Friday, October 30, 2015

Another Night in Austin with My Friends

Tom's Open Mic May 7, 2015
Sixteen-hundred miles from Philly, fifteen blocks from Merle and Willie,
No one famous, everyone pretends.
Suntan lines all over me, Friday nights at the A.S.G.,
Looking down from the heights where the river bends,
Six cold Shiners in my fridge, bats are flyin' from Congress Bridge.
Guitar music rising as the night descends.
Barbeque at the downtown Stubbs, midnight shows at the Saxon Pub,
Longhorn autumn days that never end.
And another night in Austin with my friends.
From “Sixteen Hundred Miles from Philly” by Adam Belsky…/sixteen-hundred-miles-…
I have a theory that you can’t write a bad song with the word Texas in it. Just naming a city in Texas is probably enough to get you a good song. Plenty of songs illustrate my point. “Miles and Miles of Texas.” “Waltz Across Texas.” “T for Texas.” “You Aren’t from Texas.” “San Antonio Rose.” “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?” “Dallas.” “Fort Worth Blues.” “El Paso.” “Amarillo by Morning.” “London Homesick Blues.” And one of my favorites -- “Screw You. We’re from Texas.” Ray Wylie Hubbard tells a story about being inspired to write that song when a rich couple from Nashville came into a bar he was playing at and asked him to play a recent Nashville hit. Ray Wylie didn't know that song so they requested another top 40 hit. Ray Wylie ultimately told them that he only plays songs he or his friends write and then, on his next break, he went out in the alley and wrote the first verse of “Screw You, We’re From Texas.”
I love that story. ACL and SXSW may be trying to make some big bucks off of the Austin music scene but for the most part, Texas music is more about democracy than capitalism. There just hasn’t been a middle man between the consumers of music and the musicians the way there is in Nashville. Live music is about listeners and performers sharing the same space. Here in Austin, often there’s not much difference between who’s in the audience and who’s on the stage – everyone in the room may be a musician. Because the music scene here isn’t built around the record industry, Texas songwriters have not been locked up in a Nashville “verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/out” straitjacket approach to songwriting. Hell, tell a Texas songwriter that Nashville doesn’t like waltzes and you’ll probably find yourself listening to a string of waltzes. The result of that independent spirit is that the voices and stories of Texas songs are unique and authentic. And in my opinion more creative.
I’m using as the title of these posts about Tom’s Tabooley Open Mic a line from a song by Texas songwriter, Adam Belsky, who also happens to be my friend and partner in crime at Tom’s. I like the song because it captures something sweet and real about a place I love and shines a light on things I’ve experienced: BBQ at Stubbs, Shiner beer, the Congress bridge bats, the Saxon Pub, Friday night open mic at the ASG (Austin Songwriters’ Group). I particularly like the refrain – Just another night in Austin with my friends. I’m appropriating it because it’s not just about Adam and it’s not just about what has already happened. There are plenty of music-filled nights in Austin with our friends ahead of all of us.
The next one is tonight at Tom’s. If the past is any indication of what the future holds we’re in luck. So far, in four weeks we’ve had over 40 performers on stage at the Tom’s Open Mic. Last week, 18 singer/songwriters/players performed unique and authentic songs: Tracy Weinberg, Scott S., George Ostrich, Eric John Bilyeu Ornelas, Jim Adams, Gregg Miller, Nita Lou Bryant, Zach and Cameron, Rose Gabriel, Paul Wright, Barclay Wright, Mickey Moore, Peggy Wright, Roger Edmondson, Katya Lalli-Butera, Patti Dixon and Daniel Schaefer. It was so much fun to see Paul Wright play with his nephew, Barclay Wright, and to hear, UT students Zach and Cameron, harmonizing with each other. I loved Roger Edmondson's song “Rusty Things” and Peggy Wright’s song about her mother. I can’t wait to see who comes out tonight and to hear some more terrific songs.
Sign up is at 6:30. Music goes from 7 to 10.


