interpreter." Throughout the Irish soul man's four-night stand at the Downtown venue, which sat adjacent to Threadgill's current locale, he only communicated by whispering into her ear. When Wilson takes both out to meet a colony of people living in circular domiciles called yurts, Morrison relays his dissatisfaction to his mouthpiece, who informs Wilson, "Van really needs his corners."
Throughout the book, Wilson refuses to let recorded history usurp the truth. He's got a bone to pick with Austin City Limits' official narrative of the show being conceived by late KLRU exec Bill Arhos in response to PBS requesting original station programming. Wilson claims his team was already developing and employing the concept on KLRU/KLRN a year before Arhos secured funding. Perhaps the longest-running music TV show in the U.S., which also spawned a festival and venue, should have been called Live From Armadillo World Headquarters.
Other page-turning drama unfolds with animosity for David Allen Coe fans booing improbable opener Ray Charles at AWHQ, Willie Nelson's gun-totin' posse clashing with the venue's staff, and poster artist Ken Featherston getting murdered by a drunk who'd been bounced from the hall.
Wilson and Sublett's book should be required reading for today's club owners. Even a venue as legendary as AWHQ was always scraping to get in the black. Wilson never whitewashes that struggle, celebrating the sweating and fretting involved in keeping the lights on. Same as it ever was.
As yours truly rotted in rural purgatory four hours from Austin, Armadillo World Headquarters made me homesick. I devoured all 520 pages, bound in faux armadillo hide, in a single day. That's no stretch with a tome so intrinsically enthralling that it'll challenge Jan Reid's The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock as the best book on Austin's music scene in the Seventies.
Armadillo World Headquarters
by Eddie Wilson With Jesse Sublett
University of Texas Press, 520 pp., $34.95
Booksignings: Sunday, April 9, Threadgill’s World Headquarters, 10am-2pm; and Wednesday, April 12, Threadgill’s Old No. 1, 5-9pm.
Engaging the Unknown: Henry Threadgill
Pulitzer Prize. Henry Threadgill's got one. The maverick composer nabbed that lofty honor last year with In for a Penny, in for a Pound. His performances have been welcomed in the Library of Congress and at least two revered jazz critics have called him the genre's finest living composer.
"I don't ask for that type of recognition, but it's confirmation that what I've been doing means something to somebody," the 73-year-old flutist and saxman muses. "I play for humanity, so any part of humanity that appreciates it is valued on my end."
To call Threadgill's local appearances this weekend "rare" is a blatant understatement. The New York-based elder doesn't tour and in his career, which launched in 1971 with enlightened free jazz trio Air, he's only played a few gigs in Texas. Threadgill believes one occurred locally in the early Nineties with his double-tuba/double-guitar ensemble Very Very Circus.
Studious minds can pick the master's brain at a workshop and Q&A at UT's Music Recital Hall Friday. The following night, his Zooid sextet cracks open craniums at the timelessly culty 19th century Scottish Rite Theater. Expect Threadgill's trademark magic: avant-jazz suspended in distinct moods, fully notated then spiked with spontaneity.
"My commitment to improvisation is always the same: 100 percent," he says. "I don't know what's gonna take place. That's the thing about improvisation: You enter the unknown and you engage it."
Read the full interview with Threadgill here.
Locally Sourced Euphoria
Euphoria Fest rolls into the Eastside pastures of Carson Creek Ranch this weekend. Alongside marquee names in EDM, rap, jam, and pop (see "Music Listings") runs a strong local current from those scenes. Here's "Playback"'s Top 10:
Auto Body (Thu., 9:15pm, Art Outside Village stage) Veteran electro-fusion duo with a penchant for dance beats and pop hooks.
Blunt Force (Sat., 5:30pm, Dragonfly stage) Electronic heavies incorporate drums, samples, and guitar into future funk, glitch-hop, and dubstep.
Capyac (Sat., 4:30pm, Euphoria stage) Eclectic vibes turn into tasty grooves from this oft-costumed keys-n-guitar dance duo.
Eric Dingus (Fri., 6:05pm, Dragonfly stage) Young, Drake-approved producer crafts melancholy electronic instrumentals.
Henry + the Invisibles (Sat., 7pm, Art Outside Village stage) Supremely creative one-man funk crew stacks a cavalcade of loops.
Magna Carda (Fri., 4:50pm, Dragonfly stage) Female-fronted hip-hop and a forward-thinking live band.
Psymbionic (Sat., 8pm, Dragonfly stage) Bass music explorer ranks among Austin's most popular producers. RIYL Bassnectar.
Resonant Frequency (Thu., 7:45pm, Art Outside Village stage) Soul groove livetronica triad.
Sip Sip (Fri., 3:25pm, Dragonfly stage) Parliament-like Mother Falcon offshoot dabbling in funk, experimental, and hip-hop.
The Widdler (Sun., 3:45pm, Elements stage) Israel-born DJ offers mellow dubs and dubstep.
Bonnaroo added Walker Lukens to its lineup. The versatile pop sophisticate stands as the sole Austin artist on the Tennessee megafest, June 8-11.
Izzy Cox succumbed to pancreatic cancer on March 24. The singer of pierced-heart murder ballads, 38, lived locally for the last decade and continued to perform and record as her health deteriorated, seeding a posthumous album at Million Dollar Sound. Last Wednesday's wake at Carousel Lounge drew a full house of friends, fans, and bands paying tribute.
Cactus Cafe resumed its long-shelved Monday open mic under the direction of veteran ATX singer-songwriter – and former Strange Brew booker – Kacy Crowley. The event runs weekly from 8-10pm. Sign up at 7:30pm.
Sweet Spirit welcomed Har Mar Superstar to duet on Pulp's "Common People" during Friday's sold-out album release show at Barracuda. A socially diverse crowd, including Mayor Steve Adler, who proclaimed April 1 "Sweet Spirit Day" then watched the whole set, proved Austin's heavy pop favorites have crossed over.
"Fuck Awolnation," declared Jegar Erickson and Eli Southard after their Hounds of Baskerville leader Roky Erickson, whose set was already truncated to 15 minutes, got trapped in his dressing room at Houston's Whatever Fest because L.A.'s electro-rock headliners demanded the hallways remain clear as they took the stage.