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

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Josh Zee and Teal Collins formed the Mother Truckers a few years back while in their native California (or is it Cal-forlornia? where you cannot escape the hotel?). A decade ago, Josh was the lead singer and songwriter for the rock group Protein traveling around the country with the Warped Tour with bands like Limp Bizkit, Blink 182, and Social Distortion (one of my favorites). Teal grew up listening to the jazz her disc jockey dad Al "Jazzbeaux" Collins played on the radio and going to concerts and hanging out backstage with the likes of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. At the tender age of 17 she was singing professionally, and it was not long before she became a top backup singer for R&B and rock and roll alike (from Motown to Third Eye Blind).

The pair hooked up in the late Nineties and eventually formed The Mother Truckers as a San Francisco country band featuring covers of rock anthems (such as TNT from AC/DC) and their own quirky originals - with themes of Jesus, suicide, alcohol, and methamphetamine and a whole lot more. Metro Santa Cruz, back in 2003, asked how "this bunch of ex-rockers figure(d) out how to write great country songs? Plenty of booze, plenty of drugs and plenty of disappointment. "I think maybe at this point," (said) Collins, "Josh and I have been doing the music thing for so long, suffering through band after band, that you're familiar with disappointment. When you're 17, you're like, 'This band I'm in now is gonna be it, I'm gonna be a rock star!' Now we're familiar with the devastations year in and year out--and I think that's why Josh and I can hopefully write a good country song."

And so, San Fran not being the veritable home of pure country, the pair packed up their belongings (after five years and a couple of records) and headed to paradise (er, Austin). It was not long before they hooked up with the venerable Kim Deschamps and began their search for a drummer and bassist (as they had left their old ones behind in Callie). They ended up with fellow (but Southern) Californian Pete "the Beat" Langhans (whom I first met at Jovita's as he was playing a gig with Aaron Hamre) and Leslie McCurdy (recently of the Downliners), and soon after began plotting their first PURE AUSTIN CD - and folks just gotta be glad they did!

Right off the bat, the band gets it going with a tune they recently debuted on KGSR - "No Mercy" begs, "Lord, please take me home, my load's too much to bear, lie me down in green pastures, till I have not a care." Yes, this song says life is just too hard, and the singer wants to "Walk out of the darkness, walk out of the light, walk out of those mortal coils that have been wound too tight."

"Nothing There" also has biblical references. "When Moses parted the Red Sea that was nothing, [but] when I believed the lie that you fed me, that was something.... What did you say? Lord, I got myself knocked out today.... Why did you tell me you loved me ... when you knew there was nothing there?" Not even Eve taking a bite of the apple compares with his (her?) belief (now dashed) that they were going to the chapel (haha - fooled him - or her!). It does not take long for the uninitiated to realize that Josh Zee is a "mother trucker" of a guitar player who ranks up there with Eddie Van Halen in California lore. Not even David's slaying of Goliath compares with the discovery of unfaithfulness by our protagonist.

The title cut should be a familiar theme with all too many musicians -- "Landlord's been by, I'm tellin' him lies ... he don't want to let us be." We have "nothing to show for a life so back breaking," but even with all the struggles, we're "broke, not broken." This song ought to be a hit -- because so many of us relate to it -- even though most of us would not "join a cult just to save up some money" [what cult do we know that does not TAKE everything you earn?]. Here you get some salty dobro from Kim Deschamps .. "that's what I'm talking about," says Josh in the deep background.

Next up is "Passing By Again," which speaks of the human condition ... which no one escapes. This is Josh tearing it up on vocals ... "all my life passing by" is more like Gram Parsons than just about any other song on this CD, and yes it has Kim on pedal steel. The break here is pure boogie -- serious honky tonk guitar. But it is on "Slipping Away" that we really get the picture of just how good a singer Teal is -- This is the only cut with an extra player, and it would of course be the legendary Earl Poole Ball. "Wonder why the dream seems so far away... nothing's different today ... If there's a right place and a right time ... Something I could never find ... I feel it slipping away ... I feel it slipping away .... What would it be like, just to live from day to day? I feel it slipping away." Do we not all feel this loss of control? That is when we just have to keep our eyes on the sparrows -- and listen to Mister Ball's piano.