Another Night in Ausin September 15, 2015

Last Thursday night after we’d put away all the sound equipment at the end of the open mic and settled up with Tom’s Tabooley, Adam and I were standing in the alley by my car talking. Reviewing what a good night it had been. Again. While we were talking a white suv pulled up at the end of the alley – about 50 yards away – and parked there. The people inside the SUV were being raucous and loud and though I wasn’t paying attention I guess I was aware that they had the doors open and were singing. Loudly. And yelling. At some point it seemed like they started yelling at Adam and me. I said, “Do they want us to sing with them?” And even though I don’t think they could’ve possibly heard me from that distance, at that moment it became clear that they were yelling something along the lines of “YEAH! Sing with us!” and that the song they were singing was Drift Away. They were challenging us to sing with them, but I really don’t think they had much faith that we would. I wonder if it’s a universal truth that young people don’t think people older than they are know how to have fun. If it is, Adam and I pushed back at the notion. Without any cue or consultation, both of us just started singing at the same time, loudly, giving it all we had: “Give me the beat boys and free my soul. I want to get lost in your rock and roll. . . . . And drift away.” I know. They were just drunk college kids. Nothing unusual about that a block from Guadaulpe on a Thursday night. But I love it when people sing when they aren’t supposed to. A cappella. On key or not. Just because they’re having too a good a time to simply talk. 
That’s how much fun Adam and I are having hosting the open mic at Tom’s Tabooley. So much fun we burst spontaneously into song at the least encouragement when it’s all over. Last Thursday was particularly fun for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Adam was back after a week away. We were glad to have him and I think it’s safe to say (judging from the pictures he took) he was glad to be home. For another, we had a terrific list of performers – Carlos Rumba, Charles Clark, Greg Engle, Stuart Burns, Gregg Miller, Roger Edmondson, E (Eroch McFrazier), Tracy Weinberg, and Jack McCabe. Tracy and E both debuted great new songs. Tracy’s “She Can Only Fly” was outstanding. For me, it was the highlight of the evening. Because we had time for once, we got Adam to get up and close us out with his classic hit 1600 Miles From Philly (which you can listen to for free at…/sixteen-hundred-miles…). 
We’re back this week. Sign up at 6:30. We’ll start singing at 7.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Little wings on a butterfly create hard desert winds.
Little things go unnoticed but cover the worst of our sins.
Little acts hardly mentioned set angels to dancing on pins.
From the tiniest ripples the mightiest currents begins.
Adam Belsky

