Richard Thompson Live from Austin, TX (DVD, CD)
Son Volt Live from Austin, TX (DVD)
Lucinda Williams Live from Austin TX (DVD)
Not that there is anything wrong with being a hippie. Some of my best friends are hippies. But c'mon, people, you aren't sick of Bob Marley yet? What about CSN&Y? Those children have been taught as well as they are gonna get, OK? How much handmade jewelry are you going to fail to sell before you give it up? Anyway, I have on many occasion entertained the thought of going to some huge music festival, blowing my concert wad for the year on having all my favorites in one place, like they are at Bonaroo this year, but once analyzed, a few things obstruct my realization of this notion:
1) I can barely stand to go to the movies because of the invasion of strangers into my sphere. And those people are barred by social convention from reciting along with the film, in contrary to freedom one has to sing along with a band playing outside,
2) The sound is usually for shit at an outdoor concert, and I have lived enough life where being on the same acre of earth as members of My Morning Jacket doesn't really do it for me, and
3) A music festival is something like a Chinese buffet: The sweet and sour chicken is good, the noodles are good, but after the second plate, you are just going through the motions. Finally
4) The drugs that facilitate overcoming the above three look pathetic on a doughy music critic of my vintage.
Fortunately, the fine people from New West feel my pain. On the heels of their excellent Drive-By Truckers live DVD; they have released a series of live DVD and CD documents from Austin City Limits over the years to help you assemble your own personal fest with out having to wait in line to find out the portable toilet is broken.
The Richard Thompson concert (these are the entire performances, not the edited-down morsels available on the PBS series) , available on both CD and DVD, is from 2001, leans heavily on the newer, more straightforward rock that came with his last truly classic album Mock Tudor. Richard Thompson has always been a sticky one for me: I understand his veneration, and he's a formidable, singular guitar talent, but his albums often leave me rather lukewarm. Fortunately, this collection kicks out with my favorite song of his, "Cooksferry Queen," his voice sounding like an even more menacing Nick Cave without those glaring pitch black holes. 'Walking the Long Miles Home" is given a lilting buzzy turn.
There are great snakey noodly numbers like "Easy There Steady Now" that benefit from his understated sense of song and deft fingers, and some slow burners like "Persuasion" that suffer from his limited vocal range and lack of lyrical adroitness, but overall, this is a great introduction to that guy you've heard about all these years but never heard. His feathers get ruffled on the biting set "She Twists the Knife Again" (which unfortunately sounds datedly like Speaking in Tongues era Talking Heads) and the dark dark "Shoot Out The Lights" which is where his particular brand of guitar histrionics is given room to flare out. The concert closes out with a beautiful rendition of his Romeo and Juliet story "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Previously, I had only heard bluegrass legend Del McCory expertly do this number with his family band, but Thompson's heavy voice gives this song a gravitas befitting the battering ram of young love.
Now onto Son Volt. There is an almost clich?© view taken of the less flashier offspring of Uncle Tupelo is that they are both simultaneously awesome and boring - so prevalent is this sentiment that I approached this DVD of the 1996 appearance on the show as a nice thing to listen to, but wouldn't want to be there. And sure, they fit the four dudes-playing-instruments-on-stage that is the visual hallmark of many a group, but this is Austin City Limits, the sober music outlet of cool on PBS, often programmed to follow the Quaalude and cottage cheese compote of Lawrence Welk, not a fucking Gwar show. Like on their albums, they get right to it, the perfect interplay of non pyromaniac guitars and Jay Farrar's Chewbacca-like croon on the opening number "Route." Things start to flame up when Eric Heywood, the world's best pedal steel player ever, makes his appearance on "Loose String" and throughout the rest of the concert. He could accompany Andy Rooney reading a Boy Scout Manual and it would make your heart soar,
The problem with Son Volt for me is not that they are boring - I think their take on the late nineties alt guitar sound is the finest out there, and Jay's voice takes up the cosmic mumble from where Michael Stipe left it when he decided to start opening his mouth. No, the thing about Son Volt is that you feel they wrote four great songs, and they are on repeat through three albums at the tail end of the last century. But four is still a commendable record, celebrated composer Philip Glass only has three, and this makes for a pleasant listen. Give the above complaints, the songs run together for me, but the high points are the aforementioned "Loose String", the rip snort run of "Tear Stained Eye," and the banjo, deftly played by guitarist Dave Boquist, and pedal steel interplay on the folk-tinged "True to Slide" is simply delightful.
