Flanfire (Duggan Flanakin) is bringing LIFE to Austin music -- and telling the world how sweet it is!

Monday, February 23, 2004

David O. Russell [Texas schools need our help, not courts’, Austin American-Statesman, February 23, 2004] has a point when he says that “... we need to see beyond special interests and keep our eyes on the big picture: education excellence.” Russell is speaking about the need for Texans to determine for themselves how to restructure public school finance to ensure that taxpayers will get a better product.

Russell continues in a good vein in stating that past achievements in bolstering student performance “should only be a first step in our quest for a better public education system.” He is also correct in stating that, “Educators and schools must be provided with the tools, programs, and dollars to help ... students reach their potential and beyond.”

But Russell stops far short of even asking the questions state leaders need to be asking about the future of Texas public education. For example, does the structure of the typical public school district in Texas really work for today’s families and students? For example, should we relocated elementary classrooms closer to homes, to jobs, to churches with after-school care? Do high school schedules provide enough opportunities for students to experiment with elective courses to help them find a niche?

A major concern should be the number of students who decide for a wide variety of reasons that the public school system just does not work for them. Some of our high schools are the size of small cities. While this might make for higher quality football teams and other elites, does it really work for everyone? International studies suggest that smaller student bodies may be much better at addressing the needs and concerns of the majority of students.

The sad fact is that individual parents have little opportunity to seek out schools whose structures, programs, and policies provide the best type of learning environment for their own children. Meanwhile, schools segregate children by age and (effectively) by clique, leaving parents ill equipped to combat the stereotypes that their children’s schools enforce.

If Texas really wants to improve the quality of education statewide, the state will do well to provide universal vouchers, with larger vouchers for children with disabilities or special needs (language development, for example). Such a scheme would enable parents and education pioneers to work together to create schools that work better for their children than the ones we have today. Not everyone would immediately choose this path, but that would not be so bad.

To be really creative, school districts could simply lease out classrooms (if space is available) to alternative education providers, and we could even create education cooperatives in which students massed at a single location would be eligible for common participation in extra-curricular activities (such as sports, music, and even academic competitions).

The basic point is to empower teachers and parents to be stronger partners in the education of children under their mutual care. Today’s system creates barriers between parents and those directly in charge of overseeing their children’s education - to the extent that parents are at a major disadvantage. If the school is unresponsive, they must grin and bear it unless they are wealthy enough to relocate or choose a private school for their children.

As our children grow older, many become much more independent (for various reasons) and may even have to work to help pay family bills. Others may have severe emotional problems, while still others are victims of harassment and worse from fellow students. Yet most face the sole choice of dropping out entirely or submitting to unworkable situations while trying to gain the credentials of a high school diploma. Is there any wonder so many are resorting to the General Equivalency Diploma?

Public schools typically use statistical tricks to deny the obvious - senior classes typically far fewer students than freshman classes. In a study I did of Arkansas schools, the greatest disparities between freshman and senior classes were in the university city of Fayetteville. Huge numbers of students in the northwestern suburbs of Houston, a fairly wealthy area, are leaving public high schools - largely because they have rightly discerned that they are not really wanted.

Just imagine the changes that could take place if parents and their children could work together to choose learning environments that work best for their children. Just imagine the changes that could occur if teachers could band together to form schools that dynamically meet the real-world needs of these parents and children (including teenagers).

Today, if a child has bad experiences at a school, the parent can do little to make that child’s school experience much better. This can yield huge buildups in tension in the home, and many parents who already feel powerless to help their children with their education or even with their personal development find themselves even more powerless against a bureaucracy that gives them little choice but to kowtow to their children’s masters.

