Friday, August 26, 2011

Charlie Mars – Apparently, A Backstreet Boy for a New Generation

After a summer hiatus, I returned to my quest for good music by venturing to the Saxon Pub last night to catch Charlie Mars. I can honestly say, I can’t remember how he found his way onto my radar. I think it was one of those automated “if you like this, you might like that” recommends. All I know for certain is one day Like a Bird, Like a Plane arrived, and I added it to my iPod. Then, I forgot to listen to it. A few months later, I read he was doing a month of Thursdays at the Saxon Pub, so I started listening. Intrigued, I made my plan to pay him a call.

Charlie Mars reminds me of a cross between an earnest singer/songwriter type that’s drawn to the dark side, such as Johnny Cash, and Sting, circa The Dream of the Blue Turtles. His lyrics are poetic, with defined hooks, which allow glimpses of complicated relationships and altered mental states. Its poetry delivered with a breathy drawl, steeped in melancholy.

In contrast, his music is, well, groovy. Listening to it, you’ll undoubtedly find your hips subtly swaying, your eyes closed, and a glass of wine in your hand. Like a Bird, Like a Plane, has a compelling, sinuous rhythm – excellent for those occasions when it seems appropriate to display how those years of Pilates have allowed your hip to move in opposition to your waist.

Having explored his music in the privacy of my own home, I was looking forward to the Saxon. What would Charlie bring for his “man-alone-on-stage-with-a-guitar” mode? I admit, I was caught completely unawares.

I entered the Saxon to a standing-room only crowd. After a quick stop at the bar for essentials, I found a home by the rail overlooking the room and began to observe. It didn’t take me long to realize I had inadvertently stumbled into a gathering of my exact demographic: 85% of the audience was female, aged 25-45. Almost every male in the room was attached to one of the females, obviously acting as chaperone. Interesting.

Charlie took the stage a fashionable (and slightly irritating) 15 minutes late, carrying a set list sketched on a torn piece of cardboard. He was presentable, but his appearance alone could not account for the waves of surging estrogen in the room. Average height, dirty blonde hair and green eyes, he wore the scruffy-but-hygienic musician look like a pro. His guitar work had more style than technical expertise, but he accompanied himself easily, working percussive touches into his chord work. Okay, his songs were poetic and his breathy vocals compelling, but I was at a loss when this crowd of seemingly intelligent women started singing along… in complete unison… like a hypnotized and eroticized choir to Meet Me by the Backdoor.

Charlie: “Whoa oh oh, why don’t you meet me by the backdoor yo-oh?”

Those Girls: “I can meet you, yeah I can meet you.”

Charlie: “I can meet you by the backdoor, yo-oh. Why don’t you meet me by the backdoor yo-oh.”

Those Girls: “I can meet you, yeah I can meet you.”

Betty, Slack Jawed with Horror: "Oh. Ma. Gawd."

I suppose I could analyze this phenomenon for hours: the cliché of women who love musicians; the caretaker wanting to nurture the artist; the desire to be the muse; the bad boy thing; fame; the reversal of power roles now that women can earn more money than men…. there's plenty of psychology there. Instead, I’ll confess: my THAT GIRL principles were so offended that, rather than linger and admit I had his CD in my purse ready for an autograph, I bolted the moment he left the stage. I simply couldn’t be seen standing unchaperoned in that throng of star struck women. I wasn’t going to be THAT GIRL by association just for a signature. (SHUDDER)

In conclusion, Charlie Mars is a solidly talented musician. His music is a little pop-sounding, but I like it. I look forward to his new album. I find his tortured, scruffy-but-hygienic artist image a little to contrived for my taste. I sincerely congratulate him on the acquisition of such a dedicated fan base. I encourage you give him a listen. I encourage you to go see his show. But please, I beg of you, don’t join that hypnotized and eroticized choir. And if disaster should strike, and every shred of dignity leave your body, for the love of god, please, don’t tell me.

I really like this song.

This one is steeped in melancholy:

But this one now brings on a PTSD episode.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Delbert McClinton & Dick50 – If You Label Me You Negate Me

I recently saw Delbert McClinton at Gruene Hall. It was a raucous, sweltering night full of great music and cold beer. Afterward I sat at my computer, trying to describe what made it such a special treat, and I started thinking about good music. What makes Delbert’s music so enjoyable, so special? I’m lucky to live in Texas, where good music is so accessible. We have a generous crop of great musicians who live and play right here in Texas, and artists from other parts of the globe, like Tennessee, always make a point of putting Texas on their tour schedules. Consequently, we get a continuous infusion of visiting talent. These days, the Texas music scene and the Americana music genre is thriving.
What is Americana music? Wikipedia says, “Americana is an amalgam of roots musics formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the American musical ethos; specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and other external influential styles. It then goes on to list examples of Americana artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams to Kelly Willis. I suppose that is as good a definition is any. To me, Americana is simply Texas music – no formula, no categorization. Instrumentation and sentiment are fluid.
It started with folks like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and was continued by others without being called Americana. In the 70’s and 80’s, as rock and country became increasingly separate sounds, driven almost exclusively by record industry executives, artists that refused to choose sides lost their industry homes. Listeners were forced to choose between George Strait on the one channel and Wham on the other, with a rare cross-over venture on the adult contemporary channel (“Islands in the Stream” anyone?)
It was sometime in the 90’s when someone finally tried to make a place for artists that didn’t fit the mold and started calling it Americana. With the birth of the 21st century, the progression of technology revolutionized the music world for independent artists. With minimal investment an artist could make a CD, book gigs, and peddle their wares to listeners directly. The need for an industry standard contract and music molded by suits had dissipated. This has been a giant win-win for artists and listeners alike: artists get to make the music they want to make without industry interference; listeners get the music.
Why recount this brief, layman’s view of Americana’s history? Because, if it weren’t for artists like Delbert, there would have been no impetus for evolution.
What can I tell you about Delbert that you don’t already know? He’s a pioneer of the Americana genre: one of the first musicians to make a career defying categorization. Is he blues, or country, or roots rock? Yes. In Delbert’s world, there is no distinction between rock, country and blues. Does he play an instrument? Yes, almost all of them, although he’s best known for his harmonica technique. He’s been around long enough to have taught John Lennon that famous harmonica technique, just in time for The Beatles to record Love Me Do. He’s a Grammy award winning musician: once for a duet with Bonnie Raitt, the other for Best Contemporary Blues Album. He’s a prolific songwriter and talented musician who’s every appearance seems to be cause for a party of epic proportions.