I kind of think of open mics as a grass roots movement. The slogan of the movement might be something like this: “We’re all artists.” Doesn’t matter who you are, you can be more than a consumer of art; you can be a creator, too. You don’t have to have your name in the marquee lights or be rolling in dough to be an artist. All you have to do is make art. 
Apparently the movement is not just a ripple in my little pond; it’s more like a huge wave. Our friend, Les Baca, just finished a transcontinental tour of open mics. Seems to me she found open mics everywhere she looked. I started off my trip to Europe three weeks ago in Paris which has a hopping open mic scene. Brad Spurgeon’s Thumbnail Guide to Open Mics in Paris lists 31 regular open mics every week. In the five days I was there I played at three: Le Highlander on Wednesday, Le Tennessee on Thursday, and the Pop-in on Sunday. Every one of those venues had a full house of enthusiastic performers and listeners. Though the audiences were a little more rambunctious than a “listening room” audience, they were listening. Taking every opportunity they could find to sing along, applauding each performer. What impressed me was how many people were there just for the show – not because they were performing or had a friend performing. They came because it’s fun to listen to musicians trying out their songs and cheer them on. And most of the performers were there for the long haul. Those who performed early on the list stayed late and those who played late, waited patiently listening to those on the list before them. 
Grassroots movements are all about the little things. Like showing up to help after the flood. Or taking a seat at the at the front of the bus. Seems to me that listening is an important element of the open mic grassroots movement. Or maybe it’s just a little kindness we do for each other. One way or another it’s been so much fun to watch that happening at Tom’s Tabooley every week. Even on the weeks when I can’t be there, I know people are there on stage trying out their art and other people are listening and encouraging them to keep on making art. 
Last week Brandon Bentley filled in as guest host and veteran Tom’s performers -- Keith Martin, Nichole Wagner, Zach and Cameron), Carlos Rumba, Katya Lalli-Butera, Rose Gabriel, Jim Adams, Magic Jack, Gregg Miller, Marc Windom, Rusty Nelson – all showed up to play their songs and support each other. We were so glad to have seven newcomers: John Evans, Jeff Ellis and Greg Radcliffe, Ula and Dr. Greg, Rane Alan and, our old friend and fellow ASG member, Tom Cottar. I was sorry to have to miss and look forward to being there again soon. 
As always we are grateful to those who played and those who listened. 
The beautiful and incredibly talented Rose Gabriel will be filling as host tonight. I think Rose may well be a grassroots movement on her own. I know it’s going to be fun. Come out and sing about your favorite father (or anything else that strikes your fancy) in honor of Father’s Day. 
Sign up’s at 6:30. Music starts at 7.
Its a comforting thing
To hear a stranger sing about the hurt you know so well.
***Adam Adam Belsky (from Maybe a Teardrop 
Back before I was a songwriter or even thinking about being a songwriter, I felt a kinship with songwriters. Not that I don’t feel a kinship now – I just mean that the feeling predates my membership in the group. And really I don’t think it has much to do with my becoming a songwriter myself. I think it has to do with how vulnerable songwriters make themselves. My favorite delivery mechanism for music has always been a live performance in a small venue. I’ve always preferred stripped down, underwhelming arrangements of original songs performed by the artist. Sometimes people use the word “intimate” pretty loosely to describe public interactions, but honestly, I have sat in the audience and felt what I can only describe as intimacy with a songwriter who’s never even made eye contact with me. I puzzled over it for years and came finally to this conclusion: when songwriters reveal their pain authentically and artfully, my pain becomes a little more bearable. It makes me feel known and less alone to hear a songwriter singing about a brand of heartache or disappointment or failure or joy that I know like the back of my hand.
Tom’s Tabooley is as good a live venue for that kind of experience as any I’ve ever been in. I’m not saying that just because it’s where our open mic is; it’s really a great room with a great stage, a great sound system, and comfortable chairs. And as far as authentic and artful goes, we’re Grand Central. Our last open mic on August 27 was no exception. We had fantastic performances by Mike Hidalgo, Nichole Wagner, Gregg Miller, Luke Nukem. Roger Edmondson, Magic Jack McCabe, Steve Baldino, Natalie Sun, and Rusty Nelson. On top of that three songwriters debuted brand new songs on our stage: Paul Jaguar Rising, Jim Adams, and Steve Callif all debuted brand songs on our stage.
We’re back again this week. Sign up at 6:30. Music is from 7 to 10.
Muse ain’t got no mercy
When it’s tillin’ up your pride
Harvestin’ and sowin’
Songs from deep inside
Mike Eastman
Most of the songwriters I know feel surprised sometimes (if not every single time) by a song they’ve written. There’s something mysterious about where songs come from. Something a little wild and out-of-control about songwriting. Last Thursday at Tom’s Tabooley. I was asking the songwriters who played to talk a little about what their process was like. Does it start with a melody? A hook? A story you want to tell? No surprise that most people said it happens different ways with different songs. Some start with a lyrical phrase, some with a chord progression, some with a melody. Carlos Rumba talked about dreaming a song and many of the rest of us (me included) reported having the same experience. Almost everyone said that sometimes it’s like lightning strikes, and the song is just there – done – before you even know what hits you. Once when I described having that happen to me to my friend and fellow songwriter Scott Romig, he said, “I know what you mean. It’s not like you wrote that song; it’s like you’re just the first one who ever heard it.” 
About halfway through the night, Mike Eastman got up and sang a song about songwriting that peeked into another dimension of the conversation we were having. The song – “Deep Inside” -- is about writing a song that reveals more about you than you want to reveal. I knew exactly what he was talking about, and I’m willing to bet that every other songwriter in the room did, too. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on here about my feeling that when songwriters reveal their own pain genuinely and artfully they make my pain more bearable. That’s my perspective from the audience. As a songwriter I have to say that I know those songs come at a price. You’d like to keep a little dignity, not expose yourself completely, but you really can’t explore the deeper territory AND stay shielded and safe. You can’t write “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or “Sunday Morning Coming Down” or “Feeling Good Again” or “Hello Walls” without tearing a hole in your own mask. I’m not saying that every song that seeks that deeper truth succeeds like those songs; I’m saying – whether the song succeeds or not – it’s no picnic to lay your secrets bare. In fact it’s scary. When it happens it feels like, as Mike puts it, “the muse ain’t got no mercy.”
