Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Live Shots

AUGUST 10, 1998: 


LAUREL AITKEN & THE NEW YORK SKA-JAZZ ENSEMBLE

It sure seems like a great idea: old-school ska all-stars playing jazz tunes to ska rhythms, then backing up the Godfather of Ska, Laurel Aitken. The combination of culturally rich musical forms played by people who have been doing so for a long time poses exciting possibilities for expression and innovation. At Liberty Lunch on a Monday night, the NYSJE came out strong, hustling through versions of Bob Marley's "Love and Affection" and compositions by Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, but the pattern soon became clear: To make jazz into ska, you latch onto the melody, speed it up, and repeat it endlessly in a drawn-out cycle that allows for very long solos, which makes sense to a certain extent, since many ska and reggae tunes come from the same set of rhythms. But boy, does it get old fast. The overall vibe was good, a decent crowd of 300-400 present, but that's the lowest common denominator in a room full of ska fans. That's easy. "Rocksteady" Freddie Reiter on tenor saxophone was a ball of energy all night, shouting "Is ska!" and "Hoodyup! Hoodyup!" incessantly, but to no avail. The crowd was lame, lame, lame, skankin' more like line-dancing sloths on morphine or an aerobics class for the elderly. And the effect was contagious. Even Reiter, the pointy-haired little brute, eventually caught the malaise. His solos were mostly boring, as were those by the rest of the band, save for the trombone plunging and the bass lead-in by Victor Rice on Mingus' "The Haitian Fight Song." Even the Cuban-born, Jamaican/U.K.-bred Laurel Aitken, the septuagenarian king of the form, couldn't get the crowd into it - save for the small group of rowdy skanks who kept yelling for "Skinhead." When he sang "Longshot Kick de Bucket," you could feel that he'd sung the tune a thousand times (twice, here), but still loved it. When he did "Message to You (Rudie)," it felt like hearing it right for the first time. But these moments were rendered anti-climactic by the rest of the set and the looooong setup in between. By the time Aitken, with a big smile full of gold teeth, introduced "Skinhead" at the end of the evening, the energy had reached its peak, and as the band kept trying to leave the stage (to be brought back out by the remarkable stamina and persistence of Aitken), it was evident that the excitement was mostly at the prospect of calling it a night. - Christopher Hess


LUCINDA WILLIAMS

The moment Lucinda Williams walked onstage at Antone's, even before she broke into the first verse of the opener "Pineola," it was obvious there was something different about her - something besides the obvious change of hair color. She had a confidence and the corresponding calm that goes with it, something she didn't have in either of her last two local appearances: a South by Southwest 1996 showcase and a week-long string of dates at the Electric Lounge a few months thereafter. Maybe she's come to believe her own press recently. She should; Williams' not-so-secret secret Antone's show was about as good as it gets. And she was cool incarnate for the duration of the evening. With a new song catalog that reads like a map of the South - "Lake Charles," "Greenville," "Jackson," - Williams came across like a woman whose favorite view of a city skyline is in the rear-view mirror, a woman consumed with loss and remembrance. And her broken-and-pieced-back-together voice was the perfect vehicle for the two-and-a-half hour emotional road trip. "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" and "Can't Let Go," material from her latest critical smash, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, sounded as seasoned as older material, and the performances of signature songs like "Passionate Kisses" and "Changed the Locks" were impeccable - tight, but not too slick. Even the interplay between guitarists Bo Ramsey and Kenny Vaughn was superbly economical. They laid into their brief fills and leads, then stepped anonymously into the background, getting the hell out of the way of the sweet and sexy scratch of Williams' voice (remember, this is a woman who can sing the word "casserole" and make it sound sexy). Okay, maybe some songs were screaming out for some steel guitar, but complaining about that would be like getting a Van Gogh and whining about the frame. It was all damn near perfect as it was, and Williams knew it - the packed house knew it. And everybody reveled in it; so much so that Williams didn't even bother with the charade of leaving after her "set" and coming back for the "encore." She simply told the audience to pretend she had departed and returned, then continued playing, working through "Big Red Sun Blues," "Little Angel, Little Brother," a couple of somewhat obscure blues tunes, and ending with the previously mentioned "Jackson." If not perfect it was, well, suitable for framing. - Michael Bertin