One of his great talents as a musician and band leader is his ability to find and forge ties with other hugely talented musicians. Dick50, his backing band, is a KILLER group of insanely talented musicians. The core of the group starts with Kevin McKendree. Kevin plays keys, but when he picks up a guitar, you would never know he was foremost a keyboardist. In a world full of musicians who are all attitude and no craft, Kevin McKendree is the real deal, punctuating music with perfect intuition, and ripping through boogie-woogie piano like nobody I’ve ever heard. Lynn Williams provides complex yet metronome like beats on drums, and Spencer Campbell provides the low notes. On this run, the legendary Gary Nicholson sat in on lead guitar, accentuating a band that was already a force of nature.

Seeing Delbert McClinton at Gruene Hall was akin to a visiting charismatic preacher delivering an on-your-feet sermon to a group of beer-drinking sinners at the little wooden church in the center of town. It was 99 degrees at 9:00 on a Friday night in downtown Gruene, and 115 inside Gruene Hall. Everyone was either on their feet crowding the stage, or standing on the benches around the perimeter of the room. As Delbert moved through his set list, full of classics like Giving It Up For Your Love, Every Time I Roll the Dice, and Shotgun Rider, the crowd sang and swayed. The entire spectrum of music lover, from The Finger Guy to The Drunk Dancing Girl drank their fill of the music gospel pouring forth from Delbert et al. At the end of the night, everyone pouring out of The Hall that night had been bathed in the baptizing waters of beer and sweat, having heard The Good Word from a musical evangelist of the first order.

For me, it was a revelation - the realization that one of the pioneers of the music I love was standing right in front of me, preaching The Gospel of Texas Music. I wonder how many of us truly appreciate the salvation and redemption we have received, thanks to the musicians like Delbert?

Dear Delbert, the chains of conformity have been broken, we have been delivered from the mainstream. For this salvation, we offer up thanks for your integrity and faith during the tribulations of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Amen.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Raul Malo - A Foregone Conclusion

From my earliest memories, I’ve lived my life with a soundtrack running in the background. The holiest moments of my life have been accompanied by music, leaving an indelible mark upon the memory. On very rare occasions, I’ve encountered musicians of such extraordinary talent that cherished memories are created by simply experiencing their music. Above and beyond any doubt, the master of this phenomenon is Raul Malo.

Having seen his show many times, I told myself that there was really no need to get tickets the next time he came to town. Then, I read he was booked at Sam’s Burger Joint in San Antonio. Okay, I said to myself, I’ve never seen Raul at Sam’s, I’ll go to that show. A couple of weeks later, I read that he was going to be at Antone’s. Well, there’s no point in seeing him twice, I thought to myself. But as the date approached, I kept thinking What a Crying Shame it would be to miss him when he was in Austin. What else did I have on my agenda for Tuesday night? What if something really amazing happened and I missed it? I really do love his music, so… I found my way to Antone’s on Tuesday night and Sam’s Burger Joint on Wednesday night to see his shows.

Raul has scores of women fans, many of whom love him fanatically. They flock to him, unable to resist his magnetic draw. In my world, this is immediate grounds to avoid him like the plague. I’m not THAT girl. (If you read my Tab Benoit post, you know my feelings on being THAT girl.) So, I told myself I was going to these shows to watch the spectacle. I would stand in the back, not crowd the stage. I’d enjoy the music and watch with icy disdain as all THOSE girls acted silly.

He opened both shows with a knee-weakening version of Bruce Channel’s Hey! Baby. Let me say this: Raul’s musical range is truly astounding, but this man is a born crooner. The rich timber of his voice, combined with his natural showmanship, is irresistible. Having effectively ensnared most of the women (and a few of the men) in a warm, happy place with the magical vibrations created during Hey! Baby, he deftly moved to songs off his most recent albums, Lucky One and Sinners and Saints.