The conversation about songwriting as well as the songs last week at Tom’s were inspiring thanks to the wonderful songwriters and musicians who came out to play: Charles Clark, Carlos Rumbaut, Greg Engle, Jim Adams, Stuart Burns, Roger Edmondson, Gregg Miller, Daniel Schaefer, Mike Eastman, and Craig Marshall. We were glad to welcome two newcomers to our stage: Tilly and Owl Offer. And to showcase two world premiere song debuts: Gregg Miller’s “Dreaming on the Moon” and Daniel Schaefer’s “El Mejor Amigo.” 
Come on out for another inspiring show this week. Sign up at 6:30. Music is from 7 to 10.
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you.
Gram Parsons
Last week at Tom’s Tabooley we were talking about Gram Parsons. It started because 1st-timer Allison Fischer told me that she was a big fan of his. I’m a big fan, too. In 1971 my first husband initiated courtship by sending me a Flying Burrito Brothers Album. It was a masterful romantic move. Ultimately the marriage was not as well-conceived as the gift, but four decades later, I’m still devoted to Gram Parsons. With good reason, I think.
My high school – Aldine -- sat in the middle of a cow pasture right next to Interstate 45 on what was then the outskirts of Houston. You could choose between counting cows or cars if you found yourself staring out the window in the middle of an incomprehensible Chemistry class. I doubt anyone at Memorial High School – down in the heart of the best neighborhood in the most urban part of Houston -- ever thought about us at all, but for some reason out there at Aldine we were a little (or a lot) worried that the kids in cooler schools thought of us as rednecks. Sometimes we would try to embrace it. I remember a pep rally in which the cheerleaders led us to chant “Go Goatropers Go” although our mascot was a Mustang. When we weren't mustering every bit of reverse snobbery we could, we were wishing that we could be perceived as surfers (like the kids at Memorial). Not as goatropers. We made up for our insecurity by taking as many drugs as the surfers and embracing rock ‘n roll with our whole hearts. We would hang out down at Allen’s Landing at Love Street Light Circus where the 13th Floor Elevators or Shiva’s Headband were playing and girls in white go-go boots were dancing in cages beside the stage. Same place the kids from Memorial were hanging out I’m sure. We listened to Hendrix and Steppenwolf. Led Zepplin. Janis Joplin. We had the White Album committed to memory. 
But, for me at least, it wasn’t all that simple. I’m not saying there was anything contrived about my love of the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Crosby, Stills, and Nash. There wasn’t. They shaped me. But I existed before I knew about them and the music that shaped my parents had a bigger part in making me than I wanted to admit. Part of the strategy for dodging the goatroper label was demonstrating a disdain for country western music. We were supposed to be rebelling against our parents and all Okies from Muskogee. But you couldn’t escape country music in Texas, and I couldn’t help loving it. Though I tried hard not to. I remember the first time I heard Tammy Wynette sing "Stand by your Man." It came on the radio as I was pulling into the driveway after dark, alone in my mother’s car. Undoubtedly coming home from an evening that involved rock ‘n roll in some way. I was powerless to change the channel or turn off the radio. Even before I heard any words, the hard core twanging guitar lead hit me like heroin. Still, after a lifetime of feminism that flies in the face of those lyrics, I can’t resist that song. I sat there in the driveway with the motor running listening till the very end. I would have played it again if I could have. I didn’t know what to do with that. The love I felt for country music. I couldn’t give it up even though I was committed to rock ‘n roll. At the same time I didn’t want to be a goatroper; I wanted to be a surfer. 
That’s why Gram Parsons’ music captivated me. And my first husband. We both felt a kinship with Gram Parsons. It was clear he loved both kinds of music as much as we did. On top of that, he saw past the black and white, left and right dualistic thinking that had my high school by the throat. He realized that our relationship with music isn’t monogamous or even tribal. It transcends boundaries like genre and region. Other people were doing that at the same time, but honestly I don’t think any single individual pioneered that frontier, crossing borders and coming back again to introduce would be enemies to each other and turn them into friends as well as Gram Parsons did. There’s no doubt in my mind that Austin has been the homeplace of an important 20th century artistic movement and that songwriters like Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt sowed the seeds of that movement. But, Gram Parsons plowed the field. 
Last week at Tom’s Tabooley in response to the conversation about Gram Parsons, Stuart Michael Burns reminded us of how sad Parson's early death was by singing Emmy Lou Harris’s beautiful song about her grief – "Boulder to Birmingham." Stuart is a masterful songwriter himself. We’re honored to claim him, Adrian NyeCarlos Rumbaut, Charles Clark, and Fred Spence all of whom were with us last week, as regulars. We had some fantastic newcomers joining us, too. First-timer Bryan Bodkin, who’s from Shelby, Ohio, started us off with an outstanding performance. Newcomers Andrew Castro and Xochitl of Sacramento closed the show with great sets. In between we had outstanding performances by newcomer Joseph Henry of Lafayette, LA. And by Allison Fischer. Allison was making her open mic debut on our stage, and it was a dynamite first-time performance. One of the things we hope for Tom’s Tabooley is that it will give emerging songwriters a stage to try out their art and let their lights shine. You couldn’t ask for a better debut performance than Allison’s. Gram Parsons would be proud. To top it all off we had two new songs debuted on our stage: “Bed of Coals” by Adrian Nye and “Tennessee Whiskey” by Fred Spence. 
This week, we’ll start at 7 just like always and go until 10. Sign up starts at 6:30. I have good reason to believe that Ordinary Elephant is going to be with us, and I'm really looking forward to welcoming them to our stage. I think this week I’m going to try a cover of a Flying Burrito Brothers' song