It is also true that people with a real stake in outcomes are more willing to invest themselves in the processes that lead to those outcomes. This is very true of parents given the opportunity and the responsibility to help choose their children’s education structures, teachers, and even educational goals. Let a thousand flowers bloom! Liberate Texas schools as part of the education finance reform initiative, and we will more easily expect academic performance to rise.
Got up early and trekked down to Maria's to fulfill a promise to Karen and catch her gig with the Dimestore Poets. That Tarheel Billy Mutschler always puts on a great show, and Larissa's vocals are also a plus -- but adding Karen makes things even better. Maria herself was there in all of her radiance, along with various other friends who I have been seeing around lately. Debbie related how the Poets had played at her daughter's wedding last summer, and what a wonderful job they had done. Billy bought me a cup of coffee and told me how he had moved down to South Austin six years ago from Connecticut and found a home here. He's from Wake Forest, North Carolina, and went to UNC in Chapel Hill. Wants to return home there someday - loves the seashore and the mountains and the music. Has a degree in American History. Has a new CD coming out - and one already available for those who like good acoustic music. The new one, though, has a full band sound on some tracks and vocals by Ms. Mal on a couple.

Did I mention my migas plate?

As the Poets' set was winding down, I noticed Gurf Morlix and then Carolyn Wonderland and Buddha Mills of the Imperial Golden Crown Harmonizers lurking in the shadows awaiting their setup time. When I asked her about her recent gig at First Baptist Church downtown, Carolyn said she had been a little scared at first but then the people started singing along and it was all good! Expect her to be back there again soon. Gurf just finished up producing a new record for Bob Schneider, and he opened with a Bob Schneider gospel song. Another Ray Wylie CD is on the horizon as well. After Nick Connelly, Gurf, and Buddha got the show going, Carolyn stepped up and did a rendition of I Shall Not Be Moved that brought the crowd to a burst of applause. The only way to follow that spirited spiritual effort was for Nick to belt out those immortal words: I used to smoke, I used to drink .... (but now) I'm saved! After dancing a couple of numbers with Maria and Bruce and Laura (and Bruce's son Micah, down from Waco), I had to depart for the homestead and my handsome grandson. The dancers gave a great report of the Mardi Gras party they had been to the night before, and other friends recounted the Cannibals festivities on Saturday. I also got to see the projected cover art for the forthcoming Leeann Atherton CD -- that's the long-awaited followup to Lady Liberty that Leeann promises will be out soon.

Austin is a GREAT city -- because of the great people, some of whom I visited with today. I have already had people respond wanting to help some of the friends I spoke of in yesterday's blog. So I have an inspiration. No Names, and No Easy Giveaways, but stories you may want to share about friends in need. Drop me a line (at dflanakin@austin.rr.com) and I will post stories, and see what happens.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Today was a day of reflection -- of years gone by and futures to wonder about. Alcohol and perhaps some pharmaceuticals of a legal kind may have combined to put a friend in jail a while back after she was found by police driving on the wrong side of Burnet Road without lights on late in the evening and then turning onto a side street and hitting a car. She has absolutely no memory of the entire incident, but now she has come to terms with both the legal problems her blackout has caused her and the spiritual problem that the alcohol was masking. Another friend called from California with a "good" report - which in reality means no new bad news. She is living out on a large sheep ranch far from public transportation and without a working vehicle and with no telephone, no Internet, and sometimes not even running water. Another old friend is in the throes of an ugly family breakup that makes no real sense but has roots in some bad things that happened when the husband who was then working for a NASA contractor tried to get attention focused at higher levels that there were some real problems with the space program. Rather than listen to his concerns, NASA blackballed him, and later several of his friends were blown into eternity after the Challenger took off. It is hard to fully recover from such a terrible blow - to know that your warnings were not heeded and that people died as a result.

How many times have I failed to take good advice? How many times have I failed to give it - or to demonstrate how to live right in order to gain credence for what I might have had to say? So now I want to start a new paper for Austin - one that looks at today's divisive issues and tries to find bridges for people to cross to find common ground while they work out their differences on matters of real disagreement. Do we really have to call each other bad names? Would our children approve? Does it make us look powerful and wise - or just afraid that our arguments, our ethical positions, our proposed solutions to the world's problems are woefully inadequate? So do we shout and curse to avoid scrutiny of our own ideas, our own lives?

There is so much honest effort going on here in Austin and elsewhere that needs to be reported - so much creativity that needs to be discovered, but even moreso multiplied. Creative art and music and such, to be sure, but also creativity in teaching hard case children how to become winners in life, helping broken people learn how to build successful llives, cutting through red tape and intransigence in bureaucracies to accomplish changes that really will improve our quality of life, fascinating scientific research endeavors being carried out sometimes by the very young or otherwise outside the scope of normal public scrutiny, and even the work of inventors and much, much more.