He’s put together an especially winning combination of musical talent for his backing band. Michael Guerra provides stirring harmonies, and a dash of conjunto with accordion; Elio Giordano plays neck-bobbing stand up bass. Kullen Fuchs is the renaissance man of the group, a born multi-tasker. He plays keys, xylophone and trumpet, and on more than one occasion I saw him playing keys with one hand while wailing away on the trumpet. Impressive! John McTigue has been Raul’s drummer for a while now, and I think he may actually be a robot. Not only is he a damn machine at keeping steady time, but when he gets in that special drummer zone, he breathes out on every “3”.

He moved from new material to old, and every once in a while, he would exhale another crooning tune, such as O What A Thrill, or the devastating Sombras Nada Mas, and those who were close to regaining their sensibilities were pulled back into their trance. By the time he ended the shows with Every Little Thing About You, I was emotionally exhausted: I had experienced the best and worst of love, danced and drank, wept and laughed.

It’s easy to recall this experience while sitting in the relative safety of my office, far removed from the enslaving experience of his live performances. You can listen to his records, you can watch him on You Tube, but none of these acts can convey the true magic of hearing him live. And what is it about Romance languages?  Utter a well spoken phrase in Spanish or Italian and suddenly I'm Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda with my eyes rolled back in my head;  talk about an Achilles Heel. Truly, at Antone’s or Sam’s, he could have led me off a cliff with nary a whimpered protest from my lips. He’s a male siren with the ability to call susceptible souls straight to their doom between the Scylla and Charybdis. I may have tried to protect myself by standing well back, but there was simply not enough room in those venues to find a safe distance.  I was still well and truly caught under his spell.  Again.

You know, I kind of hate him for making me abandon my THAT girl principles. He knows, however, that all he has to do is smile that dimpled smile, turn his sparkling gaze in my direction, and belt out one of those killer ballads, and my transformation from impervious cynic to THAT girl is a foregone conclusion.  And every time he plays a show in Central Texas, I'll be there, trying to hold on to my wits and failing spectacularly.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guy Forsyth - Leave Preconcieved Notions At Home

On Friday night I made my way over to The Saxon Pub to see Guy Forsyth.  For those who aren’t familiar, The Saxon Pub is an Austin live music institution: it’s dark, small and just seedy enough to feel like an adventure for the aging hipster set, which makes it a stellar venue to catch Guy Forsyth. 

Guy is an insanely talented musician.  He plies the acoustic guitar and ukulele with intensity, he plays electric slide guitar masterfully, and his skill with a harmonica is a beautiful thing to behold.  He doesn’t seduce his audience with gentle wooing and subtle caresses – he won’t appeal to those who prefer polite affections from their musicians.  Guy’s musical style reminds me of the bad boy your parents warn you about.  He’s the musical equivalent of the lover who slams you against the wall and strips every ounce of resistance from your brain.

At least, that’s the musician I thought I was trekking to see Friday night.  I had this beautiful metaphor mentally sketched when I walked in the door.  Imagine my surprise, showing up for a date with the tattooed bad guy that would have made a parent cringe, and finding the roustabout carnie who took the stage.  Was he here to play music, or was he here to set up a tilt-a-whirl? 

Guy was wearing hickory striped bib overalls of the Dickies variety with a black tank top, and sporting a pork pie hat.  He didn’t have sideburns – he had burnsides; no really, his sideburns connected to his moustache – a style straight out of GQ, The Civil War Issue.  The facial hair was fluffy enough that, from my side view of the stage, I kept remembering a pot that needed scrubbing back at home.  When he sat down to play the saw, I was convinced I saw a pouch of RedMan in his back pocket, and felt a moment’s concern for the folks at the table up front, who were easily within spitting distance.

My nose kept sniffing, expecting the blended scents of tobacco, sweat, dust and day old Irish Spring on the air.

Oy.  Forget rough lover metaphors, at least if my eyes were looking at the stage.

Although my eyes kept recalling scenes from HBO's Carnivale, my ears were not disappointed.  Guy is an amazing musician.  He can sell folky, socially conscious ballads, or jazzy ditties with a touch of Dixieland, or pure delta blues, or even Satchmo with equally convincing mastery.  He bends each instrument he plies to his will, and his intensity leaves you more than satisfied at the end of the evening. 

I plan to catch him again at Sam’s Burger Joint on June 24 and I’m intensely curious which visual version of Guy Forsyth will show up for the gig.  Tattooed bad boy, seasoned musician, or roustabout carnie, the next time I won’t walk in the door with preconceived notions; and, I know whichever it is, the music won’t disappoint.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Will Sexton – That Certain Kind of Something

Anyone familiar with the Austin music scene knows the name Will Sexton. If you grew up in the Austin area, you heard his name in the 80’s and early 90’s as he navigated almost every aspect of the profession – guitar player, singer, songwriter. As a teenager and twentysomething, maybe you caught his acts around town. Maybe you knew someone who had babysat for someone whose kids played with his kids. He was the Kevin Bacon of the Austin music scene, never more than four degrees away from practically everyone in town.

After that, Will might have fallen off your radar… until December 2009. That’s when we all heard that this seasoned but still young musician had suffered a mild stroke. It was shocking to everyone, but since I am exactly 3 days older than Will, I found it especially jarring. I read the article… oh, he had some clotting disorder called the Prothrombin gene mutation, that’s why it happened, whew… and then missed the Antone’s benefit for him the following February… and then let myself forget.