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Another Night in Austin (or Paris) with My Friends -- Tom's Tabooley Open Mic 4/30/15

Several years ago I went to an open mic in Paris at Le Highlander, an Irish pub on the left bank just across the river from Notre Dame. When my husband, Kent, and I went to check things out in the afternoon before the open mic, Le Highlander looked like a sleepy little bar.  Not much space.  No real stage, just a designated corner with a microphone and some sound equipment.  Not intimidating.  The English-speaking bartender assured us that it was an English-speaking open mic.  Kent thought it looked like fun -- as always he was standing behind me, encouraging me.

We weren’t prepared for the bustle we found when we came back for sign up at 8 p.m.  I was able to get on the list.  In the fourth slot no less, but the list filled up fast.  And here’s the miracle:  so did The Highlander.  Not just with people who were playing, but with people who were listening, too.  By 9 o’clock it was elbow to elbow, standing room only.   Some people were there to see their friends; some were there just to soak up the mood.   Almost all of the players stayed from start to finish.  There was sense of comraderie in the air and a communal memory. 

Le Highlander Open Mic Host Thomas Brun
Read more about Thomas here. 
The host, Thomas Brun, was excited when he read my name on the list because I share names with the most famous folk singer in Ireland.  That Christy Moore is a man, but he spells the name the same way.  Thomas thought it was a great treat that he was going to get to introduce Christy Moore even if it wasn’t the Irish one.  His excitement about that and his enthusiasm for the whole scene he had buzzing around him was contagious. 

I played my three songs to a crowd that was more attentive than Poodie’s patrons on a Wednesday night, but not as reverent as the customers at the Cactus.  It was actually a nice balance.  When I got off the stage, a man in the audience gave me a hook ‘em horns sign.  He was from Texas and recognized from my lyrics that I was, too.  We made friends with him.  Kent was already fast friends with Thomas Brun.  By 10 o’clock we were trading drinks and jokes with half a dozen new friends.  We all anticipated each new performer with hope and received them with glee.  They were from all over Europe -- France, Poland, Britain, the Netherlands.  Mixed in with some songwriters singing original songs we heard players doing some mesmerizing covers like a young French man singing California Girls; a Hungarian woman with a beautiful soprano voice singing Angel of the Morning; and a bouncy young woman, who appeared to have a following (everyone was wondering what she’d do THIS week), singing a sultry, slowed-down version of Baby Love.  It all worked up to a climax when Thomas Brun and the last performer sang a cover of American Music by the Violent Femmes.  By the end of that song we were all singing at the top of our lungs shaking the rafters of that centuries-old European building with this chorus:

Do you like American music?    
I like American music.    
Don't you like American music, baby?

Kent and I agreed ever after that it was hands down the most fun either of us ever had traveling.  Which is saying a lot since we both loved to travel. 

Lovely as Paris is, it’s got nothing on Austin, Texas when it comes to live music.  Or open mics.   We have some fantastic open mics in town.   Jackie James and John Hudson at New World Deli on Monday nights, Lynette Wolf at Freddie’s on Wednesday, and Lee Duffy at the Austin Songwriters’ Group on Fridays are all providing a stage for some of the best players and songwriters in town. 

Tracy Weinberg told me when I hosted my first open mic as a sub Lisa Kettyle 
at the Irie Bean that it was the first step on my climb to the top.  I couldn't help 
reminiscing about that when I introduced him.
Adam and I are tickled to be joining the assembly and hosting Tom’s Tabooley’s Songwriters Open Mic on Thursdays.  Last Thursday was our third night and it was fantastic.   Again.  I’m not kidding.  Live music at it’s best.  Songwriters Kyle Hamisch, Tracy Weinberg, George Ostrich, Smoky, Phil Bentley, Nita Lou Bryant, Gino Segovia, Carlos Rumba, Gregg Miller, Jacques Berejon, Jim Adams, Jason Gray, Janet Dewey, Daniel Schaffer, and Kate Howard all put on a show that may well have been the best art to be had in Austin that night.