The fundamental ethic of this proposed paper would be the building of real community across cultural, racial, political, social, and other lines that divide us as a city, a state, a nation, a world. But real community building need not require us to forfeit our own heritages, our own world views, our own joys and sorrows. It really starts with learning to listen with discretion and learning to express ourselves more clearly.

One idea for example is to look at how well our public and private institutions are really serving us and what we could recommend to improve that service. Another is to learn to recognize why instant gratification does not always produce a positive result down the road -- so that we learn to wait for the best to emerge before we settle for mediocre.

Well, it is late and I digress, but do consider what might be missing from the public discourse in the current collection of Austin newspapers and magazines, and let me know what you would like to see and how you would like to see it covered. Heck, you might even want to become a contributor.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

WOW -- what an evening. Just shows to go you that here in Austin, some of the BEST MUSIC you can find can be at a local diner without a real stage and with no cover charge (tip well, friends)!

After watching the obligatory Joan of Arcadia (new episode), I fulfilled my promise to Karen Mal and trekked down to Waterloo Ice House on 38th Street to catch her gig with Jenny Reynolds. Oh, well. It did not hit me that this was THE Jenny Reynolds from Boston whose lovely voice I used to hear on KPFT when I lived in Houston. Nor did I recognize bassist Will Landon as THE Will Landon of the Jimmy LaFave Band until he strapped on his bass. Then there was the surprise visit by Kerrville (and Texas songwriter) legend Rex Foster, who says he is trying to get Karen to join him on an upcoming tour sometime. Fiddler Martin Norgaard joined Karen for two short sets, and Karen and Will joined Jenny for two short sets, and another Austin songwriter, Kerry Polk, ran the sound while members of the Folk Alliance sat at tables to enjoy the shows. Karen, in case you did not know it, has this voice that suddenly reaches into the upper ranges of human vocal tones and shines through the night, taking listeners back to a simpler time.

I cannot say it any better than Michael Jaworek of the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia (one of my old stomping grounds): Karen Mal 's songs are like the old time remedy that mixed honey and lemon....They are sweet without being precious and have a lasting bite to them that makes them both memorable and good for you. Add a voice to match, and you have a musical panacea, curing our ills and adding to the grace of living.

But as good as Karen is as a songwriter and singer, she may be even better as a backup singer and mandolinist in the folk vein. (She also just got back from a cruise playing Irish music and is an accomplished actor and all-round theater person -- and, as many of my friends continue to remind me, she is lovely to look at, easy on the eyes.)

After Karen's first set, which included Gibraltar Road and Rosalie from her new CD Mercury's Wings, it was Jenny's turn. She brought Karen up to play and sing with her and Will - and we got to hear songs from her new CD, Bet on the Wind (including the title track) and her first CD, Colored in Poetry (and this former high school English teacher is indeed a poetess). Jenny told me she moved here last August (presumably after Kerrville) at the behest of Paul Barker and the Southwest Folk Alliance folks -- great recruiters, one must say.

In their second sets, Karen sang Mercury's Wings and Jenny sang a song about her mom called "She." But what can one say? Karen got Rex up to sing two songs - one he said was inspired by a challenge to write a song from an old man's perspective - I think the title is I Remember When I Was Young - and the other may be titled Every Time - and it speaks about the power to forgive. Blown Away is an understatement -- I must stock up on this man's work. [For the record, he also makes jewelry for the stars and anyone who likes that sort of stuff - bolos, chokers, necklaces, and much more.] While sitting at table together, Rex mentioned a musician he knows who said he would not go to California to play because he feared getting arrested for smoking a cigarette. True story.

Later, chatting with Kerry Polk, she noted that David Hamburger and Catherine Berry (see prior post) play and sing (respectively) on her forthcoming CD, and that my young pal Bonnie Whitmore has recorded one of Jenny's songs (Was It You?) for the forthcoming Bonnie and Blythe CD (at least I think it is the duo CD and not some other new Bonnie only CD). It IS a small world - and a wonderful one.