Last fall I happened to be at the House of Blues in Houston to catch Raul Malo. His opening act, Sahara Smith had a familiar face in her band - Will Sexton was playing bass for her. He looked great, he sounded even better. From that moment forward, Will lingered in the back of my mind. I kept reading the upcoming Austin show lists, subconsciously hoping to see his name.

And then, in March, my own life took an unexpected detour. On a routine visit to my doctor, my blood pressure was strange and my pulse was too high. As we sat discussing it, my doctor looked at my sandaled feet and said, “The veins on your left foot are raised, the veins on are right foot are flat. Have you ever noticed?” That led to a series of questions and tests, which revealed that I had developed a blood clot behind my knee and small pulmonary emboli in every area of my lungs. A referral to a hematologist and many blood draws later, I learned that I too had the Prothrombin gene mutation.

I’d been walking across a mine field, oblivious to the danger… until I got to the other side. Anyone of those clots, slightly bigger, could have ended me. Instead, each one was just small enough to pass through my heart, but not quite large enough to pass through the small vessels in my lungs. Now I am safe: as long as I stay with the rat poison, my body will heal itself and I shouldn’t develop any new clots. Still, I wrestle with big questions and curse this damn detour.

In May, as I mindlessly checked my local music venue calendars, I saw it: Will Sexton, at The Saxon Pub, May 12, 8PM.

The show got underway with a stage full of colorful characters. He had a drummer, a bass player, a lead guitar player, a piano player, and his girlfriend - Charlie Faye – playing acoustic. They surrounded him like a semi-circle of supportive talent. He looked just the same. That night, his guitar work was facile and technically unimpaired. His voice was somewhere between an early Tom Petty and a George Harrison, circa The Traveling Wilburys – melodic, and with incredible range. As the set progressed, I found myself entranced in Will’s amazing musicality, but a little distracted by so much band. If he was insecure in the wake of his malady, the only clues were the number of musicians on stage with him, and the little book he used to keep up with the lyrics. I enjoyed the experience immensely, and wondered what he would sound like without all that back-up.

I caught him again the following Monday, when he played a few songs in between Jess Klein’s sets at the Whip-In. This time it was just him and Mike Thompson on keys, all acoustic. In this setting, Will’s bluesy acoustic style and beautiful vocals were the stars, lightly punctuated by an old upright piano. I was easily lost for those few songs, and left craving more.

I keep searching for meaning, as if age and music and rat poison form some kind of cosmic trinity linking people together.  So far, the only cosmic truth I've found is this: sometimes life takes a detour, and maybe the alternate journey is meaningful. Or maybe not. 

I'm still working on it.

It looks like Will's going on the road for a while; I hope he finds his way home to Austin soon. Until then, we’ll just survive with a Certain Kind of Something.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rodney Parker and 50 Peso Reward – They Do It Exactly Like I Like It

As I mentioned in my Aaron Einhouse post, Saturday night I ventured out to The River City Grille in Marble Falls for good eats, good music and cold beer. That is just what I found – and then some.

I had seen Rodney Parker and 50 Peso Reward at Sam’s Burger Joint in February, opening for Sean McConnell… it was instant love. When I saw that they were back in the area, I knew it was time to visit Marble Falls. The River City Grille is a venue I will definitely visit again. Located on banks of Lake Marble Falls, you can sit on the lower patio by the lake. The river breeze felt great. The food was superb. The beer was cold. Add the tunes coming from the lakeside corner of the patio and you had the makings of a perfect Texas night.

Their music is somewhere in that nebulous land between country and rock, forged in the red dirt and dust of North Texas. The band features Rodney Parker, a serious songwriting talent whose voice has a Jakob Dylan vibe, but with better diction. The lead guitar player rocks a Peavey T-60 through a Vox amp, which gives the band’s sound a rich and solid guitar foundation when mixed with Rodney’s beautiful Taylor acoustic and a pedal steel. The bass and drums were spot-on, creating a very well executed, tight mix.

They opened with Firefight, a song with sounds like a rollicking horseback ride across the old west, but whose lyrics include, “We’re all so soft and clean, like a hundred dollar bill in a washing machine.” They covered Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City and Kinky Friedman’s Wild Man From Borneo, both of which were wonderful takes on classics. I’m Never Gonna Get Married is destined to remain a single guy’s anthem (good luck with that fellas…), cleverly followed by a cover of Linda Ronstadt’s Willin’.

Megaphone is a dirty little ditty about meeting someone at a wedding, and goes on to describe an elevator encounter in a most evocative manner. Good thing there was a cool breeze blowing off the lake.... (...I ordered another and one more for another, and left the reception but this time I am not alone... In the southern cell, we're inside the Ash hotel, in an elevator inside a perfect stranger.... I make my decision, I crumble to the ground, I rise to the ceiling, I whisper in a megaphone....)  Evocative, no?

If I had to pick one favorite, however, it would be Guitars. This song is the In Search of Betty title track. It describes perfectly how I feel each time I think I might find that other plane, the one that can only be reached on the sound waves of good music. It’s the song that plays in my head every time I’m on my way to see a Tab Benoit, or a Seth Walker, or a Carolyn Wonderland, or a Rodney Parker.

Standing in the dark just a little too long,
I can’t see it but I know it’s true.
It might be the sun or it might be a song,
but something is coming alive in you.
So bring me a jar full of lightning bugs.
Take my hands and move your feet.
Shine a light on a ditch that I have dug.
Put your fingers on your wrist and count to me.Cause I’ve been waiting, staring up at the stars.
Yeah I’ve been waiting, for the beam of the morning light,
anticipating the part when the music starts.
Well the guitars are coming alive tonight.
The guitars are coming alive tonight.

