Unplugged: Lowering the Volume of the Live Music Capital
Ley Line, Aaron Stephens, Team Goodtimes, Uncle Pie Hole, and more grounded sounds
By Isabella Castro-Cota, Clara Wang, Tim Stegall, Dan Gentile, Thomas Fawcett, Libby Webster, and Doug Freeman, Fri., May 18, 2018
Brazil Unplugged: Ley Line
Ley Line commits charm to soothing Latin American soundscapes. Composed of Kate Robberson, Emilie Basez, and twin sisters Madeleine and Lydia Froncek, the fourpiece found solace in traditional Brazilian forró, a fusion of beat-driven and dance styles. The Austinites' lush, airy folk narratives come subtitled with both English and Portuguese lyrics.
"I did not grow up playing music, but I found my voice in Brazil and singing their songs," says Robberson.
Initially two separate duos, the group met in Colorado in 2013 through mutual friends, but dismissed the thought of playing together until their paths crossed again in 2015 when the sisters relocated to Austin. They began Ley Line months later, and the following year released debut full-length Field Notes, a pursuit of happiness through ukulele, soft melodica, and bass and guitar rhythms. Prepping 2018 singles and a 2019 LP, Ley Line is focusing the new from material a tour of Brazil last summer that yielded accompanying visual documentation.
"We brought two cameras and had two Brazilian friends that were traveling with us taking pictures and filming live shows and our interactions with people," Basez reveals.
Since South American culture plays so prominently in their music, the quartet constantly educates itself on and connects with the communities they're playing for. Partnering with nonprofits like Girls Impact the World and the Amala Foundation, they’re careful not to cross the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.
"None of us are Brazilian and we play Brazilian music," acknowledges Lydia, "so it's important for us to be constantly referencing and paying homage to where the inspiration comes from." – Isabella Castro-Cota
Unplugged Soulman: Aaron Stephens
Aaron Stephens makes the blues sound innocent, in the best way.
The recent Austinite, 26, possesses a voice like pecan pie on Sunday night, pure and sweet, but layered with soul in a tradition Langston Hughes called "laughing to keep from crying." Though he labels himself a soul singer, Stephens harbors a John Mayer acoustic aesthetic. That silky pop leaning highlights the incorruptibility of his optimism rather than the deep delta pain characterizing blues.
Chicago born, Stephens moved with his family to the Rio Grande Valley when he was 8. His border town upbringing is evident in his slightly lilting accent and Latin flair.
"I've been to my fair share of quinceañeras," laughs Stephens.
Rooted beneath the Tex-Mex childhood is his family's love affair with funk and soul.
"My mom's seen Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder – all these people live," he shares. "The Jacksons are from Indiana and my grandma's from Gary."
Inspired by his older brother, Stephens picked up the guitar at 13. In true rhythm and blues fashion, a high school girlfriend broke his heart and Stephens found himself reaching for compassion through the knowing anguish of James Carr and Johnny Adams. That's the blues: You're never too young to know how bad it is to love and not have it come back to you. Between beer fests and networking at Texas State, Stephens dropped debut EP To Reach Your Soul his sophomore year, 2012.
"My voice has definitely changed a bit over the years," acknowledges Stephens. "I've become more comfortable with it."
Stephens caught local attention for 2014's crowdfunded Hard Times Straight Lines, a 10-track about coming of age and seeking human connection. His reaching voice drops its previous nasal notes and imbues sharpened lyrics. For this year's upcoming Focus, Stephens sums it up with the tattoo on his arm: "Soulful."
"I always want to stay true to that part of me, the soul." – Clara Wang
Unplugged Punks: Uncle Pie Hole
What does a 40-year Austin punk vet do when tired of dragging around a refrigerator-sized amp and battering his eardrums? If you're Buxf Parrott, bassist for Seventies/Eighties pogo heroes the Dicks, you buy an upright bass, which you alternately pluck or caress with a bow. Singer/acoustic guitarist Todd Kassens carries a sackful of songs bearing Lee Hazlewood's influence, while drummer Alan Williams packs something called a "stoopstick."
"It's like a boomstick," Parrott interjects, nursing a beer in the Carousel Lounge parking lot on a steamy Friday night after backing Dicks bandmate Gary Floyd and playing a set with his murder-folk combo, Uncle Pie Hole. "It's just a stick with percussion instruments on it."
Encountering local punk-blues godfather Walter Daniels at Davy Jones benefit Plaidstock led to the addition of Little Walter harp and occasionally saxophone to Uncle Pie Hole's curiously upbeat death blues. The 2-year-old group's eponymous bow, filled with dynamic Parrott polemics like "Big Oil" and "My God" and mordant Kassens tunes like "Shady" and "Control," these grooves still bristle DIY. The songs would fit in a Dicks set, even if the delivery system differs.
"But I'm too old for it," grimaces Parrott. "I obviously can't sing worth a shit, but I can write, get the message out there. It's left-wing, angry, and funny. If you can get your message across with a smile, even though there's a dagger in it, you can get a lot more mileage.
"If you can get people to listen to what you have to say, then maybe they'll realize, 'Yeah, maybe we do have too many guns. Maybe the Republicans suck.'" – Tim Stegall
Zimbabwe Unplugged: Rattletree
Once inside the South Austin warehouse home of Rattletree School of Marimba, founder Joel Laviolette asks that you take your shoes off. Spreading Zimbabwean tradition remains his mission, but it's also crucial to the vibe. The laid-back approach to footwear reinforces the idea that learning an instrument should be casual and inclusive.
Of course not everyone believes they have the musical talent. Rattletree aims to prove those people wrong. The marimba, a traditional African instrument that resembles a xylophone, boasts a surprisingly low learning curve.
