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Austin Chronicle Live Shots

APRIL 27, 1998: 

MONSTERS OF FOLK

Hightone Records billed it as the "Monsters of Folk" tour, and while the featured foursome certainly showed some teeth, in the end they proved more prophet than beast. The monsters in question were Dave Alvin, Chris Smither, Tom Russell, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and they were out, in Alvin's words, "spreadin' the good word of the semi-acoustic guitar." It was just past 9pm when the showcased songsmiths took the stage, and they proceeded to make a folksinger's front porch of it, sitting around swappin' songs for the better part of three hours, mostly flying solo, but indulging in a few ensemble numbers as well. The subjects covered were the expected ones - drinkin', daddy, drinkin' daddies, steam trains, jail time, fickle fate, wayward women, and, of course, the road - and they were covered in exceptionally fine style. A soulpatched Alvin impressed with his vocal range, syncopated snap, and nimble-fingered sincerity, while bluesman Chris Smither, his face a dim grimace despite some heavenly pickin', laid down some leads subtle and strong enough to recall the late great Reverend Gary Davis. The imperious Tom Russell played a fine batch of his own tunes, including the timeless "Man From God Knows Where," adding three clipped phrases of "Sweetheart Swedish" as a narrative bonus; "I've been there 2,000 times," says Russell of Sweden, "and all I know is, 'I Love You,' 'Where's the bathroom?,' and 'We have records and tapes for sale.' Of course, that's the basis for civilization." Just when it looked like these relative upstarts might upstage the slightly cantankerous elder Elliot, Ramblin' Jack pulled out his classic "912 Greens," holding the audience rapt with a long and winding tale of Carolina breakfasts, backseat banjo-pickin', and the wine, women, and song of New Orleans, Louisiana. Along the way he indulged a bit of his trademark ramblin': When it's 10 minutes into the song and a singer says, "here come a three-legged cat from under the banana tree," you know you're in the throes of something good. Even with a road-wearied voice, Elliot's performance on "Greens" raised the musical bar, and the rest of the night was duly electrifying. By the time the four-fisted finale of Woody Guthrie's populist anthem "(If You Ain't Got That) Do Re Mi" drove the audience out of their seats and into a harmonizing, hand-clapping bliss, it was clear that the good word of the semi-acoustic guitar had claimed its share of souls that night. - Jay Hardwig




Gregory Isaacs at Club Serendipity
photograph by John Carrico



GINGER MACKENZIE

"You're quiet," was local singer-songwriter Ginger Mackenzie's observation to the audience after her first couple of songs at a Wednesday night La Zona Rosa gig. Within the span of a couple of more songs, that changed, as the crowd, large enough to fill up the tables in the club side of the venue, gradually began making noise. It was not of the yelping and whooing variety, though. No, most of the white noise chatter was courtesy of patrons who were celebrating the fact that they weren't in the mile-long line of cars just around the corner where last-minute tax filing had turned the downtown post office into a parking lot. This being the case, Mackenzie, without much resistance, slipped into the background and ended up on a decibel par with the incidental fallout of the patrons' yakking. For better and for worse, Mackenzie is very much the everywoman. In her music is almost any popular contemporary female singer you can think of: Lisa Loeb, Emmylou Harris (the Lanois variety), Shawn Colvin, Margo Timmins (sans the sultriness), and Alanis Morrisette (the non-shrieking variety) - even new Australian arrival Natalie Imbruglia; there are bits and pieces of any and all of them and dozens more in there. That's for the better, because it makes it almost impossible not to find something likable in Mackenzie. She plays the tortured girl ("Love Is Hell") as much as the self-empowering chick singer ("I'm Not Leaving You"). But it's for the worse, too, because this makes it impossible to distinguish MacKenzie from the ever-increasing array of female singer-songwriters - and even more so live than on her impeccably produced release, Earthbound. Save for maybe the airy effortlessness to her singing, Mackenzie is, for lack of a better term, generic, which is probably why she was equally adept at fading into the background as she was at holding anybody's attention. - Michael Bertin



STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT

Post-post-Stooges bands go in two directions: slow 'n' easy or fast 'n' hard, and Stanford Prison Experiment, touring behind their new album Wrecreations, keep it pretty relentless. Helped by the contrast with opening act Man Will Surrender, also from Los Angeles, SPE comes off with something worthwhile to offer. While most of the lyrics were obscured by unhappy mixing, smart-guy belting emerged. Ever noticed how few people smile at shows featuring hard but not straight-up hardcore bands? SPE has some kind of musical sense of humor, whether intentional or not, that leavens the usually over-earnest anthemic quality. And the songs have those heaving, heavy hooks of the classic Dischord Records acts with often melodic bass sewing it all together. Six-foot-six and growing singer Mario Jimenez is entertaining, being a fine dancer for a tall man with a shaved head, and guitarist Mike Starkey doesn't just chug along in an end-of-semester review of alternalicks, but rather has the good sense and ability to throw in grace notes and harmonics that work right there in the song and hypertext toward other bands, other genres. A trickle of a turnout resulted in about 50 people getting to see a band that played music requiring precision and something of a bigger audience. Since it isn't cool to enjoy oneself at a show such as this, the grim-faced set about putting on their usual high-testosterone mating display. Well, SPE deserve more attention than that, and not just from a jaded, too-cool, barely clapping audience. When Jimenez said, "You're too kind" near the end of the set, no one got it, no one even heckled back. Better to be at home watching TV and getting really involved than just being a warm body at Emo's holding a beer and looking to get lucky. SPE played material from the new album almost exclusively, slipping in a Minuteman cover to see if anyone noticed, and more than competently synthesized the smarter sounds of the mega alt groups so revered for their intelligence at the end of the Eighties /early Nineties. Fugazi, the Minutemen, you know the routine. Ben(d) over, but well done. - David Williams