The guys were toasting the departure of their drummer Saturday night. I couldn’t resist drinking a shot of tequila with them. And then, all the way home, I couldn’t help thinking it might be time for a tattoo…. What? Oh yeah, THAT’S why I don’t drink tequila anymore. Next time, I'll try to stick to the Grey Goose.

Here’s hoping they find a new Peso soon, and that the road brings them back on my radar in the very near future. In the mean time, there’s always Guitars (and Megaphone, but only on special occasions.)


Aaron Einhouse – He Had Me From The Word Cougar….

On Saturday night, I heard that Rodney Parker and 50 Peso Reward were in the neighborhood, so I ventured out to Marble Falls in search of breeze, cold beer, eats and music.  The River City Grille delivered all these and more.

We arrived about midway through the opening act.  I had heard of Aaron Einhouse but was unfamiliar with his music: what a delightful discovery!  Anyone who knows me understands that one direct path to my affections starts with a man and his guitar, alone on stage, plying his craft, with no embellishment.  I am delighted to have my first experience with Aaron begin in such a fashion. 

Aaron’s voice is pure Texas – clear, with a slight drawl.  His tunes fall cleanly on the country side of the Americana genre.  A Texas style troubadour, his songs are celebrations of the land and the human experience – stories told with insight and occasional humor.  His smile is engaging, and a true love of his craft radiates in an aura around him. 

I found myself smiling as he sang “Fallin’ Insane” with its staccato guitar and the question, “Am I goin’ insane or falling in love?”  How many times have I asked that same question?  When he sang “The Cougar Song”, I was horrified, but hooked. 

“She was the hottest thing around, around 15 years ago,
but her friends all tell her she’s still lookin’ fine. 
And if she keeps on buying drinks, you might not tell her no,
when she asks you if you need a ride.
Cause she’s a cougar, she’s a prowler, she’s huntin’ night and day. 
A sexual predator and you’d love to be her prey,
cause she’s a cougar, she’s a prowler, she’s constantly in pursuit.
Yeah she’s young enough to enjoy it and she’s old enough…
to know what she’s doin’.”

Haha! So I will be at the Saxon Pub on May 18 for another taste.  But I won’t ask him if he needs a ride home....

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Carolyn Wonderland - Shine On!

As I stated in my Seth Walker post, I had gathered my group of music aficionados for a night in San Antonio full of tunes and adventure.  Prior to Carolyn Wonderland’s set, we all were replete, having imbibed the Grey Goose with abandon and enrobed ourselves with the dapper musical stylings of Mr. Walker.   Had we called it a night, however, we would have missed the wonder of Wonderland.
Carolyn is a true Renaissance woman.  Her talents go beyond vocals and guitar to include songwriting, mandolin, slide guitar, and piano.  In addition, it’s hard to put the woman in one genre.  She deftly moves from blues to ballad, from rock to country. 
She opened with Miss Understood, the title track from her latest album.  It’s a raucous romp built on her facile slide guitar technique.  Her voice is somewhere between Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, with small touches of Wynnona Judd when she waxes country.  In fact (although I’m sure she’s sick of hearing it) the Janis Joplin comparisons are hard to ignore.  You know from the moment she opens her mouth, she’s all in; she’s a siren spectacle with blazing red hair and gut-wrenching vocals. 
Watching her delicate hands speed through the chords and pluck the strings of her Fender with her thumb pick and fingertips is entrancing.  She’s one of those guitar players who manage to take the instrument to the pinnacle of its potential; she achieves this in an intricate dance of mutual respect between her fingers and the instrument, as opposed to other players I’ve seen who bend the guitar to their will with brute force.
Miss Holloway and I were equally inspired and empowered by this female force of nature.  Where the blues often wander through the darkness of the human experience, Carolyn Wonderland is the moon, mysterious and somehow illuminating the darkness.  Like the moon, her music moves through phases of light and shadow, inexorably powerful, and the audience moves with her phases, unable to resist the pull of her gravity.
When our time with Ms. Wonderland was concluded, our male companions were exhausted.  Miss Holloway and I, however, were still aglow from the night’s auditory adventures.  We dropped the boys at the hotel and ventured over to Mi Tierra for some of the spicy.  As we deconstructed our evening, we realized that San Antonio had brought us exactly what we had hoped: music of such variety that our souls were bursting with contentment, a pleasant level of grain alcohol intoxication that we may or may not regret the next day, a nice slow burn for our culinary drives, and enough intrigue involving the opposite sex to whet our appetites for future adventures. 
Que te diviertas!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Seth Walker - I’m Going To Love Him Til The Wheels Come Off

I have a confession to make. I was excited when I read Carolyn Wonderland was playing Sam’s Burger Joint in San Antonio. After all, Sam’s is one of my favorite venues: the sound is great, the setting is intimate, you can reserve a booth, and the bathrooms are spotless. Carolyn Wonderland is definitely a draw. However, when I saw that Seth Walker was opening for her, solo, I couldn’t buy those tickets fast enough. Seth Walker almost defies categorization. His blues guitar work is masterful, his voice is soulful and swingy at the same time, and his songwriting skill is topnotch.