"We have a five-minute guarantee," says Laviolette, who discovered the marimba through a globe-trotting study of the mbira thumb piano. "You'll be able to play a song in less time than it takes to eat a taco."
Popularized in the Sixties as a secular, non-tribal instrument that could appeal throughout all of Zimbabwe, it's now part of the curriculum at schools there, much like Americans treat the recorder. Unlike the xylophone, marimbas are constructed of wood and the keys are arranged in a straight line rather than a piano layout. Laviolette builds his own marimbas in-house with padauk wood according to a seven-note Zimbabwean scale that's closest to the key of G, spanning two and a half octaves.
Those commissions are available in different pitch ranges from lead to bass, but you don't have to BYOM. Rattletree's school stocks eight beautifully crafted marimbas at its facility. Monthlong sessions are comprised of one lesson per week, concluding with a party-slash-performance at the end of the term.
"We have a lot of people who play instruments solo and are just looking for that community connection," says program director, instructor, and spouse Rakefet Laviolette.
"The idea is that the whole community can play together. For us, it's about breaking down the audience-performer divide," says Joel. – Dan Gentile
Unplugged Campsite: Team Goodtimes
Nearing 3am at Utopia Fest some 150 miles southwest of Austin, past the tents where most music fans were sound asleep, a friend and I rounded a bend after ascending a steep hill to discover a clearing lit by tiki torches surrounding a tiny, tent-covered stage. A chorus of bullfrogs from the nearby pond fell in harmony with Canadian folk trio Les Hay Babies. No microphones or amplifiers accompanied them, and when my companion tripped over a tambourine, the response was swift and fierce.
"Silence is our one rule," explains Team Goodtimes organizer Cody Johnson. "It's the price of admission."
Johnson has staged hushed, late-night sets at camping festivals since 2005, somehow convincing bands to play unamplified sets in the middle of the night for, until recently, nothing more than a T-shirt. For a decade, it all unfolded in the shadows at Old Settler's Music Festival, tolerated but unsanctioned. Utopia Fest founder Travis Sutherland first encountered the concept there.
"Having a band entirely unplugged and the audience completely quiet creates something that isn't captured at almost any other show," attests Sutherland. "It doesn't get more intimate than that. It's a raw, organic, and direct exchange."
Or as Johnson puts it, "It's the kind of shit that goose bumps are made of."
First with Blue Hit and more recently fronting psych-tinged folk quintet the Deer, Grace Rowland has played the makeshift stage every year since its inception.
"Normally an unamplified show doesn't sound very appetizing to musicians because you're working so hard and your vocals get lost," she says. "It's not worth it if people are standing around partying, but everyone is so quiet and rapt. It's like an outdoor listening room. It's a one-of-a-kind environment to be able to have a conversation with an audience like that." – Thomas Fawcett
Unplugged Micro Incubator: Track House
Total quiet during a musical set in Austin remains a rare beast, but hushed reverence characterizes Track House. On the edge of Hyde Park near Airport, an airy Thirties bungalow with a glaring lack of electrical outlets doubles as a community incubator. Since summer 2015, Tony Presley and Katherine Strandberg have hosted an unplugged monthly series.
"We book acts that would typically get talked over at a bar," affirms Strandberg.
"That's the concept: providing a quality show for a quieter touring act," Presley adds. "There's no shortage of venues in Austin. The only reason to have a house show here is to provide something different than playing at one of the hundreds of bars."
Presley, a musician and half of local label Keeled Scales, helms the majority of booking while Strandberg, a research associate at UT and resident of the house, hosts. The donation-based shows range from ambient folk to string quartets, including locals Little Mazarn and Molly Burch, and touring artists such as Karima Walker and Twain. Carefully curated in the same vein as Keeled Scales, the label's social media provides promotion for Track House, which hosts 30 to 40 attendees seated on the hardwood floors, including Nancy Drew, Track House's sweet 3-year-old mutt.
Nearly three years into the endeavor, Strandberg says there are no plans to expand or professionalize.
"Both Tony and I are the kind of people who are always looking for the next development of whatever we're doing," she says. "And this is so exactly what we wanted it to be." – Libby Webster
Sat., May 19: Smiile, Atlys
Sun., May 27: Tan Cologne, Silo Homes, Happy Hell
Sun., June 24: Sun Riah, Jacob Metcalf, Jordan Moser
Fri., Aug. 3: Lindsay Clark
Distractions Unplugged: One-2-One Bar
Stepping into One-2-One Bar is like sliding into another world. Tucked unassumingly into a strip mall on South Lamar, the venue's darkened windows offer no hint of what's inside. Yet since the bar moved from its Downtown Fifth Street location in 2012, it's become a favorite destination of bands and fans for its excellent sound and dedicated live music focus.
"We were looking for different spaces after we moved from Downtown, something conducive to live music," says Destinee Ware, who's operated the bar with her husband Gregg since 2004. "There's nothing in this bar except live music. No TVs, video games, pool tables, or anything for anybody to do other than watch live music. Just a giant stage in the front and bar to the side."
While the newer location of the 215-capacity room doesn't invite the foot traffic of its former space, the bar has built a loyal clientele with its eclectic local booking. Every night the stage caters to an impressive musical reach – from singer-songwriters and world music to soul and rock. This summer, One-2-One will again host the popular web series Austin Music Live.
Veterans like Eric Johnson have set up residencies to work out new material, but the venue's focus on new artists has earned it a reputation for booking bands before they break.
"We've tried to help all the new folks we can," attests Gregg, pointing to booking rising blues guitarist Jackie Venson in 2013 and Jaimee Harris' 2014 Thursday night residency. "It's harder to do in this location, and I have to be a little more strategic because we have to pay the bills. I try to put new bands on with more well-known acts and just try to start that community where these guys know each other and support each other." – Doug Freeman