LILITH FAIR

"All those years I played Riverfest while you were still in diapers," cried Bonnie Raitt in her scratchy, sexy voice toward the end of her twilight set. "Jimmie Vaughan, this one's for you, honey - Jimmie, Kim Wilson, Pinkie Hubbard, Fran Christina." With that, the flaming red-haired, 48-year-old guitarist tore into the Fabulous Thunderbirds' "I Believe I'm in Love With You" like it was 1985 and the delicious evening breeze just beginning to blow was coming from Auditorium Shores where Austin's Riverfest once reigned supreme as summer festival fare. Arguably the best overall set of the seven-and-a-half-hour day, Raitt's performance confirmed her status as sage earth-mama, the veteran musician recognizing both a new, younger audience and the need to come out hitting on all cylinders when faced with a short, 50-minute set. "Something to Talk About," "Love Letters," and the fun, new "Blue for No Reason" all
got good response from the 18,000-strong crowd, with John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" featuring Sarah McLachlan's pure, beautiful harmonies. Emerging from the wings in resplendent purple, McLachlan received a standing ovation before she even opened her mouth, and why not? This was her crowd, her festival. At a pre-show press conference, McLachlan told reporters her original commitment to Lilith Fair,
the all-female equivalent to the testosterone-laced HORDE, was three years
(the last coming in 1999) and as with last year's fest, she proved her commitment all day; first with money, donating $15,500 to Austin's SafePlace women's shelter, and later with her presence, guesting with a handful of the festival's performers or simply watching their sets. Boston's folk rockers Talking to Animals had their 20-minute, C-stage set greatly improved by McLachlan's dreamy guest vocals on one song, and other than Lucinda Williams' rather flat, Antone's hangover B-stage set, which McLachlan watched with interest, non-main stage performances were nullified by extreme heat; it was nearly impossible to concentrate on music, when, as one concert-goer observed, "it was a billion degrees." One hundred and two degrees was the official word, but with the afternoon starting at 3:30pm, and with little or no shade at the finely manicured Southpark Meadows, it was hard to care about local trio cling's mousy first set; Danielle Howle's South Carolina cracker act; Ebba Forsberg's Swedish model routine; and even ex-Brand New Heavy N'Dea Davenport's sinewy soul music - though her interpretation of Neil Young's "Old Man" was memorable. Liz Phair's main-stage kickoff was solid if unspectacular, featuring Exile in Guyville nuggets like "6-foot-1," "Dance of the Seven Veils," "Never Said," and "Divorce Song," as well as "Supernova" and several songs from her new WhiteChocolateSpaceEggalbum. Erykah Badu followed with what may have been her first musical performance in Austin (certainly her first since superstardom), and came off as every inch the Egyptian soul goddess she projects: "Y'all know where I'm from," she asked. "That's right, I'm from Texas, and everything is bigger here. I have the biggest headwrap." She did, too, yellow, and she had the audience eating out of her hand, especially with the set-ending black male admonishment, "Tyrone." Raitt's set gave way to Natalie Merchant's next-to-last set, and for a performer who once
suffered extreme stage fright, Merchant and her Mexican Madonna outfit owned the Southpark Stage like Jerome Robbins on Broadway. McLachlan ended the evening with a huge crowd under a half moon singing nearly every word to each song offered: "Sweet Surrender," "Believe" (featuring Raitt's return-favor slide guitar), "Your Love Is Better Than Ice Cream," "Building a Mystery," and the grand finale of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" featuring most of the day's performers including local backstage guests Abra Moore and Kacy Crowley. Missing? Only a throng of beer-drinking frat boy gorillas and a perhaps a band like Garbage to illustrate that some girls wear a sneer on their lips just as fetching as flowers in their hair. - Raoul Hernandez