Okay, it's time to brag on the rhythm section -- which in this band is very very solid. Great choices by our immigrant couple. No wonder they live in "God's Good Sunshine," "I don't need a thing ... Just God's good sunshine and guitar strings ... Dont' need no fast lane .. Don't need no cocaine... Once I needed you, but we're through .. and there's not a thing I can do." This is a self-encouragement song -- no Hollywood, no limousines ... just back to the basics. And another shot at a fine Josh Zee guitar solo ... on this lazy rhythm song that gives me the feeling of being on a big rubber tire swing out and back over the river.

"Northbound Trail" is Teal again ... "I'm leaving here on the northbound trail... kiss me once for luck. And I'll see you, dear, in the afterlife ... It's a long way home." Not exactly Sylvia Fricker, but this song does sound Canadian (that is, you feel the broad expanses of empty country). "Stronger" is what we all gotta get, sings Josh, "You say you can it can always be worse, but that ain't always true, because someone somewhere's life is the absolute worst - and that's not you." Good advice for all of us -- "Quit thinking about yourself so much ... pull your head out of your ass." Don't be so self-involved, says Josh, and get over yourself, because "it ain't good for your health ... Being strong ain't about lifting weights, it's about how to put them down." Profound!

Teal then sings about the not so accurate "Magic 8 Ball," "Seems the older and uglier we get, the more beautiful life becomes (though Teal ain't that ugly!). "Magic 8 Ball, you were wrong, I never married Elvis or any country singing star... I found me someone to call my own." This is a great song to dance to - and it features one of Josh's patented guitar solos, followed by one of Kim's pedal riffs that add cream to your coffee. Angelic ending, too!

"Different Eyes" states that, "You'll always be you .. and you'll never see life through different eyes..." Here we get the ukulele (Teal) ... some pedal steel.. "The sound of salvation is something to hear, wish you could listen with different ears... Now you ain't even close, you're chasing a ghost ... " And folks, if I mentioned guitar solos before, well just you wait! But you really have to see the MT's live and catch Josh's work on the Hank Senior classic, "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," to get the FULL effect! [Or you can listen to the song below.]

I will somewhat skip over Teal's rendition of the Chris Smither tune, "Love Me Like a Man," in which our gal reprises the Bonnie Raitt adaptation (after all, Chris IS a man!). This is the song Teal sang at Maria's Taco X-Press the first time she appeared on stage with Leeann's gang. One day, she will likely sing this song WITH Bonnie Raitt!

"Shadow" is a real duet -- "We cast a shadow in the sun, for a moment and then it's done ... we all know that the night will fall ... well we go in without a thing, and we'll leave with just the same, nothing's ever really ours at all." Folks this is pure truth. "Come and gather round me, the sun is going down, you see, where I'm going now I just don't know ... We work hard to get by, dreams fall by the wayside .. but I am not afraid to let them go." Words to live by. Thanks, Kim, for the dobro here - it gives us time to let these words sink deep inside. "Truth is all that we possess at the end of the day. The tower built in Babel was soon reduced to gravel ... the mighty Golden Gate will one day wash away." And I LOVE the harmonies on this closing song (the band DOES reprise Broke, Not Broken as an outro .. but this really is the band's final statement of their beliefs ... and what more is there to know?

The Truckers in the past have recorded songs about alcohol ("My Only Friend) and suicide ("If I Died"). These are tough subjects - Bay Area journalist Mike Connor interviewed the MT's and Teal told him, "It's funny. To us, they're serious lyrics. People say they're really bizarre, but stuff like "If I Died"--I was actually thinking that death, in a way, is comforting. When you're done and get to the end of it all, all the stuff you're worrying about is really not gonna matter. So that's kind of my morbid fascination with death coming through." Writer Leigh Ann Lewis said of the MT's, "The anti-heroes of their songs seek sweet relief, sustenance and absolution from a range of low-brow vices."