Dave trundles out a fiddle on "Windfall" much to the crowd's excitement, perhaps shocked by something actually happening on stage (OK, couldn't help it. I'll let it go now), but again, its Eric Heywood that steals the show sonically, just like he did when I saw him "support" my all time favorite mopey bohunk Richard Buckner in concert years ago. Their big rock song from the great era of college rock "Drown" is given a great rendition, and knowing where their bread is buttered, close the show with the Uncle Tupelo chestnut "Chickamauga" much to my and the audience's pleasure.
I feel I've been too harsh on this. Really, they are a crack band, and Jay Farrar goes for one of the best mixed concoctions of sound instead of the three-parts-brilliant/two-parts tedious flare of ego that is that other phoenix from Uncle Tupelo's ashes. I'm left thinking three things from this concert DVD:
1) I really really want the vintage VOX amp Farrar employs on stage and a lap steel, so if you have either lying around that you keep tripping over, contact the Outsideleft office and we'll talk.
2) I need to unearth my copy of Anodyne, UT's swan song and let it take residence in my stereo for yet another 3 month term of office
3) I'm going to get my guitar out and write a song, dammit. Anything that will inspire any of the above is definitely worth ones time.
Finally, we get to Lucinda Williams, who is rightfully one of the most respected voices in music right now. I have my wife to credit for turning me onto Lucinda early on before she went through a series of half hearted makeovers. The early Lucinda albums, Happy Woman Blues and Ramblin' released on the Smithsonian label, and rightfully so, since they are bedrock outcroppings of the indiscriminate molten core that solidifies into folk, country and rock depending on where its eruptions land. Later efforts have been some what hit and miss for me, but her misses are better than most hits, and her hits are out of the park.
This 1998 broadcast, around the time of her breakthrough album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road opens with the burbling blues lope of "Pineola" one of her many hard-luck ballads that can't be beat, with a swing as natural as the creak of a rocking chair. "Metal Firecracker," a song I thought a miss on the album mentioned above, here is rendered resplendent with a wash of Hammond B3 and that voice. Lucinda has an almost ghostly voice, haunting and undeniably familiar. "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" one of the finest songs she or anyone else has ever written is delivered in a deadpan that mirrors the harsh life it depicts
Can't find a damn thing in this place
Nothing's where I left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road
There goes the screen door slamming shut
You better do what you're told
When I get back this room better be picked-up
Car wheels on a gravel road
Its hard to give out highlights on this, because every song is just devastating, whether its the eagle soar of "Right on Time" or the slow-burn holler of "Drunken Angel" or the slow-dance simmer of "Still I Long for Your Kiss" or the buoyancy borne on loss and hope that is "Passionate Kisses" a song that went on to me a big country hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter. But my favorite song she does is the snarling honky tonk blues vamp "Changed the Locks" which she has in interviews claimed that Tom Petty does better, but here that theory is proven false. Also the trip down memory lane that is "Lake Charles" her Louisiana birthplace is an accordion (but not zydeco) saturated ballad about driving miles and miles through the swamp highways to Lafayette, a great party town whose special place in her heart I gleefully second.
Lucinda often gets lumped in with Alison Kraus and Linda Ronstadt as intelligent "single-lady" music as a friend dubbed it, but the pleasures of Lucinda should not be reserved just for lonely hearts in a clean apartment having a Carol Kane moment. I think she happens to be one of the best lyricists and singers going, and it would do your soul some good to check her out if you haven't. And this DVD is as good a place as any to start, since it offers up Lucinda without any of the studio dressing that sometimes holds her back.
And if your interest is piqued, I see on the New West website that they have released a 1986 concert from a lean and mean junkie era Steve Earle taht I remember containing a scorching rendition of "Copperhead Road" with Steve sweating so hard on his mandolin you get a contact high. And for eff-sake - support your local public station if they broadcast Austin City Limits. It's not the flashiest thing on TV, but it's the best for you.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com