It was so good to have Nita Lou with us and hear some of the beautiful songs she’s written since she’s been in Calgary, like Safeway.  I loved hearing Carlos Rumba play a song based on a poem his grandfather wrote.  And Janet Dewey’s song about Anne Boleyn was killer.   We had veteran performers on the stage like Phil Bentley and Tracy Weinberg and a couple of performers who had never played an open mic before.  They were all great. 

A happy audience. 
A happy sound man. 
Here’s the miracle though: we had a wonderful audience the whole night.   Just like the miracle at the Highlander in Paris.  Performers stayed to watch other performers.  People --  like Susan Morris, Ike West, John Spencer, and Linda Henderson – came just to listen.  The cooks and waitstaff came out of the kitchen to listen.  Come on out this week to join us.  Perform or listen or both.  The room is charming; the food is delicious; you can bring your own bottle (Centennial Liquor next door will be happy to help you with that); Adam is the best sound man in town and he’s got a system worthy of his talents.  On top of all that, it will be fun. 

Kyle Haenisch

George Ostrich

Phil Bentley

Nita Lou Bryant

Gino Segovia

Carlos Rumba

Gregg Miller with President Victor Mikeska on harmonica.

Jacques Berejon

Jim Adams and Smoky

Jason Gray

Janet Dewey

Daniel Schaffer

The audience at 9:30. 

Kate Howard

Performers and audience both. 

Gregg and Victor relaxing at closing time. 

Susan Morris supporting live music.  And her friend Janet Dewey. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

April 23, 2015

Last Thursday was another fine night at Tom’s Tabooley. Patti Dixon, Ben Bochner, Rose Gabriel, Adrian Nye, Jimbro Lutz, Don Berryhill, Gregg Miller, Smokey, George Ostrich, Sam Alexander, Jack McCabe, and Rusty Nelson all came out to sing and play their original songs with a few covers of songs by Texas songwriters who have gone before us like Townes Van Zandt, Bob Wills, Lyle Lovett, and David Rodriguez thrown in. Victor Mikeska was there with his harps and backed up Patti Dixon, Don Berryhill, and Jack McCabe. So many great songs, like Rose Gabriel's "Leaving Real Soon" and Patti Dixon's "You Can Live on Love." One of the highlights of the evening for me was George Ostrich's commitment to come every week and never play the same song twice. It was a great time.  

When I was in high school in North Houston my friends and I used to lie to our parents about where we were going and drive down to Montrose to a coffee house on Richmond called Sand Mountain. Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt had all played on the Sand Mountain stage and were spoken of in respectful tones by other performers on the stage. In the audience we listened in transfixed silence from straight backed chairs that were more uncomfortable than a church pew to original songs from songwriters like Willis Alan Ramsey, Bill Staines, Don Sanders, Ed Miller, and Bill and Lucille Cade. Protest songs. Re-invented traditional folk songs. Love songs. Funny songs. Confessional songs. Songs from the heart. Songs from the head. I know it’s hard to imagine a music venue in Montrose on Saturday night in 1969 that was church-like, but I honestly felt downright reverent about the music. And I know a lot other people who were there with me felt the same. You could feel it in the air. It was at Sand Mountain that my love of live music began.  

If I were to continue the metaphor I guess you could say that when I moved to Austin to go to college my relationship with live music just continued to get more serious and we eventually got married. Over four decades later I have to say it’s one of the happiest marriages I’ve ever known of. Not only that, in my heart I believe it’s one of the many love stories that lead to Austin being dubbed the Live Music Capital of the World.  

Sometimes it feels like ACL and SXSW are commodifying the life right out of live music – turning it into living dead music. But the truth is there’s still an incredibly vibrant grassroots music scene in Austin that’s so much more about art than money. So many small stages all over town give brilliant and unprecedented musicians a stage to play to appreciative audiences every night of the week. In my humble opinion, open mics are at the very center of that grassroots movement. They are the heartbeat of live music in the live music capital. Which is one of the many reasons I’m so happy to be hosting an open mic at Tom’s Tabooley which is one of the best listening rooms in town. I hope you can join us next week. Sign up's at 6:30. Music from 7 to 10.