For such a promising musical event, I drew from my rat pack of musical aficionados. First I tapped the incandescent Miss Holloway, a creature equal parts class and hedonism who was on loan to us from her metropolitan bungalow in Gotham. Next I gathered Isaac Washington and his partner Dino, whose impeccable taste and love of epicurean pursuits never fail to create an evening to remember. We booked overnight accommodations at the Hotel Havana, and the mood was set. The liberal application of grain alcohol products directly after check-in created a quartet that was sure to find adventure (and perhaps mischief.)

Seth’s solo performance was exactly what the doctor ordered. His voice has a distinctly New Orleans vibe. His style is steeped in Delta blues, with beautifully clean blues guitar. His tone is just gorgeous – he plays without a pick, and there is just something about the damper sound of the fingers on the strings that makes the sound richer.

He moved from the foot tapping roots rock sounds of Change My Way to his poignant cover of Tom Waits’ Picture In a Frame. Days Like This is Seth’s songwriting skill at it’s evocative best. For example, “It was a beautiful morning; we took a little drive down to our favorite spot. We jumped in the cool river water; the summer sun was blazing hot. You said baby, baby, it’s much too much, don’t you think we need a little shade? But it only got hotter (and hotter and hotter) with all the sweet love that we made.” Anyone who grew up in the south knows the goose bump sensation of cool water and hot sun. Sung with Seth’s drawl and smolder, you can smell the river and the distinct fragrance of sun on skin – it’s almost too much to bear.

We were all mesmerized by Seth’s set: Isaac Washington and Dino, who love jazz more than blues; Miss Holloway, whose love of soulful songstresses is legendary; and me, who routinely eschews the chaos of jazz for the rawness of blues and melts under the tones of a well-played Gibson.

Why oh why did Austin have to lose him to the siren call of Nashville? From where I sit, Momo’s on June 25 seems like a lifetime to wait.

Jonny Lang - I Could Have Had A V8

At the invitation of one of my usual accomplices, Hot Hips Houlihan, I ventured out Thursday night to catch Jonny Lang perform at Austin City Limits Live in downtown Austin. Hot Hips is a rabid Jonny Lang fan, where I was only casually acquainted with his work.

This was my first trip to the Moody Theater. Am I the only one disappointed in the new ACL venue? I didn’t find anything intimate or special about it. This is a strictly large scale stadium style music venue. I find very little musical magic in such a setting. I can achieve the same experience sitting at home watching Palladia, and I wouldn’t have to pay $15 for the Grey Goose in a plastic cup and $20 for valet parking.

Jonny seems to be on top of his craft. He’s clearly a very talented song writer and guitar player. He’s assembled a tight group of crack musicians. The music was well executed, and yet the venue left the entire experience mired in mediocrity. He ended his set with a revamped version of Lie to Me, which finally caught my interest. Unfortunately, that was the end of his set.

Afterward, sitting in the bar at the W & sipping a sublime martini, I couldn’t help but conclude that blues is something that needs a more intimate setting. If you can’t feel it, what’s the point?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sol Driven Train – Kitschy and Catchy

I admit it.  Thursday night I walked into Antone’s with my mind, heart and soul ready for Tab Benoit and searing blues.  It was a lovely surprise to encounter Sol Driven Train ( as the opening band. 

I spotted them resting in the downstairs living area of the VIP section on our way to our seats.  The first thing I noticed: Joel Timmons (lead guitar and vocalist) sporting a Sgt. Pepper style blue military jacket.  The next thing was Russell Clarke (saxophone and vocalist) with the fluffiest beard I have ever seen.  Ever.  We passed this motley crew on our way up the stairs, and I found myself intensely curious as to what these guys had brought to the club. Little did I know….

The opening lyrics of the first song went like this: “What should we do with your body, after you’re dead and gone.  Would you prefer the backyard or the lawn? Should we throw you in the river or bury you by the sea? Or back behind the church in the old cemetery with your family?”  Wow - what the hell?  But as startled as I was by that sentiment, I found myself tapping my foot when the rest of the band joined the song.  It actually evolved into something uplifting and light.  They followed with a song called “Are You a Vampire?” and I was hooked. 

These guys defy categorization.  They are the auditory cure for melancholy.  They move deftly from songs with a reggae beat and distinct island sound to rock to country to zydeco to lighthearted ballads.  The guitar work is subtle and crisp.  They have brass, and the bass is spot-on.  The drums are tasteful, exotic, and masterfully executed.  And their lyrics caught me off-guard every time.  Plus, they have a “box” onstage, which is one of my favorite new percussive accessories. 

Toward the end of the set, they actually covered Toto’s Africa.  Who would have thought?  It was wonderful, with an entertaining drumming interlude in the middle, where Joel and Russell ventured out into the audience with drumsticks and played whatever inanimate object looked interesting.  It was fucking awesome.  And that's not just the Grey Goose talking.
After the show, most of the band made their way into the VIP balcony to watch Tab’s set.  At one point, I was distracted from my Tab Trance by a Sol Driven Train discussion.  Apparently, somewhere nearby, a club was holding a Shake-Weight Contest.  The guys were intrigued and interested.  “Um, hey guys, I’m just sayin’, I know you are from South Carolina, and I don’t know how things roll there, but if that contest is at the Firefly, there might be something you should know, but hey, it’s okay if that’s how you like your bread buttered, cause you know it’s Austin and we get it….”

