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Heybale! - Live from 1-A Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    9
sound:    7
release year:    2003
label:    none
reviewed by:    Charles Andrews

ImageWhat am I doing here?? – pushing through the front door of Austin’s Continental Club on a mid-September Sunday night, after having logged 52 bands and a numbing number of miles bouncing between the eight stages of the 130-bands-in-three-days Austin City Limits Music Festival. I’ve still got to drive nearly an hour west and south to get to my digs in Wimberley, it’s past midnight, I just finished dinner, and I’ve got to get up at 7 to catch a plane. I must be nuts, trying to squeeze in one more band. Mental note to self: You’re sick, get help.

But it’s a sickness I embrace because the rewards are so great. Pop music critics do have to encounter a lot of bad to mediocre performers, and even the good ones are a waste of time. (What?! Hold on.) Because if you’re going to seek out music as an uplifting experience, why be sitting somewhere where it’s good or even very good, when great, amazing, transcendent, mind-blowing – may be just around the corner, or tomorrow night?

Okay, don’t rush to your email programs, I know that’s beginning to sound elitist (yes) and arrogant (not really), but think about it. You’re in New York or London or Montreal for a couple of days, you’re an art collector, a knowledgeable, experienced aficionado, a bit of an expert, really, and you’re excited by the prospect of dozens or hundreds of promising galleries to stroll through to look for someone unknown to you whose work makes you stop in your tracks. The first gallery you visit has nothing of interest; you can tell in five minutes this is not a place where you’re going to be surprised in the next room. (Okay, if you’re really so knowledgeable, you’ve probably got sources that would have kept that gallery off your list in the first place. Just stay with me here.) Next gallery, good work, some by possibly promising artists, some of it even very good, but still…
Are you going to stay there for a few hours and give a thorough examination to every piece in the gallery, after your expert eye has already determined that, 98% sure, there’s not going to be anything here that knocks you out? Or are you going to invest that time and emotion somewhere much more likely to have the payoff you’re looking for? BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THOSE POOR DEDICATED ARTISTS WHO PUT THEIR HEARTS AND SOULS AND CREATIVIY INTO THEIR WORK? Good for them. Wonderful. Bravo. No, I mean it. Continue to do that which feeds your soul. Paint that canvas, learn more chords. I’m sure your mother and your friends are very proud of you, and they should be. And it’s entirely possible that people with very little exposure to art may be uplifted, even amazed, perhaps even mind-blown by your work. But they haven’t been around the block. If you scoot those people down the street and push them and their open minds into the Met or the National Gallery, after some unknown amount of time they will possibly get it, and then, unfortunately for you, will probably in the future be kind but not as gushing as before about your work, but very fortunately for them, will look forward with perhaps trembling excitement to their next visit to art heaven.

Well, as tired and musically-sated as I was, and as unlikely as hitting a gusher seemed – unlikely, because the listing in the paper for that night was for “Heybale! with Redd Volkaert and Jimmy Poole Ball”… dear sweet slide-playin’ Jesus, if that don’t sound like “Hee Haw” in the 21st century I ain’t wearin’ snakeskin boots – there I was, not so much for the good reason that the Continental Club has a great reputation for bookings and that I had had my mind very unexpectedly blown there two nights before witnessing a set by Alejandro Escovedo, someone I was sort of forcing myself to see because a buddy of mine in L.A. set me up to say hi to his buddy Steve Wertheimer, the club owner, and Steve insisted I had to see Alejandro, and then Al just tore the roof off the joint that night with possibly the best performance I witnessed in Austin that whole auspicious weekend, but mostly I found myself there again for the kinda stupid reason that in searching for what looked like a likely late-night dinner opportunity I wound up south of the city/music center, across the river on South Congress Avenue, a block and a half from the Continental… so I just shrugged and reminded myself I don’t believe in accidents and pushed those doors open.

And it was a gusher. In about 10 seconds I knew, I was home, covered over, drenched in, totally grinningly uplifted by the most excellent, most honky-tonk, down home real deal Hank-Merle-Buck-George country music just bouncin’ off the walls and ceiling and sounding sweeter than Gabriel’s trumpet on judgment day. I was in hillbilly heaven.

If you can’t get to Austin anytime soon to catch Heybale! at the Continental nearly every Sunday night, this album is a good way to get a true taste, and if you have seen them, to get your fix. It’s got a big red pimple or two to live with, but if Cameron Diaz had a zit on her cheek and asked you out for drinks, I don’t think it would ruin the experience, would it? And what if you could whip out the Clearasil and give a couple of loving, covering dabs… oh jeeze that sounds bad, but here’s what I mean.