OH -- Jenny and Karen will be traveling together for joint gigs in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Oklahoma City, and Wichita and Lawrence, Kansas starting next Wednesday -- so if you have any friends in those cities who love folkish music, send them an e-mail directing them to just go. It WILL be worth it.

Friday, February 20, 2004

So much has been happening, yet so little time to write. Let me back up a bit and rehash. On Tuesday, February 10, we stopped at Threadgill's North to see Brennen Leigh - with David Hamburger as special guest. David, for those who are not in the know, has toured with Joan Baez and is married to the wonderful Catherine Berry (see her one-woman show in April at the Blue Theater). He also has a new band - the Grassy Knoll Boys (www.grassyknollboys.com) - that plays real bluegrass, with David on dobro and resonator guitar.

On February 15, we started the day by visiting with Cade Callahan at the gospel brunch at Threadgill's. Later, after stopping by my friend Steve Urlich's to celebrate his birthday, I went to the barn dance, which featured Guy Forsyth and a band that included girlfriend Wendy Colonna (from Lake Charles), Ann-Marie Harrop (the Bayou Huntress from, well, Monroe), George Rarie on guitar, former Carolyn Wonderland drummer Eldridge Goins (a Texas country boy who also writes great jazz-influenced songs of his own), and Kole El-Salah (also of the Carolyn Wonderland band today) on keyboards. We rocked and danced and partied hardy -- it was the first decent evening after two weeks of cold, wet, wet, wet weather.

On February 17, we chose to go to the Warehouse District to the Ginger Man to hear a special concert by Slaid Cleaves and his current band - Rick Richards on drums (from Ray Wylie Hubbard's band), Ivan Brown on bass (literally ON the bass for some songs, including his own He's Old, He's Six!), Michael O'Connor on guitars (one of our cruisemates), and Jeff Plankenhorn who should have been on dobro but he left it at home, so he just played the standup lap steel and guitars). We ran into the lovely and talented Karen Mal in the audience - she's now playing with the Dimestore Poets in addition to her own gigs - and quaffed some very cold, very tasty draft brew.

The next evening we dropped by Artz' Rib House for dinner and a short visit with Shelley (the mom-to-be) and Floramay (the bride-to-be). And last night we were treated by my man Ryan Cornelius, chief cook and bottlewasher at Alamo Drafthouse Village and my son-in-law, to Fifty First Dates and some of Buster's Crab Cakes at the Alamo. Yummm!! I also trekked out to the far hinterlands of Round Rock (near the Dell Diamond) to find that Jackson's band was NOT playing at Pardner's -- a long, long story.

It has been relatively quiet musically of late, but in the next few weeks Floramay, Slaid, and others will be releasing new music -- and then, of course, there is Not SXSW and SXSW itself!

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Friday night and what to do? Clearly obvious - take the wife to Central Market to see Natalie Zoe and her four-piece jazz band. Good choice - especially because the band is ON, Nat is hot, and best of all she has special guests singing with her. That would be the one, the only Miss Donna Hightower - who in her seventies has a voice that makes Sarah Vaughan seem boring. Great news! Someone has been transcribing Donna's old LP's (many of them available only in Europe, where she lived for three decades after spending some time in Texas in 1959 after completing her leg of a tour with B. B. King). Two of them will soon be available - including the 1959 debut album - and more later. Also on stage for part of the show were Nat's 15-year-old daughter Sasha Ortiz and her pal Danielle. All of the women really rocked out! Great show.

Earlier in the week we stopped by Threadgill's on North Lamar to catch Brennen Leigh and her band -- with special guest Tom Pittman of the Austin Lounge Lizards. Threadgill's World HQ waiter and San Angelo native Dylan McDougall sat in and offered up three or four of his fine fine original ballads.

And I almost forgot to mention that last Sunday, we went out to the Blue Theater to catch part of Frontera Fest - this was choreographer-dancer Ellen Bartel's Black Things, which featured good friends Amy Cone (who is also in the Body Choir) and Ceci Proeger (whose husband Mark is on staff at Hope Chapel in my neighborhood). This is a very avant garde production set mostly in very dark lighting. There is some funny stuff and some very heavy stuff -- but it was a fabulous production. Earlier we also went to the Blue Theater to see 10 independent choreographers (including pal Genie Barringer) perform four 1-minute dances, some with extra dancers. This was an interesting show as well. In April, I understand, my pal Catherine Berry will be performing her one-woman show at the Hyde Park Theater.

