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 (http://www.soldriventrain.com/) 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 (http://www.tabbenoit.com/) 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 (http://seanmcconnell.com/).  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: