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

Friday, June 03, 2005

Just ask Mark Ambrose: Which was cooler? Playing guitar on the most recent Gillian Welch CD, or having Gillian and David Rawlings (who produced) play on your new CD? Put the Hammer Down, released on Redbird Records, also has photos by Gillian and Deb Ambrose, and the cover art is by Austin's own Cheryl Latimer. Mark wrote all 12 songs (Redbirds with Pam Bailey) - and, folks, you can pick up your copy at all appropriate outlets.

Anyone who has heard Mark Ambrose sing and play knows two things - first, he is a FINE guitar player; second, the twinkle in his eye reveals a man who enjoys telling a story. Those who know him well know he likes vinyl records and is not afraid to hoof it up with his pals on the dance floor - even though down deep one senses he is a little shy and self-deprecating. Yet this is a guy who belongs on a big stage in front of a big crowd -- he's every bit as good as Greg Brown as a folksinger and songwriter. Someone needs to put this guy on TV.

The songs make this CD a must have -- from "Kingsville Girl," which blends south Texas images with a little bit of the Kingstown sound, to "K-I-S-S-I-N-G," in which Mark opens with "Flowers bloom in the spring, wedding bells for lovers ring, ships that sail the seven seas, darling how about you and me?" How about you and me sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g?" Yet another unashamedly romantic ballad is "My Little Girl," which once again reminds you that this is a man in love with his woman (and for very good reason).

Then there are the epic songs - "Banks of Jordan" - with the refrain (with Gillian and David), "no no never no more, no never no more, washed upon the banks of Jordan, no no never no more." Mark's wistful harmonica ensures the timelessness of this song, as we really begin to step back in time to a simpler world that he has already revealed in the opening numbers.

"Hallelujah" - in which Mark ends with a story about finding a dog in the middle of the road and stopping to help the creature get back on its feet. At first he did not even look like a dog, he looked like an overcoat. This is another anthem that begs you to sing along on the chorus, "Hallelujah, for letting my soul know, Hallelujah, for letting the time go."

And "Old Willie the Outlaw," which recounts a legendary tale of the legendary king of Texas music found "somewhere south of Waco on a moonlit Texas road" on the side of the highway after catching a little buzz.

"Can't Lie to Mama" MUST be a hundred years ago (which is typical of many of Mark's songs - you find yourself surprised that the song is not in public domain but one of his own) -- the best place to hear songs like these is out on a grassy plain on a cool (or warm) evening as the music comes from a distant festival stage in waves that make you swing and sway - or up close and personal in a backyard song swap.

As good as all the other songs are, for me, the crowning moment of this set of music is the haunting "Redbirds," which tells of a man who will be coming home when the cardinals winter in Valero. How beautiful is a West Texas in which "To the tree outside your window, (you) don't need no telephone line, forty thousand years of painted sunsets get you there by and by." The cardinals, he tells us, have "duct-tape wings, wax and feathers, how they fly, with a sigh" that you can hear in Mark's mournful harmonica. By contrast, the funniest thing Mark ever heard "was a cottonmouth imitating a mockingbird," one of the lines in the rockin' "Uh-huh."

I spent dozens of dozens of hours in the Sixties listening to the early Bob Dylan - before he turned electric - I can spend hours upon hours listening to Mark Ambrose, whose music works its magic on the spirit better than any meaningless mantra could ever do. Listening to Put the Hammer Down three or four times through is cheaper than the finest massage and yet leaves you with a comforted heart and a satisfied mind.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Steve Ulrich (aka Zues Muldoon, Steve Duckfoot, Steve Convenience) is back in town from his new home in Guatemala to make a new recording (tentatively, "Leadbelly and Me") and to play and sing for and with his old friends in Austin. [Steve was my daughter Susan's favorite Austin singer songwriter.] Tonight he rounded up a bunch of old friends to celebrate at Trophy's (where he had a residency about three years ago that lasted quite a long while) - Thursday he is playing at Maria's Taco X-Press with PJ Lyles and Steelbeam, and Friday he's right back at Maria's with Leeann Atherton and friends. Future Austin dates are uncertain, though he will be recording in town - later, he will be out in the Portland, Oregon, area for another special event in his life. The new grandfather (son Quin and his lovely wife are now three) is looking younger and singing better than ever. Anyone who has never heard "Salamander Man," "Western Man," or any of a number of Steve's quirky songs (or any of his straight-on songs - both groups have deeper meaning than the laughs that some of them generate) would do well to check out his new website (www.steveulrich.com), pick up one of his hard to get CD's, or just go hear him live.