No time for more right now.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

January has come and gone - and at long last I am back with time to write. Caleb has learned to crawl, and his mommy is back in college full time - while his daddy got a promotion at work. His aunt Payton in Florida got a new job, but will still be coming with her whole family to the big Melody-Ryan marriage celebration on March 25. So will Caleb's aunt Genevieve and her hubbie who live in Arizona. Our family is soooooo scattered but sooooo close! Caleb's great-grandma had a great time during his visit to her three weeks ago - and so did several of her friends, who came by to bless and behold the child!

Now to the music. Tonight we stopped by Ruta Maya to pay our respects to the memory of Michael David Fuller - whom Austin knew as Blaze Foley. The music we heard was wonderful, especially Mandy Mercier's set during which she talked about her days as Blaze's girlfriend and benefactress. We had to leave just before Gurf Morlix came on, and there was a lot more great music still to be played, but the place was packed and the love was flowing. Filmmaker Kevin Triplett, who is doing a documentary on Foley's life and times, was hosting the show, and we learned from the Statesman today that the son of legendary filmmaker Gordon Parks (Shaft, for one) has written a script with the working title, "If Only I Could Fly" - after one of Blaze's most often recorded songs.

Mandy was also the star of the show last Monday at Threadgill's World HQ, where she formed a faux version of Big Brother and the Holding Company and did her own best impersonation of Janis Joplin, belting out hit after hit while Marvin Dykhuis and an all-star band (from Love Janis and Always Patsy Cline) rocked the house. The only wrong thing about the show was the absence of thousands of Austin music lovers who could have been elevated by hearing this former Threadgill's Troubadour but who have forgotten (or never even knew) just what a treat it is to hear Mandy sing when she is ON!

The previous Saturday I had the opportunity to hear David Hamburger's new band - the bluegrass group that calls itself the Grassy Knoll Boys (that's www.grassyknollboys.com to the computer literate). They were playing outside at Mother Egan's while the Brennen Leigh Band was playing inside (OK, the club double booked!). Brennen, BTW, along with Nacogdoches native Sheila Marshall (also living in Austin these days), will be competing in Nashville later this month to become a housemate during the Nashville Star competition that once again will have our own Charlie Robison as one of the judges. Word is that one lucky contestant may get to do a duet with Willie Nelson. Watch for the show on USA Network!

And did I mention that South Austin favorite Steve Ulrich is back in town for a while? The author of such unforgettable songs as Salamanderman and Westernman just returned from Guatemala, where his son Quin got married to a local beauty. Steve has a bucketload of new songs, and a forthcoming website that will focus on his subatomic particles for peace campaign. OK, our personal favorite is still Swedes from Minnesota!

Finally, one has to brag about being invited to the PARTY OF THE YEAR! The Michael John Jackson 33-1/3 birthday bash at the home of a famous South Austin musician and his fabulous dancer wife. Not only did the daring duo and Jackson himself hook up to perform as the Minor Miracles (stepping lively to a Smokey Robinson tune), the dance contests (including the Freeze) featured some of Austin's loveliest songbirds. We cannot mention any names (to protect the fun-loving), but suffice it to say that a lot of great bands were not working that evening. You can hear Jackson every Friday (with Leeann Atherton) at Maria's Taco X-Press and Wednesdays (for a while, at least) at some club downtown. For details, go to www.aberknows.com.

The Deep Thought of the Day -- Just read the Sermon on the Mount -- and study the meaning of Matthew 5:25-34. The secret of life (in part) is revealed here - that God has provided all of our needs if we are able to hear His voice by living according to the Spirit. And that requires dying to our own selves and living to serve the needs of others. Of course, while the plate is set for us, we have to eat what is put in front of us.

My friend Malcolm Welbourne the other day provided his own version of this truth - He said that he is trying to teach his children that striving after success is not the path to success, but rather those who take care of their primary responsibilities will find that their fondest dreams can and will come true.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?