If you can find one (doubtful until they print more, we suspect, since they were not been selling them at their shows last year), pick up a copy of the Bay Area - produced CD, "Something Worth Dying For," which includes the afore-mentioned songs plus "Save My Soul," "Get Reborn" and the confessional "We Were Getting High" plus "Daiquiris and Dice" and my personal favorite, "Behind the Bleachers."

The Mother Truckers are currently doing the THURSDAY happy hour at the Continental Club and then packing up and rolling north on South Congress for an 11:00 pm (or earlier) set at Ego's ... but they head back to California sometime in May to debut the new CD in their ancestral homeland .. and of course, there is Willie's Fourth of July picnic ... and, we surely anticipate, bigger and better gigs down the road. Teal is better lookin' than ANY member of the Weary Boys ... and the band surely brings you back to those wonderful sunny summer days of big festivals and endless time to meditate on the good things this life brings.
The Mother Truckers and the Texas Sapphires are two very good, very different "country" bands that are both destined for bigger and better things in the year 2006. For example, on April 21, the Texas Sapphires are opening for Dwight Yoakum at John T. Floore's Country Store in Helotes, and on July 4, the MT's are playing at Willie's Picnic.

Both bands have brand-new CD's available in stores and via the web universe, both bands feature male and female lead vocals, and both bands have had considerable support from the inimitable Kim Deschamps ... who plays on both CD's. The Mother Truckers recorded "Broke, Not Broken" at Bismeaux Studios using Chris Burns as the engineer and masterer; the Texas Sapphires worked with Lloyd Maines on "Valley So Steep" - Lloyd also plays on the CD, as does Warren Hood and Chris Bagby - and with Erik Wofford (Cacophony Studios) as enginee; but they also used Chris Burns for mastering work. Both bands also have played numerous gigs at Ego's and the Continental Club ... and there the similarities seem to end.

Billy Brent Malkus, founder of the Texas Sapphires (also chief songwriter and guitar and dobro player), hails originally from a hog farm outside Cambridge, Maryland (a town once known as a bastion of segregation and diplomatic mysteries), but has been in Austin for a decade - playing lead guitar with Nathan Hamilton and No Deal after starting off in the punk scene. It was there that he first met vocalist extraordinare Rebecca Lucille Cannon, former lead singer of Sincola (which in fact had a reunion concert earlier this year). Methinks Brent started the Sapphires (as they were once called) as a vehicle for getting Rebecca on stage singing old-time country songs, but I digress. The band is rounded out by Jeff Joiner on bass, Ram Zimmerman on drums, and Paul Schroeder on banjo and mandolin. They get Kim on stage when they can.

This band evokes memories of the halcyon days when Gram Parsons took Emmy Lou Harris on tour with him in 1973 ... and indeed, the last cut on the CD is Parsons' classic "Ooh Las Vegas," done in the pure Flying Burrito Brothers style (pure electric energy, not the quieter style espoused by the Cowboy Junkies). Schroeder's banjo drives this cut, along with Ram's crisp drumstrokes. But the extra added attraction is a dobro solo by Grandpa Lloyd and a second guitar solo by Brent, then tradeoff riffs by both and more banjo. It's nearly four minutes of pure unadulterated bliss.

The CD starts with "The Emerald Outlaw," one of ten Malkus-penned cuts (this one with Rebecca as coauthor) - with Paul on mando and Lloyd on pedal steel (always worth the price). Now, Margaret Moser says the duets remind her of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton - but I used to listen to those duets when I was a kid -- and I later on listened to my good personal friends Billy Danoff and Taffy Nivert - aka The Starland Vocal Band (previously known as Fat City) - and Brent and Rebecca remind me of that duo (Billy cowrote "Almost Heaven, West Virginia, with John Denver and the Emmy Lou Harris hit, Boulder to Birmingham).

On this CD, Rebecca sings lead on "Driftin' In," where every bar's a harbor. Now folks this is a slower dance tune (hold yer honey tight, now!) - this song (but not this cut) and a few others were featured on the band's demo CD that is fast becoming a collector's item. Brent plays a little honky tonk piano on this cut, and Kim chips in with some lap steel. "Ladyfest, TX" is Brent's story of putting on a red dress to make an all-girl band gig (or something like that) - and here we get our first taste of Warren Hood's fiddle. This cut has a reference to the late Jimmy Martin, the king of bluegrass music (for more, see the DVD "King of Bluegrass," which debuted in 2003).

Fourth up is "Bring out the Bible (We Ain't Got a Prayer)," a quasi-gospel song with Lloyd on dobro and Paul on mandolin, in which Brent laments, "There's peace in the valley - we never made it down there," and Rebecca sings that the angels are looking up and "cain't do a thing for the people down there." Yet there is hope enough to try again. "Break This Fool" features Rebecca on vocals and Kim on dobro and pedal steel, with Paul on banjo ... She sings about the guy with "a lot of fanciful words" ... who no longer impresses her; now she is "rising up like those biscuits you done sopped me up with, boy." The gal has grown up!

On the next cut, Brent is "disgusted with myself" - the song is "Dirty Me, Dirty Me" -- a fast-stepping ode which starts with the singer "drooling on his pillow." Rebecca takes a turn, and then all join in on the chorus ... and there's some good pickin' in between verses. Another source of disgust - missing grandma's birthday. [The CD is dedicated in part to Billie Joe Nutt, Rebecca's late grandma and inspiration.]

My favorite cut may just be "Dirty Tattered House Shoes," a ditty written especially for Rebecca's vocals -- and here, too, we get some Warren Hood fiddle. "Now that you're gone it's such a good thing," she sings, "as these dirty tattered house shoes keep walking back and forth." Plus a fine pedal steel solo from Lloyd and guitar from Brent. This is CLASSIC country stuff - not the plastic fantastic Faith Hill crossover muzak. Rebecca reminds me a lot here of Michelle Pittenger, the gal singer with the Dallas band the Lucky Pierres.

Does it, though, get any better than "Deep Gap Blue" - "I'm busted to where I can't make it on time..." which features soulful dobro by Brent himself - some of the best on the CD. Or, for that matter, better than "Cold Silver Ring"? Another song about breakup and blame as Dakota calls her -- "The roses on my trellis flow like you up through those plains. Not for too long will they hang on, so who's the one to blame? There was something on my mind that you can't realize what for as you just stand crying about leaving me with your head pressed on the door. Now I ain't back in line for the gossip still when words are bound to cling, when there's this talk in town that I'm burning you, but you left me cold like that silver ring." This song - with solos by Lloyd, Warren, and Brent - is just pure old-time century country music at a very high level.

Then there is "Down Hard," another ballad, and a waltz -- with Lloyd on pedal steel and Paul on banjo. This is a new song for the band - and one of the most haunting tunes on their playlist. Just listen - and weep. The last original tune is "Barstow Barstool," which you would think would have been written a decade or two ago by Dwight Yoakum or someone similar (huh?). "Hush up your new ways, life don't want to stay here no more, at least not on the floor out here." [I hope Dave Alvin hears this cut very soon and invites the band to open for him on the West Coast.] More Kim Deschamps on pedal steel means good stuff - and Brent again shows his own talents on the guitar.

Okay - I will finish up this dual CD review in my next post. People can only take so much.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Rich Restaino's new CD, Revisionary Man, is actually his third solo project, and this time he plays just about every instrument on every song - with a little help from Kris Brown on guitar, Chris Hinojosa on drums, and Jason James on upright bass on "My Favorite Remedy" (which Kris says just screamed out for a lively recording, and we would add his excellent solo riffs) - a sorta honkytonking song about his woman being far better than hootch. What this means is that Rich plays acoustic and electric guitars, piano, bass, drums and drum programs, lap steel, banjo, harmonica, and a mini-marimba - and sings. Overall, I very much enjoyed this record - but I suggest you catch Rich live and in concert (or bug him to get more solo gigs).

The title cut leads off - a paean to Warren Zevon (or Rich's vision of himself in a similar role) ... Since "everything was better before I was born, so I mourn the past and pass out in the morn..." [though it is hard to see this future high school history teacher with a lovely companion being that depressed.] Yet, "to my peers, history won't be kind, cuz it's all heat and seldom light, we all dumbed down fighting the wrong fight, guns and bombs are no match for the mind." This catchy, bouncy tune is right out of the center of Rich's personality -- even down to the strange tweets in the musical outro.

The third cut ("Remedy" is No. 2) is the jazzy popish "She Always Knows (what to say to me)" -- This song has an excellent hook and some nice guitar riffs (my wife likes Rich's guitar work), and it is really the first of many that remind me of Randy Newman in a quirky sort of way. I like the way he lets the guitar tell big parts of the song's story. This is very listenable music.

Now the next cut lets us know that Rich does not want to be another "Rock and Roll Casualty" - I can hardly wait for a rich production on a radio ready version of this cut (I think the song needs a little work yet to really get over on the air, but how can anyone not want to hear a song with this great title and chorus?) Then it's "Song for Hank (Sucker's Bet)" - which sounds like early Dylan with the deep chords on acoustic guitar, and yes, this too is a drinking song about the loss of a woman whom the barflys had warned our protagonist was a golddigger. Oh, well, he says, "I guess I always thought that misery deserved some company." And did I mention he also wails away on the Dylanesque harmonica?

"Matter" is an ode to physics - and a play on words (do we matter?). "The constellations cause me great consternation that we don't matter after all?" It's OK - just not that heavy. But then there is "The Majestic Sound of Failure" - which begins with some majestic sounds [the guitar work reminds me of Neil Young's Cortez the Killer a little]. "I don't believe in heroes not like when I was young; I take my father's advice, good and bad just as it comes. When nothing is expected, you can't be let down.. There's glory in the mistakes, there's wisdom in the sound .. the majestic sound of failure whispers in my ear. Takes me out to dinner, tells me what I want to hear." This is also another song about history .. and the clamor of the people for peace. "My father worked for money, not for glory not for joy. I recognized the price he paid when I was just a boy.... I look up to imperfection, honest, pure and proud." I really like this song.

Then it's "Jesus Saves," which is a honky-tonking boogie ... you can dance to it.... I'm still working on the lyrics here - while I listen over and over to "Saturday Springtime Gardening Girl" (which admittedly has some psychedelic stuff to prick your ears) ... reminds me of "Everyone Knows It's Wendy" in a strange way.

Now every boy has a dog, but how many boys write songs from their dog's perspective? "Good Boy" is written perhaps BY his dog Bailey, with lyrics like: "I''ve got no thumbs, I an't pick up the phone, got this itch that I can't scratch on my own, and I hope it was true when you said I was a "good boy." Poor Bailey is beset by three cats who have nine lives, while "all I've got is four paws and a soul." Now this is the song that best exemplies the character shown in Amy Smith's photos -- the old bearded Santa clone with sunglasses tickling the ivories, picking the guitar, and singing into a vintage mike.

Next up is "Framed": "Maybe I posed for a picture or two, but the brushes, they belong to you." In short, our hero says he is not the guy he is being made out to be. Nice mandolin work here gives this a lighter touch. Then we have Rich's take on his trip to New York City for the 2004 Republican National Convention -- replete with banjo (to give us that old-timey feeling). "These folks ain't half bad once you get to know them, the real people that is...." Okay so it is a little tongue in cheek -- a little praise for Rudy Giuliani, and poke at Rush Limbaugh.