Adam and I are songwriters ourselves so we want to encourage original songs, but covers are welcome, especially covers of Texas songwriters.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Signs of Fire

I looked to the stars, tried all of the bars.
An' I've nearly gone up in smoke.
Now my hand's on the wheel of something that's real,
An' I feel like I'm goin' home.

         - Will Callery 


           One Sunday last spring, Twin Creeks Hall in Volente held a fundraiser for a worthy cause -- a decent sound system. Twin Creeks is sort of an old-time Texas roadhouse; it looks and feels like a gathering place from another era.   Like the 20th century.   I don’t know what the old sound system was like, but judging from the looks of things that day, I had no problem imagining that it was time for a new one.  They had recruited some great bands and songwriters to grace the indoor stage for a full day and evening of music.   Outside in the sunlit beer garden which is bordered by the creek on one side and the farm-to-market on the other, there were a couple of microphones set up for an open mic to entertain people between the main acts indoors.

          I was there with my friends and fellow songwriters, Adam Belsky and Mike Eastman.  All three of us were fairly recent converts to songwriting.  We had met sometime in the previous six months at the Austin Songwriters’ Group weekly song critique sessions.  Song Doctor.  Song Doctor is a test of courage for songwriters.  Don't take my word for it.  Ask anyone who's ever laid their new song -- which I guarantee you they love like an infant -- out on the table for evaluation and critique.  Adam, Mike, and I went to song doctor every week and put our songs up for "honest feedback."  We regularly compared wounds and encouraged each other to keep on keeping on.  The upshot was that although we hadn't known each other long, it already felt like our friendships were forged in fire.   

         It was an irresistible day so most of the time there were actually more people outside around the open mic “stage” than inside.  Too big an audience for me.  I thought.   I shook my head when Adam pointed to the white board by the door for people who wanted to sign up for the open mic.  He wasn’t daunted by my cowardice, though.  He picked up the marker and wrote his name on the list.  Apparently peer pressure and fear of missing out are stronger forces in my psyche than terror so I only made it about 15 minutes before I succumbed and signed up right underneath Adam.  Mike scrawled his name a couple slots below mine. 

           The fear that goes with performing is curious.  Writing the songs is one thing; performing them is another.  Especially when you’re not used to it.  You know that singing a song in front of people over a microphone won’t kill you, but your body responds as though there is immediate physical danger, as though you’re going into battle or walking into flames.   The kind of dread that makes you tremble.   At least that’s how it is for me.  Mike and Adam and I took our pre-combat jitters down to the creek where we sat in dappled sunlight with our guitars, between the sweet sound of the running creek and the humming engines on the highway, and took turns singing songs we planned to play.  I guess it’s true that life never seems quite as sweet as it does when you think you’re about to die.  That moment with Adam and Mike on the fringe between nature and civilization sits in my mind as one of those jewels of memory that compensates for moments when life is mundane or brutal. 

          Seems funny to me that the rehearsing is so memorable.  The performance itself is a blur.  Before I knew it, Adam was playing and I was up next, singing out, focusing on Mike and Adam standing near by watching me closely as though they would catch me if I fell.  And then I was done.   Three songs behind me and not a wound anywhere on my body.  Still alive.  Sun still shining.  People smiling at me.  Some of them patting me on the back.  The next open-mic performer shaking off the jitters and taking the stage.

          Me, I was already relaxing.  Talking at a picnic table out in the beer garden, going inside to hear my friend Lisa Fancher play with Clyde, smiling, laughing, enjoying the day.  Everyone was talking about Dr. Danger, a sort of performance artist/ stunt man/ professional pyromaniac who was planning to set himself on fire at sundown.  And his girlfriend, Mighty Aprhrodite.  I didn’t quite get the details, and what details I did get I couldn’t quite process.  I was a little high from all the adrenalin being drained out of my body.  The buzz about Dr. Danger was just part of the rumble and roar that filled the air.  Everyone was happy.  I felt like I was back in old Austin.  Back when it really did seem remarkable that the country music of my parents’ generation -- music that was born and raised in honky tonks and road houses like Twin Creeks Hall -- was synching in perfect harmony to the music of my generation.  And we were all in cahoots to defy genre and discount the barriers that might seem to separate us.

Austin 1973.