HILL COUNTRY HOEDOWN

Saturday's Hill Country Hoedown was sort of like a backyard party blown up to exaggerated proportions. Instead of a yard, however, it was a sizable expanse of serene and secluded Dripping Springs acreage. Instead of burnt weenies, it featured catered Cajun food. Instead of a Slip & Slide, there was a running stream. And of course, instead of your neighbor's crummy garage band, Slobberbone, Six String Drag, the Gourds, Damnations, Cheri Knight, the V-Roys, and Alejandro Escovedo all played about an hour (plus or minus) each. Only the number of guests stayed constant. Where the heck were you people? The Herb Fest over in Fredricksburg? The wildflower thingy at Lady Bird's research center? Or perhaps you were gearing up your goldfish for the Pet Parade over at Hancock center. Maybe the alt.country crowd just ain't that outdoorsy, because really, who would want to sit around outside, far removed from traffic and or any other urban irritant, on an absolutely gorgeous Saturday afternoon? It's not like the music wasn't worth the trip: Slobberbone doing their best hick Bad Company impersonation; Six String Drag's jangled set, spiked with an affable cover of "Adios Mexico"; the Gourds' typically spirited display of redneck reverie hardly hampered by technical snafus. The two most impressive performances of the day belonged to E-Squared arteests Cheri Knight and the V-Roys. Former Blood Orange Knight has a dynamite voice somewhere between a non-nasal Lucinda Williams and a non-annoying Sam Phillips and great material to boot, while the V-Roys live came off even less a No Depression band and more like a Fab Four that went to Knoxville, Tennessee instead of Hamburg to cut their teeth. The whole deal wound down nicely with a big-ass bonfire (and damn it got cold) and Escovedo in the background. Hope your fish won you a prize, because you missed out, buddy.
- Michael Bertin



NICHOLAS PAYTON QUINTET

"We don't normally do this," said Nicholas Payton coyly upon returning to the stage after a 75-minute second set. Taking up their instruments once again on the high 'n' wide Victory Grill stage, Reuben Rogers on bass, Adonis Rose, drums, Anthony Wonsey, piano, and Tim Warfield on tenor saxophone, Payton's Quintet braced for the encore. "We're gonna do a short one," said the trumpet player, firmly. With that, he cued the band, and on three they blasted out a short, sharp note. Just one. Then they walked off stage. The crowd went nuts. It was just a gag of course, but the 75-100 locals filling the Eastside blues 'n' jazz shrine ate it up - just as they had the entire evening. "We're going to take you down to my hometown, New Orleans," said Payton after the applause died down, and with that the band launched into what was arguably the second set's highlight, "The Whuppin' Blues" ("We can't call it what it's really called," chuckled the man with the horn about the coital tune). A festive, second-line romp through
all that is the Crescent City, the tune rocked and rolled with the vigor of five musicians kicking out the jams like they were playing some funky little Louisiana bar. Ten minutes it lasted, and when the five sharply dressed musicians left the stage for good, you couldn't help feeling that the evening had just begun. Not that the evening hadn't built to this moment - it had. Taking the stage just after 11pm, the 24-year-old Payton and the rest of his young band didn't waste a note, opening with a Wayne Shorter tune that featured long opening statements by all members of the band save for bassist Rogers. In these statements, the individual players staked their ground: post-bop jazz. Payton, one of the leading lights of young liondom both in his hometown and on the national scene, blew the same sharp notes with the same brassy - brash - tone found on his recordings for Verve. That would have been enough to give all the local jazz players present (Tina Marsh, Elias Haslanger, Ephram Owens) something to talk about, except there
was the matter of saxman Warfield, who matched Payton note-for-note with a blistering attack that evoked Sonny Rollins at times. Featuring a second Shorter tune, a Herbie Hancock number, and plenty of material from the trumpet player's upcoming Payton Place, the set's highlights included a racy little number penned by pianist Wonsey, "Smooth Jazz," and a new ballad by Payton, "The Last Goodbye." Like Dee Dee Bridgewater the night before at Hogg Auditorium, the set was a life-affirming statement for modern jazz. "If you enjoyed the show," said Payton before that final exit, "please tell all your friends to come out and see us next time we're here. If you didn't, please, don't tell anybody." Psst, buddy, come here. There's something I wanna tell you...
- Raoul Hernandez


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