Alas, I never learned if they found that Shake-Weight Contest.  Hopefully what they did find was a hospitable city they will add to their next tour.  These guys had a vibe that felt right at home and I’d love the chance to catch them again.

Tab Benoit - The Myth, The Musician, The Man

Thousands of years ago, in Southern Louisiana, where the sultry Mississippi River meets the mighty Gulf of Mexico, two ancient water forces, both male and female, combined into a purposeful dance, dissolving the lower half of the land, and giving birth to a brackish and mysterious wetland.  They say magic, both dark and light, thrives in the battleground of these two lovers and foes.  The result: yin and yang, combined in chaotic natural beauty. 

Many years later, deep within this dark delta, a young Cajun boy came upon a swirling mist.  Unafraid, he navigated his boat into the vortex.  As the mist cleared, a massive gator arose from the black water with a distressed and mossy Stratocaster guitar clutched in its jaws. In an epic battle, as all the other reptilian creatures of the marsh watched, the boy slew the gator.  The gator stared into the boy’s eyes as he drew his final breath, and with his exhale relinquished the magic of the swamp guitar into the boy’s care, imbuing him with the soul of the swamp.  The boy emerged from the swamp, walking on top of the brackish water, with the guitar strapped across his chest and the gator’s head under his arm.

From that day on, the boy was able to make the guitar sing the songs of the wetlands.  Legend says he travels the country, pulling guitar picks directly from the gator’s head, and taking up the guitar, which pours forth searing guitar licks that mesmerize all in his path. And when he takes up his guitar in the swamp, the frogs sing with him in homage to the vessel of the swamp’s soul.  And so was born the legend of Tab Benoit....

Tab Benoit may not have started his music career in quite such a fanciful fairytale, but once you’ve heard him perform, it’s easy to imagine such a story.  Plus, I'm a Texan, born and bred, and we love our tall tales.
On Thursday night, I ventured to Antone’s with two of my girlfriends, Feisty Charlie and Hot Hips Houlihan.  These two were the perfect accessories to a Thursday night on the town.  As one half of Team Sappho, I knew Feisty, having a genetic immunity to Tab’s charms, would counterbalance my enthusiasm nicely.  I also wanted a fresh perspective on the Tab experience, which Hot Hips would provide nicely, being a Tab virgin. 

We had a reserved VIP table upstairs.  To enter the VIP area at Antone’s you must pass beyond the velvet rope, which is guarded by a very serious looking bouncer, and then through a sitting area and up a rickety set of old wooden stairs.  The upstairs VIP area is really just a balcony with about 8 tables, but somehow the crimson glow of the lights is very satisfying.  The antics visible from this vantage point are entertaining even without music.

Once we had been served our poisons of choice, it was a waiting game.  The opening act, Sol Driven Train, deserves its own entry in this blog, so I will expand more on the SDT experience later.  Let me just tease you with some tags for the SDT post: Sgt. Pepper Jacket, a box, a vampire, a fluffy beard and a Shake Weight Contest.

Tab took the stage with only a bass player and drummer, but this is a man who needs very little assistance to successfully ply his craft.  Tab has intensely honed his guitar technique while managing to lay out the licks with searing artistry.  His songs are a wonderful gumbo of blues and zydeco, with a little funk thrown in for extra spice.  He moved effortlessly between all my favorites, Night Train, Solid Simple Things, Lost in Your Lovin’, Fever for the Bayou… but when he played Darkness, my feet curled into fists and every thought left my head.  Darkness is pure blues, an entire love story gone wrong, all in one song.

I stayed in my seat for several minutes after the last song, replete with contentment.  When we made our way down the stairs and out VIP door, we found Tab on our side of the rope, greeting fans.  It was my chance.  He turned to me and said hello.  Mercifully, my brain and tongue remained firmly in place.  I talked with him for several minutes, covering topics from Austin to the Sandy Beaches Cruise to his convictions about the environment.  I think I may have even managed to work the word bacchanalia into the conversation.  I walked away from him confident in some absolute truths: Tab is a very talented musician, a dedicated advocate for the wetlands of Louisiana, and quite human (albeit exotically Cajun). Also, I’m not THAT girl.

On Saturday night, I drove to Dallas to see him at The Granada, The Hot Divorcee in tow.  We sat upfront on the right side of the stage.  Two very different venues, two different set lists, and two amazing shows.  He had the crowd from the opening note to the closing chord.   As we sat in the hotel bar after the show, glowing from Tab, we wondered if, instead of heading home on Sunday, we shouldn’t pass right through Austin in an attempt to make San Antonio by 1:00 to catch his next show.  Okay, maybe I’m still THAT girl… but maybe that’s okay.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tab Benoit – Delicious Anticipation

Tonight I venture out to see Tab Benoit ( at Antone’s, and on Saturday night I will see him again at the Granada Theater in Dallas. This is not my first musical encounter with Mr. Benoit.  I will tell the story of the first one, so that my intentions with this one will be clear. 
Back in January, I took the Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches cruise and Tab was one of the live music acts.  The first night on the boat, most of the musical acts were performing by the pool on the back deck.  I took up position at the bar, Grey Goose in hand, and proceeded to people watch.  Tab was watching the people and the music from the back, smoking little brown cigarettes and drinking brown liquor.  Okay, he’s a good-looking guy, but I was frankly shocked at the women – shamelessly throwing themselves at him.  Music groupies seem to have no shame.  At one point, one of them even had him crawl onto her back for a photo.  I shook my head with disdain and said to myself, “Thank God I will never be THAT girl.”

