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.