         The sun had just gone down when Mike took the open mic stage at Twin Creeks Hall.  Unfortunately, that was the time Dr. Danger had set for pyrotechnics.  I wish I could describe that event for you, but I can’t because I didn’t see it.  When the first flames shot up over the fence that blocked my view of Dr. Danger and Mighty Aphrodite, who staged their performance in the parking lot, I instinctively turned with everyone else to run outside and watch, but I noticed immediately that Adam stayed where he was – in front of the stage, feet rooted to the ground, watching Mike play his first song.  I looked back at Adam.  I can't say that the look he gave me was judgmental but it didn’t have to be.  His rootedness in front of our friend who, remember, was playing at his first open mic ever was judgment enough.   Adam knew where he belonged.  I slowed my steps and – I have to admit, reluctantly – came back to stand next to Adam to watch Mike's heroic performance.  Mike paused for a moment after his first song to smile quizzically at the flames shooting up higher and higher over the fence and then forged on.  Of the 75 to 100 people who were at Twin Creeks Hall at that moment, Adam and I were the only ones watching Mike.  Everyone else had rushed into the parking lot or were standing on benches and tables to look over the fence.  From what I understand, Dr. Danger did set himself and his girlfriend on fire – they were under the flames I could see over the fence -- but because they were wearing some effective flame retardant gear, they didn’t go up in smoke.  The whole thing only lasted about as long as Mike’s three songs.  Which Adam loyally watched.  I’ve already admitted my vulnerability to peer pressure and my instinct to leave Mike the moment the fire started so I can’t get away with claiming instinctive loyalty myself.  I was just doing what Adam did.  I’ll claim it as a learning moment though.  It was a great exercise in resisting the lure of spectacle – like stunt immolation – to keep my "hands on the wheel of something that’s real.”  Thank goodness because I don't have any regrets about missing Dr. Danger's and Mighty Aphrodite's performance but I would have some if I'd missed Mike's.
         Mike posted on Facebook the next day that he had played his first open mic the night before and that only two people had set themselves on fire.    He’s a card. 
         We stayed for the rest of the show.  Talk about relaxed.  By then we were all three as high as a mother who’s just survived labor and has a cooing baby to show for it.  Bob Cheever, Chris Wall, and Will Callery.all three put on a great show which was just more icing on an already perfect cake.  Truth is, though, Mike, Adam, and I would've had a good time kicking cans in a junkyard at that point. 

         As we walked to the car at the end of it all, Adam asked me if I was glad I had played.  I said I was.  Of course.  In fact I was bursting with pride.  On top of everything else Chris Wall and Will Callery and Bob Cheever had all told me I sounded great.  Then Adam said, “You know there were two kinds of people here today.  Those who played songs, and those who didn’t.  You were one of the ones who played songs.”

        Sometimes I make the mistake of thinking about the shortfall in life -- feeling guilty that I didn’t start writing songs earlier, that I’m not as good as someone else, that I’m not young, that I’m slow, that I can’t play the guitar better, that I can't hit the high notes, that I'm only playing in an open mic, that I’m not famous or even almost famous.  The list can go on and on, but on the drive home Adam said something else that sticks with me.  He said we were lucky that we weren't already successful as songwriters.   He said, if we were successful or famous or even just recognized, we wouldn’t be getting to try for that now.  We wouldn’t get to have the day we’d just had at Twin Creeks Hall.  Sure, Bob Cheevers, Chris Wall, and Will Callery had had a good day, but was it as good as ours had been?  Who would be willing to trade anything for the day we'd just had? 

          It’s now over a year later, and Twin Creeks Hall's fundraiser seems to have been the kick off of a new chapter in my life.  I seem to have survived what was a very rough patch for me and to have emerged into a day that is full of music and sunlight and friends who stand close when I’m most afraid of going up in smoke.   

          It's been a year full of songs and circles and growing in new directions.   At the end of it all I'm mixed up in a community of musicians and collaborators who seem to be the very pulse of creativity.     One of the things that’s come to pass is that Adam and I are launching a new open mic of our own.   At Tom’s Tabooley.  We begin this coming Thursday night and have high hopes for creating an open mic that is as supportive to songwriters and performers as that open mic at Twin Creeks Hall was to us last spring. 

         I gotta say Tom’s is a kick-ass venue with a great stage.  AND it already has a fantastic new sound system.  No fundraiser necessary.   We do not plan to include baptism by fire or pyrotechnics of any kind in the show, but we do hope to create an event that will give novice and veteran performers and songwriters the chance to come play and listen to each other without anyone going up in smoke.  
     Sign up is at 6:30.  We start at 7 and go until 10.

Tom's Tabooley
(512) 479-7337
2928 Guadalupe St
Austin, TX 78705