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Music Editor Survives Hot, Hot Sun, Big, Big Crowds At Austin City Limits Music Festival! Print E-mail
Thursday, 05 October 2006
Article Index
Music Editor Survives Hot, Hot Sun, Big, Big Crowds At Austin City Limits Music Festival!
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Best Act
People have asked me who I thought was the very best act, out of that cornucopia of offerings, and I have to fudge a little and say that while everyone should see a Flaming Lips show once in their life, and the Raconteurs are the best band alive right now, and Van is the Man, the best group I experienced all weekend was not at the festival but Friday night at the Continental Club, when dumb luck put me in front of Alejandro Escovedo. A buddy of mine in L.A. insisted I look up his fellow car enthusiast friend Steve Wertheimer, who owns the legendary Austin rock dive. I had scanned the newspaper listings for a better show to go to Friday night after the fest and was surprised to find nothing that appealed to me, and didn’t see a better night that weekend on the Continental schedule, so despite not being a big Alejandro fan I decided I’d go and pay my respects, then maybe split after a couple of songs.

Sometimes you feel like that Higher Power gives your dumb ass a gentle shove in the right direction now and again, because my impression of Escovedo was formed by my contempt for his early cow-punk L.A. band Rank and File (hmpff! – obviously these guys have never in their lives heard real country music) and the occasional song of his through the years that seemed melancholy and unremarkable, my qualified disinterest fueled by the praise critics heaped on his solo albums, especially in the last few years (elitist pretenders, like him, I sniffed). Of course, I was always aware my opinion was based on very little or very old information, that I really wasn’t all that familiar with his work and even though I was inclined to think I wouldn’t like him, I always, always keep a musically open mind. It was a delightful, funny moment for me when I was chatting with Escovedo after the show in the Continental’s basement dressing room, and told him I had seen Rank and File several times in L.A. and never cared much for them, and he grinned and responded, “Neither did I!”

Escovedo has always tended toward a slim suit-and-tie look (he’s a slim guy), and would probably be the first to tell you he doesn’t look at all like a rock star. But in his mid-fifties, he could give master classes in flat rockin’ out. I caught him again a week later in the tiny Santa Monica club 14 Below (check their calendar if you’re in L.A., they sometimes snag amazing acts). With two of his grown daughters sitting stage front he took an extended storytelling break to introduce a song about his mother, telling us his Mexican-born father who influenced his music so much lived to 97 and had 12 children, eight of whom became professional musicians (his brothers Pete and Coke were in the original Santana and went on to form Azteca and play in Malo, Sheila E. is his niece, and I just found out from googling that El Vez is his cousin!) – yes, we are taking this country back, he laughed, in reference to the illegal immigrant debate, and we’re starting with the entertainment industry. Then he got back to the mission of thrilling and delighting the packed room, as he did at the Continental, where he just tore the roof off the joint and elicited screaming cheers matching anything at ACL.

Alejandro Escovedo live is impossible to label with a style. He pounds out beat-heavy rock and roll, avant-garde dissonance, delicate flamenco stylings, confident progressive configurations and massive arena-ready rock bombast, and in both cities ended his performance with spirited encore blasts of the Stones’ “Beast of Burden” and Mott the Hoople’s/David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes.” (He also does the Stooges’ “I Wanna be Your Dog.”) All of it with consummate skill. In both shows put together, there wasn’t a single number that wasn’t interesting, and excellent. He’s a damned good guitar player, but shows his real chops by putting great musicians behind him. He said his drummer (an absolute titan) has been with him 20 years, his guitar player (perhaps even more impressive strumming the holy crap out of a small acoustic as he was killing the electric) also many years, bass and keyboards were outstanding and the cellist (!) rocks with the best of them, a distinguished part of his sound. Two of the players (bass and cello) were different from the band I saw a week before, with no difference in the overall power and sound. (Note: I thought I recognized his bass player in Austin, and when they finally got to intros I found out it was Mark Andes, whose rock history is fairly amazing – and I wound up spotting him in two other bands at ACL the next day, both 180 degrees different from the Escovedo band, and from each other – but in my book he’ll always be part of the original Spirit. My backstage greeting to him at the Continental was: I’ve been writing about music for close to 40 years, I’ve got over 7,000 LPs, 5,000 CDs and nearly a terabyte of music on a hard drive, and I say that first Spirit album is absolutely one of the best ever made by anyone, any genre, period. I meant it 100 percent, and I was pleased to see he seemed genuinely taken aback at my over-the-top compliment.)