For the rest of the cruise I watched him.  The women continued to flock to his side.  He responded with polite acknowledgement, never obviously encouraging them. I saw his shows and developed an intense admiration for his guitar work even as my disdain for his groupies grew.  At no point did I approach him.  He was an amazing musician, but I was not THAT girl, that drooling groupie.  No way. Not ever.
The last night of the cruise, at the musical finale, one of my new friends took it upon herself to introduce us.  I was prepared to politely exude icy disdain.  Standing in front of him as she went through the formalities, I noticed an intense energy pouring from him.  And then he talked.  His voice, low and rough, flowed forth with a thick Cajun accent.  I was caught and mesmerized by his dark eyes.  And then he reached out and shook my hand.  An electric current shot straight up my arm and all the way up to my head, at which point my brain was sucked down my arm and out through my hand. 
I could not think of a damn word to say to the man.  My friend turned to talk somone passing by and left me standing there, speechless.  As the awkward silence grew, and I attempted to form a coherent thought, Tab and I turned to watch some of the music on the stage.  A couple of times his upper arm touched mine. My skin burned where he touched it.  Oh mother of god.  I was THAT girl.  As the realization hit me, I found myself unreasonably angry with him.  Does he just blast all women in his path with this charm, indiscriminately taking us down?  I walked away before I gave in to the urge to punch him.
So tonight, I pledge to go to Antone’s and listen to his music.  I will sip my Grey Goose and let his searing guitar solos suck the cares from my head.  But if I get the opportunity to say hello, I will keep a firm grasp on my brain.  I have inoculated myself against his charms.  I have ice water in my veins.  I will NOT be that girl again.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sean McConnell - The Common Denominator

I am always searching for a musical experience to take me to that magical plane of existence, where sound becomes colors and the cares of the world fade into an inaccessible plane of banishment.  In this pursuit, I have several "go-to" musicians who never fail to take me there - whose talent is above and beyond the standard. 

Enter Sean McConnell (  He is not only a gifted songwriter; his voice is clear and smooth.  When I read that he would be playing the Parish on 6th Street Wednesday night, I texted my go-to GNO accomplice, The Hot Divorcee, and made the plan.

The first obstacle - what to wear?  Sixth Street presents certain challenges to a woman of my age.  I'm beyond the ability to wear low-rise bellbottoms and sleeveless belly bearing tops with any type of dignity, but I'm not ready to venture into a club wearing Birkenstocks and pedal pushers.  As always, I find that jeans and a black top are a fine compromise: strap on my tall boots and I'm off to the show.

I was prepared for what Sean McConnell brought to the Parish.  He is a man of faith and his faith comes through in his craft.  Although I would not put him in the Christian music genre, many of his tunes have a definite message of hope.  He does not sell any particular style of faith - the name Jesus is not in any of his songs.  Rather, the only certainty that may be gleaned from his lyrics is he embraces a higher power for relief from his flaws.  As a person who eschews organized religion, this is something I can embrace.  Plus, he's been known to shoot Jager-Bombs on stage and, as The Hot Divorcee so aptly described him, he's hot in a Blarney-Jew-Rocker sort of way.

With this in mind, I was quite curious to see who he would draw to the Parish.  I was unprepared for what I found.  Fans from ages 21 to 60 flocked into the club, covering the floor from stage to bar.  Roughly 2/3 of the listeners appeared to know the words to every one of his songs.  They crowded the stage and sang out loud. 

All the concert going favorites were in attendance.  "The Finger Guy" was pushed up against the stage.  (You know the one - he alternates between banging his "hang ten" to the pulse of the music and pointing his finger to the lyrics that are especially meaningful.  He has no inhibitions, and you strongly suspect he is stone cold sober.  His eyes glow with undisguised zeal.)  "The Drunk Dancing Girl" was there, dancing crazy with her clingy boyfriend.  "Yosemite Sam does Wyatt Earp" was there, proudly displaying his red handlebar mustache while wearing full western regalia and drinking LoneStar.

Sean opened with the full band and a driving rock sound, but I was full of anticipation for the moment when he would dismiss his band and take up his acoustic for a bit of solo work.  I've said it more than once: one of life's sexiest scenarios begins with a man playing an acoustic guitar and singing his songs.  When the time came, however, I was too busy listening to the lyrics of his new song to close my eyes and let go of my head.  And then I was fascinated as the group around us started drunkenly swaying to the music, hands in the air.  When Sean got to the hook: "You're not who I thought you were, praise the lord" some of the patrons started yelling, "Praise the Lord! FUCK YEAH!"  Okay, I wasn't on my magic plane, I had wandered into the world of the surreal.

But that, my friends, is the magic of Sean McConnell.  He moves effortlessly from driving roots rock to tender ballads of hope and forgiveness.  He elegantly serenades about flaws that haunt most of us, and extends a hand of kinship.  The dichotomy of the human soul, the Saint's Heart in the Sinner's Skin, is fully realized in those who follow his music.  Myself included.

Here's one of my favorites, courtesy of YouTube and Music Fog: