I can remember it in detail. The most emotionally charged performance I’ve ever seen was at the Boar’s Head in Wickham, Hants (now sadly razed to the ground). Hearing John Campbell’s supremely musical rhythm section introduced as being “from Austin, Texas”, I determined: Austin Texas, there I have to go.
When Joe Ely turned up at the same venue mere months later with the same musicians accompanying him, it simply confirmed this determination. This hard, taut, electric country / blues / r & b was totally my kind of music and I had to get me some more.
Then an odd thing happened in Southampton. On an ordinary Tuesday night, Bobby Mack and Night Train appeared at the Brook and blew me right away. Bobby says goodbye individually to all his audience members after each show. All I could find to say to him was: Bobby, you made me want to visit Texas so much, I’m going out to buy the tickets tomorrow.
So now I’ve done it. I’ve savoured the “Live Music Capital of the World” and there could be no more thrilling destination for a music lover. Austin has over 100 live music venues which function seven nights a week, all year. You could stay there for months and never repeat a venue or a band. Bliss and sore ears.
Hopelessly jet-lagged and not caring at all, I staggered down the hill and along 6th street in pursuit of an in-store appearance at Waterloo Records by Billy Bragg, plugging his Mermaid Avenue album of Woody Guthrie songs. Bill had already been and gone, but it didn’t matter. Arriving on 6th is exactly as you’d dream. Suddenly, you are aware that the humid air is filled with the sounds of booming bass guitars, chunky Stratocasters and thwacking hi-hats and snares. Like in New Orleans, the only problem lies in deciding which doors to enter, but it doesn’t really matter because the beer is cheap everywhere and nobody troubles you at all.
The majority of the bars have traditional “blues bands” as we know them, but greatly more authentic than you’d find in British pub. In true Hamburg style, they play for hours and hours. I was looking for something special, though, and as Blues Travelers have to accept, was constantly frustrated.
When the Hoax played in Austin, they opened for Guy Forsyth and it was Guy I was trailing. Good news! He’s playing at Flipnotics today! Bad news! The asterisk in the listings mag means it was a lunchtime session and we’ve missed it. Good news! He’s playing at Carlos ‘n’ Charlie’s on Wednesday evening! Bad news! We’re leaving on Wednesday afternoon! It would have clashed with Joe Ely at Antone’s anyway, but you could have taken in both, Austin’s that kind of place.
So it was time to access some true funk. Antone’s on 5th Street is a world-famous blues cavern with heritage and musical excellence dripping down its walls. But each September it devotes four nights to the funktastic George Clinton style soul-rap of legendary James Brown saxist Maceo Parker. This impossibly hard-edged ensemble features Fred Wesley, JB lookalike Sweets Shirell on backup vocals and the world’s most sublime Hammond player. We danced till 2 am and only gave up because of exhaustion. By the way, Antone’s has a novel way of making sure there’s no crush at the bar. Out in the crowd are satellite bars in the form of fairy-light-decorated baths of ice filled with bottles of beer.
But were we going to find some blues? Following the guide-book’s advice, we headed away from 6th to Guadeloupe Street, where Texas State University students stumble from venue to venue (they’re only yards apart). The Hole in the Wall was great but Roberto Moreno’s band was deeply influenced by Crowded House, so it was into the car and out to North Lamarr and the Saxon Pub, which this week featured, among others, the ubiquitous Guy Forsyth as well as Omar and the Howlers, who have a residency.
We took a chance and chose a real thriller. The unpromisingly-named Monte Montgomery does things with an acoustic guitar you’d never dream possible. His country-rock craftings, his truly “Austin-tight” trio and the lovingly-created roadhouse atmosphere of the venue (plus the odd Tequila or two) made this the best evening of the jaunt. More bad news: I was compelled to buy albums by both Maceo Parker and Monte Montgomery.
The blues quest now shifted to New Orleans. A quick glance at the line-up at the House of Blues revealed that we would be missing Dr. John, Gregory Isaacs and Jimmy Cliff, but … oh, joy: Tonight, the Fabulous Thunderbirds.. Who would the support be, I enquired at the box office. “Get here early, sir. It’s Guy Forsyth.”
Deep was the disappointment when we arrived at the House to find “cancelled” notices on the door. Wherefore art thou, Guy? We are destined never to meet. Compensation was at hand, though. The legendary R.L. Burnside was to step in.
This unbelievable venue (busts of the blues greats are built into the ceiling and the rest rooms dispense free after-shave and condoms) had grabbed R.L. from his gig the previous night at the Maple Leaf and also found a support. The uninviting-sounding Willy Jaye Band turned out to be a cleanly-rocking, power bar-room trio influenced clearly by Stevie Ray Vaughan but with a nod in the direction of Hendrix too. It was interesting that this most discerning of audiences snapped up all Willy Jaye’s CDs in record time. Oh, and another thing: The bassist was a dead ringer for the Hoax’s Jesse Davey. So cut the jibes about Frank Spencer berets; they’re cool in New Orleans, you know.
R.L. Burnside is definitely one of a fast-disappearing breed (whiskey-addled, ancient, toothless bluesmen) but a lot of fun once you’d got over the initial shock at the presentation. There was no bass guitar, a guitarist who looked like a German footballer and acted as guitar roadie and general physical support to R.L., with a drummer who was disturbingly prone to solo outbursts. Chuckling away at his own incomprehensible between-song raps, R.L.’s take on the blues is indeed fascinating: extra bars added here and there kept the band on its toes and you really felt this was a pointer back to a tradition which is becoming so watered-down as to be virtually unrecognisable. The lush environment provided a nicely ironic touch.
Our last night was sad, for similar reasons. Lured by the legend of Tipicino’s (all the blues greats have played here), we found a tourist-oriented venue plagued by the dreaded blandness of a digital sound system. John Carey (latest album featuring the Memphis Horns) was completely emasculated by this awful environment and must have been devastated at the poor reception he received. We took our leave and would advise: New Orleans, cool, but for real music lovers, Austin is unmissable.
From Blueprint magazine