"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." --Rainer Maria Rilke (©julenisse/Fotolia)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Doing Our Best to Keep Austin Weird—Part 1
Four Nights, Nine Bands

Fun destinations have slogans: The City That Never Sleeps. Virginia is for Lovers. (At least it used to be.) What Happens in Vegas…

…Keep Austin Weird. For a few days over Spring Break we did our best to do just that. Darling Daughter loves all things weird. My Beloved has been itching to get to the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, which is a little weird for the progeny of Goldwater Republicans. We all needed a change of scenery. It’s not that we’ve been buried under four feet of snow in sub-zero temperatures, but winter here is just so erratic—weeks of bleak, cold days, a teasingly warm day or two, an ice storm, a flood warning, bitter, biting wind. Overcast. Brown. Gray. We’d just seen (for the second time) the film Glory Road, where a coach tempts basketball recruits with the promise of more than 300 days a year of Texas sunshine. As a self-diagnosed victim of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), that was good enough for me. And the weather did not disappoint. Sunny, mid-70s, t-shirt weather.

Besides being “weird,” Austin is also billed as The Live Music Capital of the World. Despite having missed the famous SXSW music festival by several days, we had plenty of music to sample.

Disclaimer: I do not pretend to be any kind of authority on music. When I hear something, I either like it, or I don’t.

We don’t follow Country and don’t know anything about it, but on Night 1 we had to check out the Broken Spoke, which appears to be an authentic Texas dance hall. A local band hammed it up in the Spoke’s dining room and folks left their chicken fried steak to dance. The legendary Dale Watson kicked off his show at nine. The band wore black (a nod to Johnny Cash?). Out on the floor, the fellas wore western shirts, Wranglers and cowboy hats. What a blast to see so many two-stepping locals in their Tony Lamas twirling around the dance floor on a Wednesday night. We felt like we were on the set of Tender Mercies. And cool, country crooner Dale Watson? I can see why he’s often compared to Waylon and Willie and the boys…

It was on from there—what some might call from the sublime to the ridiculous, or vice versa. For me, it was all sublime. Does that make me weird?

We knew we had to visit Antone’s, Austin’s self-proclaimed home of the blues, the place that spawned the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan. We went on Night 2—where a San Francisco indie band called Halou opened for alternative rocker Bob Mould. (What? No blues?!) It was a surprisingly easy transition from the toe-tapping, gentle country strains of the previous evening to Mould’s aggressive, edgy and ear-splitting set. Instead of gliding cowboys, there were actually grown men in front of the stage jumping up and down like tweens at a Hannah Montana concert.

Night 3 found us in the SoCo (South Congress) neighborhood at the Continental Club, where the bouncer appeared to have spent many hours at the tattoo parlor next door, or perhaps he was getting ready to launch the Austin version of Miami Ink. The Blues Specialists play there for Happy Hour on Fridays. The Continental is a lively, crowded dive (it would be smoky if that were allowed), where people squeeze onto a tiny dance floor with beers in their hands while some shoot pool in the back room--the perfect way to kick off a weekend in Austin.

Darling Daughter and my Beloved continued on later to Emo’s for two different bands. DD clearly liked the music better than her dad, who described what he heard as “alternative with a hint of punk,” and admitted to standing cross-armed and decidedly not toe-tapping during the second act. Dad did appreciate the cheap soft drinks, however, and was surprised (disappointed?) to see only one dyed, spiky faux-hawk. I love this bit on Emo’s website: “And don't let the doormen scare you--some of them are really nice guys (it says so in the women's bathroom).”

Night 4 brought us back to Antone’s for the “Guitar Women”—a night of blues and folksy bluesy rock. Happily it wasn’t just a chick crowd as tons of men also seemed to appreciate these ultra-talented women. (A bunch of locals applauded an aged, dapper man who shuffled in just before the show began. Was that Pinetop Perkins?) Blues chanteuse Lou Ann Barton kicked off ladies night. I really liked her but DD didn’t (generation gap?). Barton’s most amusing lyric: “You can have my husband, but please don’t mess with my man…” She yielded the floor to the amazing Sue Foley (a redheaded guitar player like DD) and a group of extraordinary women who’ve been touring together, including bass player/songwriter Sarah Brown, Cindy Cashdollar on steel guitar and drummer Lisa Pankratz. A few other women joined in after we called it a night. We were out of steam, but these gals were not! As Jim Caligiuri wrote on his Austin Chronicle music blog:

“It's noteworthy that in a genre overflowing with testosterone, none was present on stage Saturday. Yet, in Foley and friends’ capable hands, the blues was alive and thrilling, the equal to anything the boys could have laid down.”

We paid a range of cover charges at the clubs we went to: Nothing for Happy Hour at the Continental Club, only 5 bucks at the Spoke. $18 for Bob Mould, $15 for the Guitar Women, and $8 at Emo’s. We certainly got more than our money’s worth.

All the clubs let our 15-year-old in with us. She’s still trying to get the huge indelible X’s off her hands. Marked with a Sharpie (black, green, purple), the X’s alerted bartenders that she is under age. The adults got wristbands or hand stamps; at the Continental Club we were rubber stamped with “Fuck Cancer.” That’s kind of weird… but then again, it’s Austin.

Coming soon: Doing Our Best to Keep Austin Weird—Part 2 “When in Rome… er, Austin”

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