More Good Fortune
As good a time, and unexpected, as I had at the Continental Club, you’d think I would have accepted the owner’s invitation to come back any time, but I went chasing, unsuccessfully, the club show for Deadboy & the Elephantmen Saturday night. My disappointment was mitigated by a memorable experience in the sports bar where I stopped for a revitalizing bowl of tortilla soup. An amiable young dude from Atlanta, broadcasting from the festival back to his radio station there, pulled up the bar stool next to me and after just a few introductory words treated me to a $25 shot of Johnny Walker blue label (numbered) … and that’s kind of how Austin is. Sunday I looked at the Continental listing and thought, “Heybale! with Redd Volkaert and Johnny Poole Ball,” sounded way too much like “Hee Haw” to be worth even a peek. But when I found myself finishing dinner at midnight only a block and a half from the club, I figured I’d be a mook not to mosey on down and stick my nose in. Having already forgotten, in 48 hours, about that HP ass-push thing.

When I pushed open those swingin’ doors it took me 10 seconds to realize I’d done a really, really good thing for myself. I was hearing Master Musicians play Real Country Music, the Merle-George-Patsy-Buck-Loretta-Johnny-Tammy-Lefty-Hank kind that you just never, ever get any more, even when someone comes close. I’m not going to go into much detail here because I did in my review of Heybale!’s first, live album (which I highly recommend), but Heybale! is a living, playing history of old school country, ripping and shuffling out classic after classic the same way the originals would have – if they had a band this good.

Looking like nothing more than a big burly, jowly flame-bearded truck driver in baseball cap, Hawaiian shirt and sensible black work shoes, Redd Volkaert is simply one of the best guitar players I’ve ever heard in my life. Not only is he as fleet-fingered as any metal monster you can name (and I kept listening for a clam, a missed note, both on stage and on the disc … and came up empty), but he just breathes country music, he embodies it, he is it. I have the notion that if Redd liked another kind of music, rock or blues or jazz, he could excel anywhere. And as a singer, he just blows you away. Clearly influenced heavily by Merle Haggard (for whom he played for three years, along with a list that looks like a Grand Ole Opry roll call), he ranges from high and lonesome to somewhere so low the Devil feels his feet shake.

And Redd’s only one of three, maybe four really good vocalists in this band I love despite their awful, ludicrously-punctuated name. Earl Poole Ball is the note-holder who can also evoke the Killer at times, and a pretty fair ivory puncher too, good enough to have the Man in Black keep him on for 20 years. Bassist John Lee and drummer Tom Lewis don’t have such rarified histories but are tremendous, the perfect rhythm section for this band, hard-driving the fast numbers and finessing the slows. And there in the middle stands Gary Claxton, no history that would impress you, but … the best boots; trying to stand out in a band already overloaded with great singers, but they chose him, asked him to join, players who damn sure know what they’re doing, and although he shares the spotlight, when he gets a featured vocal he makes you suddenly pay more attention, with a voice full of heart and knowing. That night he finished one song with a ridiculously-long-held note that just caused the room to explode. Most every Sunday night, Continental Club, Heybale! – if you miss this, you’ve missed Austin. Maybe even missed Texas.

It’s A Wrap
Time to return to Zilker Park, and wrap it up. I haven’t been to that many festivals – Sunsplash (three times), New Orleans Jazz & Heritage, the roots-rockabilly Hootenanny at Irvine, CA’s Oak Canyon Ranch, twice – but I was talking in the taxi line to a couple of very young guys from New York who make a lifestyle out of it – one had already hit six big festivals so far this year – and we all agreed that, given the nature of the beast, this was about as good as it gets. Austin’s a pretty cool place, really mellow, one offered. I agreed, but more importantly, I added: they’ve got really good taste in music, and the city honors it as a vital part of their cultural heritage. The City of Los Angeles should require a visit to the Austin City Limits Music Festival (or just Sixth Street on any Friday night) as part of the sensitivity training for police and fire marshals, and pack the mayor and the city council along with them. L.A.’s got more and better music than any place in the world, but could never pull off a show like this in the city limits, and wouldn’t want to. L.A.’s civic attitude towards its incredibly rich musical heritage and its current crop of gifted artists needs some serious work, and perspective.


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