Luckily, my friend Mark let me know about an Austin music showcase this past Sunday at the barbecue joint, Hill Country in midtown. Unfortunately, I missed the first act, Gretchen Peters, but was very fortunate to catch the rest.
The first act I saw was Elana James. Her group consisted of herself on fiddle and vocals, as well as flat-picker Whit Smith on
acoustic hollow-body electric and a very enthusiastic Jake Erwin on upright bass. I didn’t take any notes on the set, but remembered it as being lively from the outset. Mark had mentioned how great he though Elana was on fiddle and I have to agree. She had an excellent combination technical skill as well as soul. A nice combination. It was also interesting that the fiddlers of the South Austin Jug Band, while quite good themselves, still paled in comparison three sets after Elana had wrapped up. I also really enjoyed the other two musicians. Whit really balanced himself with the other two. I feel that this is often hard for a really good flat picker to do since they often have the ability to go a million miles an hour. Instead, Whit was really in sync and the technical flourishes always seemed warranted. Beau was quite enjoyable as well. I typically groan at bass solos or at least am disappointed that they’re more technically oriented than musical. Beau had a nice balance of both.
The second act was Bruce Robison, a singer-songwriter about whom I knew little other than the fact that, as Mark informed me, he is married to Kelly Willis and who apparently is seven feet tall. The man was seriously tall. It might have been better to describe Bruce as a songwriter-singer as his set-list revealed that he’s written quite a few very, very successful country songs including “Desperately” (George Strait), “Travelin’ Soldier” (Dixie Chicks), “What Would Willie Do?” (Garry Allan), and “Wrapped” (George Strait). He closed with his poignant and funny “My Brother and Me.” I’d give him a solid A-. For stage banter. Very funny, but a little rehearsed it seemed. Two of my favorite bits were when he noted that Travelin’ Soldier was #1 at the time Natalie Maines said she was ashamed that Bush was from Texas and as a result Robison had the distinction of having written the fastest falling #1 hit ever. The other was introducing What Would Willie Do by saying that he knew that through his life there was a hand guiding him through good and through bad . . .
The real treat of the night, though, was Guy Forsythe and the Hot Not Riveters. I just got giddy watching them set up on stage. The instrumentation included: two resonators, a resonator ukulele, a tuba, a rub board with bell, cowbell, and cymbal attachments, and kazoo in addition to a few more traditional elements. Guy had an incredibly amiable manner and amazing stage charisma from the outset. And then he opened with this deep throaty acoustic (gospel?) number where the refrain sounded to me like “Sink’er low, boys” after which the Hot Nut Riveters all stomped and said “Huh!” all together. It was awesome in the more traditional sense of the word and less in the “that was a gnarly wave, dude” sense. A couple songs later was Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, a song about the Titanic which Guy noted that the press had dubbed “the ship that even God couldn’t sink.” This was followed by a raucous dixieland number and a throaty, powerful version of “Summertime” with Guy soloing on the saw. That’s right, the saw. Then came another bluesy tune, “One-hundred and Five” and one that I have marked down as “I Hear the Train.” It was just incredible stuff. The set left my jaw dropped and me wanting to be Guy Forsythe. To spend your days going around the country doing that!?!?! What a life! It was probably the best live set I’ve seen since the Springsteen show in May of ought six. Apparently they’re not a fixed group – or at least Google doesn’t tell me so. But hopefully this can give you a taste.
RFATHNR’s were followed by the South Austin Jug Band. I don’t know if it was because I was tired or because they were following such an amazing act, but they didn’t really get the job done for me. They were a large-ish band of mandolin, guitar, fiddle, bass, and drums that seemed to run between a more contemporary pop country sounds on some songs and more of an old-timey feel (a la the Red Stick Ramblers) on others. I’d be happy to see them on any night, but in comparison to Guy Forsythe and Elana James, they paled some.
Note: Some members of the Hot Nut Riveters, specifically Wammo and Nevada Newman, seemed to originate from the Asylum Street Spankers, a band of that seems to be of a similar verve but plays music of a somewhat more consistently profane nature. They’re playing a limited engagement up through Sunday at the Barrow Street Theatre, entitled “What? And Give Up Show Biz?” Matt and I are going tonight or Friday. I’ll let you all know how it goes.
Interestingly enough, on the way back to Morningside, I messed up and ended up on the 2 train to 110th Street just north of Central Park. I started walking back and there was this guy who had been on the train with me who seemed a little confused about where he was. We got to talking and it turned out he was an old member of the ASS (who I now realize also get points for having an excellent acronym that actually has a content-based relationship with their actual name) who had rejoined the group for their NYC (no such acronym credit) show.
[Update: Thanks to Mark for letting me know it was Jake Erwin and not Beau Sample that was playing with Elana James that night.]