In the house with Steve tonight were Mark Ambrose, Matt Williams, and others to be named later. Mark's brand-new CD, "Put the Hammer Down," with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, is now available (artwork by Cheryl Latimer) - and it is sensational. We are not yet ready to review (other than to say that "Kingsville Girl" is wonderful and "Banks of Jordan" (no, no never no more) needs to be heard as sung by Mark with an audience of thousands singing with him on the chorus. Mark (www.markambrose.com) will be on tour most of the summer, playing in Chicago, Madison, Nashville, and all over North Carolina, but he will be part of a night of music at Threadgill's World HQ on June 14 - that will be a good place to pick up the new CD.

Earlier in the evening, we stopped by the Austin Songwriters Group showcase at Threadgills' WHQ, thanks to an invite from Brent Allen, a songwriter in his own right but working as vice president of the group. Brent will also be a judge at the finals competition for the Texas Country Shootout (sponsored by KVET and others) at Midnight Rodeo on Friday. First up for the evening's open mike was one of the finalists on Friday, Will Jansen (a Stephenville native). We liked his song, "Rodeos and Dirty Clothes" (don't make a man) - and he has a nice strong voice. This guy would have done well on Nashville Star, we think. Others on the bill included Jimi Lee (harmonica player and guitarist who spent many a year in Hawaii and at least two afternoons with the Harmonica Organization of Texas local chapter benefits), Lubbock native Kim Townsend (who's playing at Saradora's in Round Rock on Friday), and Heidi Little. Kim (www.kimtownsend.net) sang (I love you in your "Birthday Suit" and a new song, "Who Cares?" - the former from her CD Wayworn Traveler. Featured performers (we could not stick around due to our other commitment) for the evening were Dale Watson, Haydn Vitera (new CD nearly ready), and Jason Allen (who's playing Gruene Hall on June 16 - see www.jasonallenband.com ). Jason introduced us to Angela-Marie Lampton of Sunfire Entertainment, who it turns out is a friend of my old buddy Joe Stampley (and his son Tony, a bigtime Nashville songwriter, and the whole family). Haydn tells me that as of June 23, Club One 15 will be setting aside Thursdays for Spanish language rock and roll -- and that ought to be a lot of fun here.

Yesterday (Tuesday), I went on a long drive up to North Louisiana (taking my mom back home), and we were going up IH-35 to IH-20 and got almost to Terrell when the road construction stopped everyone in their tracks, so we decided to hop the exit and go up to old Highway 80. What a beautiful road, with very little traffic and a lot of scenery. We got to Gladewater (reminding me of a Michelle Shocked song), then drove up to Gilmer (Michelle's hometown) and over to old Jefferson, where we stopped in at Auntie Skinner's Riverboat Inn for a bite to eat. This place - which hosts live music three nights a week - is in a building maybe 150 years old and it is HUGE. Just another of the many hidden music halls that in a better day would be hosting traveling bands and putting them up and feeding them (maybe even today).

So we picked up the local paper and read about a metal sculpture in Minden, Louisiana, honoring native son and legendary bluesman Percy Mayfield (whose trademark song, "Please Send Me Someone to Love," has been covered by God knows how many famous folk and who also wrote the lyrics to "Hit the Road, Jack" for Ray Charles). The "poet laureate of the blues" was badly disfigured in an auto accident in 1952 but continued writing and performing until his death in 1984. Of course, Mayfield had to leave Louisiana in the 1940's to find his niche in the music scene, but today he is being honored and lionized - and is the subject of a new short film, "Where's Percy?," produced by Cultural Crossroads (a local arts group there).

Just a few miles away, folks in Shreveport are getting ready to honor one of their native sons, the legendary guitarist James Burton (who's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Elvis' guitarist), with a sculpture by Shreveport native Eric Kaposta, who has already graced the city with a bronze statue of Elvis (who 50 years ago debuted at Municipal Auditorium and was a frequent headliner at the Louisiana Hayride in his early days). Burton, very much alive and kicking (he fairly recently played the Continental Club here, for example), will be hosting the James Burton International Guitar Festival in Shreveport on August 19-21. This festival is Burton's way of raising money for the James Burton Foundation, whose goal is to provide musical scholarships and instruments to children and young adults.

Among the guitarists who hail from Shreveport are Austin's own Papa Mali and Pat McCann and Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the late Tommy Tomlinson (of Tom and Jerry, but also the guitarist for Johnny Horton and other major stars of that era). Burton has yet to post the artists who will be performing at the August event, but trust us when we say that this could be a "must" event for music junkies as well as an opportunity to participate with a legend in something pretty darn good.

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