Finally, we reach nirvana -- Dr. Thompson (with actual recordings of Hunter S. himself speaking as if from the grave). Fuzzball guitar reminds one a little of Eight Miles High ... "You took up an outlaw's code that served you well until the very end" - "Dr. Thompson, Is is true? Are we doomed if we don't damned if we do?" This is a song of freedom ... and daring, the kind of guy Rich wants never to lose within himself. He is perplexed by Thompson's suicide -- was it that he just left this world on his own terms, or "did it finally get weird enough for you?" Well, "Free men don't apologize," and Thompson was bold enough to call the USA the "nazis" in Iraq. [Note to self -- Be sure that Dony Wynn hears this song - as he is the town's resident commentator on HST.]

Longtime collaborator Jason Silverberg (now in Austin with The Lemmings) lends his backup vocals to two of the songs -- these guys were bandmates back in New Paltz, New York when Rich was earning his keep as a reporter in the Hudson Valley. Rich has been a member of Mr. Brown (aka Kris Brown's Family Sauce) and is also performing with Neil Kaiser (actually his alter ego, Zimmy T.) as Fingers McKnuckles in the punk-doowop group "The Late Fees." He is also a member of the currently on hold "Boxcar Angels" (with Kaiser and Kris).

The Late Fees are performing at the Dirty Dog on Sixth Street on April 21, while Mr. Brown will be naked on stage (we presume, of course) at Eeyore's Birthday (will the naked cowboy be with them?) on April 29.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Will Rich Restaino be Austin's version of Randy Newman? Just listen to his new CD, "Revisionary Man," and you will see what I mean. Rich is intellectual (he's on his way to becoming a certified history teacher) and funny (well, he has a song written from his dog's perspective - "Good Boy"), and well versed in the disconnects associated with too much drinking (must come from growing up in Brooklyn).

I ran into Rich (whom I know from his work with Kris Brown's reggae project - Mr. Brown, aka Family Sauce) at Melissa Mullins' weekly songwriter showcase at El Mercado on South First last week. Now Rich is also a member of the Boxcar Angels, and there is a guy who very much resembles Rich (Fingers McKnuckles) who is half of the punk-doowop duo Late Fees ... and they are playing April 21 at the Dirty Dog Bar -- but I digress.

Indeed, let me start all over. I have been slow in writing of late - lots going on at home and work, and I was out of town three days last week. I DID get out to see Houston's Miss Leslie and Her Juke Jointers on March 29 at the Broken Spoke - a very fine old-line country and swing dance band, as evidenced by my observations of long, tall Brennen Leigh on the dance floor (along with the lovely and talented Sunny Sweeney and various others). This band was good enough for Winker to get out his camera and take some shots of the action. They will surely return -- Miss Leslie (Lindley) can really emote - and she plays a little fiddle, too. Her hubby Randy Lindley plays guitar, and the band at times includes pedal steel player Ricky Davis (who is well known to Dale Watson fans). A lot of her songs are written by Rockdale banjo player Jake Jenkins, but the band includes a real upright piano and a small drum kit. It is good to see that Houston keeps pumping out fine musicians.

I did not get back in town for Saturday's show at Ruta Maya with Mark Ambrose and Steve Ulrich (and others), but did catch up with them last week at Trophy's -- where the extra added attraction was the revival of Duane's Burden (featuring Matt Silasky on bass and mean looks, Perry Drake on drums, and Brian on guitar and psychedelic looks. I missed Matt Williams' set, but caught him a few days later at Threadgill's Old No. 1 -- he has a lot of new songs (newer than those on his recent CD) and hopes to record in late summer after continuing to travel around the country (writing more songs, we suppose) and occasionally visiting friends and family here in Austin, in South Carolina, in New York City (where he picks up the PACE!) and everywhere in between. The young lad is quite the troubadour. As is Mister Ulrich, whose performances have taken on an extra air of professionality of late (could it have anything to do with his lovely spouse Elizabeth?). The Leadbelly and Me CD provides a real look into a man who has evolved from quirky songwriter (Swedes in Minnesota and other favorites) to serious commentator on the human condition. [But then many of his old songs were just disguised deeper thoughts on serious subjects - that sometimes went over some people's heads. One day people will discover Steve Ulrich and recognize just how profound he has become.

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