YES, ALAN PARSONS PROJECT

It's oft been pointed out that less is sometimes more. Well, sometimes it isn't, as evidenced by the Alan Parsons Project (or Alan Parsons' New Project, or Alan Parsons' Touring project, as it variously seems to be named) at the Backyard. A tight combo that played their set with the utmost professionalism, the APP couldn't stir up excitement with an electric spoon. Admittedly, they were at somewhat of a disadvantage as a live act; it would have added to the thrill of seeing a band that never tours if the average fan was, a) aware of what Parsons looks like, and b) knew what exactly it is he does in the band. As it was, they might just as well have sent along a good cover band. Unfortunately, the music was mostly limited to an obvious selection of radio-friendly hits like "Games People Play," obscuring what was unique about the Project and making them sound no more interesting than any other Eighties electro-pop band. When the members of Yes took the stage, the difference was like night and day - literally. As the sun had gone down between sets, one could actually pretend they were at a huge arena show during the band's heyday (Parsons and company were at a disadvantage, since in daylight, the Backyard has the atmosphere of a huge Shriners' picnic). Missing only original member Rick Wakeman, the mostly intact art-rockers put on a larger-than-life show that tempered the innate pretentiousness of the band with emphasis on the actually pleasant melodies that their intricate songs are built around. The orchestration of the set was so heavy that it was difficult to tell the Seventies classics from the newer material, but the balance of bombast and genuine friendliness (frontman Jon Anderson has managed to raise the craft of between-song patter from simple "Hello, Austin" to a genteel conversational art) made for an enjoyable evening, aided by the change in level brought about by having guitarist Steve Howe break things up with a solo mini-set of acoustic guitar. The only time the Austin audience seemed to be at all disdainful was during the band's official Eighties sellout number, "Owner of a Lonely Heart," wherein little patches of bobbing, excited younger attendees stuck out like sore thumbs among a sea of older "you don't dance to Yes!" types. I'd have to call this an impressive show, even for someone who's only familiar with about four or five of Yes' songs. Of course, as far as getting your money's worth, four or five songs by Yes adds up to about three Ramones concerts. - Ken Lieck


WOMAD USA

The World of Music, Arts, and Dance (WOMAD) is an umbrella organization whose primary goal is to showcase the world's cultures. You may not know WOMAD, but you've probably heard of one of its founders, Peter Gabriel, or its sister record label Real World Records. While WOMAD is quite successful in organizing festivals (since 1982 they have organized over 100 events in nearly 20 countries), the Seattle location marks its North American debut. And Seattle was indeed a wise choice for the festival's inaugural year: Emerald City residents eagerly attend two other stellar yearly festivals, Folklife and Bumbershoot (the latter organized by One Reel Productions, co-organizers of WOMAD USA), and the comfortable sunny weather, majestic trees, and stunning mountain backdrops make summertime in Seattle an earthly heaven. The pastoral Marymoor Park housed the festival's artist workshops, interviews and demonstrations, food booths, kids' arts and games, shaded lounging, international wares, and eight venues cram-packed with dancing and music. An obvious comparison is the country's premier cultural fest, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; and while WOMAD wasn't quite as massive as Jazz Fest, it hit the same: Passo A Passo, a Brazilian dance troupe that specializes in capoeira, a slavery-era combination of dance, acrobatics, and martial arts set to throbbing African rhythms; Tuatara, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink collaboration of musicians from Luna, Critters Buggin', Screaming Trees, and R.E.M.; and Ashley MacIsaac, a punk fiddler from Nova Scotia. And I missed those as I was busy checking out The Terem Quartet, an acoustic Russian string quartet known for tight interplay and mischievous re-arrangements of folk songs and Mozart; Joan Osborne jumping onstage with Spearhead frontman Michael Franti to sing a THC-frosted version of Steve Miller's "The Joker"; and the riveting emotive singing and nuclear booty-shaking sounds of Angolan Waldemar Bastos. Then there was Billy Bragg and Wilco's Woody Guthrie set, the five-octave vocal range of Tanzanian Hukwe Zawose, the Yiddish dancing glee of the Klezmatics, King Sunny Ade - well, you get the idea. And even with all these options the festival wasn't so packed as to overwhelm festival goers, a diverse-in-age-but-not-race group, from newborns trying to make sense of the bright colors and novel sounds, to golden agers soaking up the festival's laid-back, positive energy. If WOMAD USA needed a perfect ending note, it was Ravi Shankar's closing slot. The recital, featuring a standing ovation for his 17-year-old daughter Anoushka's sitar work, was held under a waxing moon, a moon that lilted above the 200-foot Douglas firs and deep blue mountains. Heaven on Earth. - David Lynch


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