They recorded Live from 1-A on Feb. 2, 2003, at the KUT-FM studios at the University of Texas, Austin – a glorious public radio station, I must add, if you value American roots music and informed and exquisitely tasteful DJs. That said – the station host’s intro and other remarks, and the band members’ various intros, throat-clearings, clueless pauses and bad jokes remind me of nothing more than one of the greatest, almost unknown comedy albums of all time, the Statler Brothers’ “Live at Johnny Mack Brown High School.” Well, awwwl-raht. Heh heh. Only Heybale!’s not kidding. And they seemed to have left every bit in, resulting in 24 tracks. That’s where your Clearasil comes in. After the first time through, ‘cause you’ve got to hear what I’m talking about once, you skip through and play only the even numbered tracks, through 20, then skip to 23, and out. But don’t you think someone would’ve suggested them doing that for the released disc, instead of making us do the editing? They could have even left some of it in, but not all of it. And please, not the awkward sound of five people applauding. If you don’t have a full studio audience, just tell ‘em to hush up and sit on their hands.

So, along with a band name I can’t stand only emphasized by the punctuation, those are the zits on the gorgeous face of this master musical grouping’s first recording. This is an all-star band, who play together like a seamless juggernaut. This is a six-piece with at least three great singers. Great singers. Redd Volkaert is one of the best guitar players I’ve ever, ever heard – a zen Telecaster master – no separation between him and the instrument. (You’d know this more from watching him live.) Jim Murphy plays real country steel like he wrote the book. Earl Poole Ball – 20 years with the Man in Black – ‘nuff said. These are guys who not only played with everybody from Red Sovine to Mavis Staples, Connie Smith to Commander Cody, Patsies Montana to Cline, Rose and Wanda to Alison and Al Kooper, Dolly to Dwight, the Byrds to Buck to Brad Paisley, but had long residences with Asleep At The Wheel, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. Acoustic stand-up bass player Kevin Smith and drummer Tom Lewis – outstanding, and vital and perfect for this band. And the new kid in the group, Gary Claxton, lacking such sterling pedigree, just happens to bring one of the best country voices I’ve heard in ages, though you don’t get enough chance to hear it here (blasts the proceedings off on opener “Wine Me Up,” wasted on the only less-than-extraordinary cut, Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge,” then shines like a star on “Train of Life”). At the Continental he finished one song with a held note that just drove the crowd nuts.

Let’s talk about the singing just a little more. Redd is a wonder, with phenomenal range from high and lonesome to a basso profundo that crashes through the basement to places you didn’t know existed, easily flowing with the super syncopated sense of a Patsy Cline or George Jones, and the obvious stylistic imprint of the great Merle Haggard. Earl Poole Ball is an old-style note holder, and at some points makes you think the Killer himself has stepped into the studio. I still feel like the bulk of the vocals should be handed over to Claxton, but then what do you do with those other great and distinctive voices? For one thing – more harmonies. Distinctly lacking, and you know they could be a highlight. When you get hit with just a little blast of it on cut eight, “Gone, Gone, Gone,” it’s like a blast of cold water in the face. But good.

As long as your strength is old school, and you most certainly have the singers to pull it off, you’re smart to pick your songs from the old branches too, and they do a fine job there. Besides those mentioned there are a couple by Harlan Howard, Merle, Chuck Berry and a couple from the catalog of Lefty Frizell, Merle’s inspiration.

The Heybale! I saw live was a five-piece; sadly, the great Jim Murphy passed away in 2005. But this band has too many strengths to let even a large piece falling away bring them very far off the mark. If anything, Redd fills in more on his Fender these days, and that’s a very good thing. They told me their next album will have mostly originals (cross your fingers), and a lot more from Gary Claxton (awwwl-raht!). But start here with Live from 1-A (you’ll probably have to go to their website to order it, and you’ll discover that real country music is still alive, deep in the heart of Texas.

Excellent. Balanced nicely. Every instrument can be heard, proportionately, and that’s crucial because their strength is in their razor-sharp, tradition-steeped execution. If you couldn’t hear it this well, you wouldn’t know they were this good. Seeing and hearing them live is a treat and a privilege, but this album puts you right there, and what more could you ask from a live radio broadcast recording?

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