After a great time in mid south Texas, hooked up a stay with Rich (muso mate of Nick from San Marcos) in Austin proper. He luckily has a caravan for touring in his yard that band people and muso mates can stay. I after getting acquainted, do a drive around the central area again, I have a bit of an idea of Austin already. Austin is a bit more spread out, it has a nice feel, more sprawling with lots of river around, every available empty block is full of little food trucks.
A few Texan things, motobike helmets are not compulsory, and it’s quite weird watching all manor of bikes with carefree riders helmet-less and not giving a shit, walking into venues with warnings that Firearms are illegal to bring in… Coffee is pretty shit everywhere, healthy food is hard to find… ha ha But that all said Austin and Texas have many awesome redeeming qualities too, lots of dive bars playing down home music, friendly locals, lots of cool and tasty food trucks everywhere, even IN venues for a late night snack.
So I dive right in again, time is important, and sleep is for the weak. I see a thing for a soul night at Skylark neighbourhood bar so head there to see Soul Man Sam (a Stax Records recorded artist) for his Sunday residency. They play through a lot of standards and soul songs, and some really great interpretations of songs I know. S-M-Sam just does it his way, and his band are a bunch of seasoned pros, they prove it by backing up every guest he invites to the stage with whatever they want and do it wildly and intuitively. Amazing to watch! One great singer pictured here, “Blue Boy” (I think) was up from Houston hiding from Hurricane Harvey, and a welcome, talented, gravelly singer. Great Night!
Mon, head out to Austin, check a few great retail shops along South Congress Ave, go to Torchy’s for 2 Tacos for lunch (the “Trailer Park” and a fish taco…), head to The Continental to see The Peterson Bros, do their blues funk residency again, and they don’t disappoint, amazingly talented, but as suspected its a complete show, almost the same things, same songs, same schtick, same gags… it’s for the show of it. But can’t wait to see what these boys come up with in a few years. Head to Sahara’s bar for the Swing Sextet, and they also don’t disappoint. But this time I get there a bit earlier and see Lauren who plays flute in The Charlie Christians, we chat after when the Sahara Swingtet are playing, and after I tell her that I missed the earlier band last week, and she looks at me funny
and goes, “...yeah I danced with you last week!” ha ha oops, but she looks different with jeans on this week and her hair up, and I see her as the Flute/sax player this week…ha ha. The Swing Sextet also don’t disappoint with great set of swing jazz, standards, but quiet a few original numbers too, which is great to see in jazz. Get a few dances in, but also get one dance in with who turns out to be a dance instructor, and by the end of the dance I can tell she’s humouring me. I watch her later and she leads better than me. Moral, it’s fun and demoralising to dance with someone way out of your league.
Tues luckily is HAAM Benefit Day in Austin! Such a great thing, HAAM stands for Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and its literally that, the benefit day is their fundraiser, where bands/musos play all over Austin and money earned goes to HAAM, who help musos in need of acute medical care. Like most places in the world, musos never can afford to take care of themselves, or do the big medical and dental maintenance that people with regular careers take for granted. I hear many stories during the day from performers who have benefited from the program (and are putting back in for free this day). Such a great initiative! one of the main setups is at Wholefoods supermarket outdoor area, with bands all day 6am - 8pm.
I saw heaps of great music here, from pop-py country blues, solo gravelly country with pedal steel, world-y Marimba group playing Zimbabwean music, groovy alt rock, a great day and selection of high quality players. It’s sunny and hot, and a dry heat here in Austin, it reminds me of late Spring/early Summer in my home town in NSW. Late arvo when the music gets a bit commercial, I do a bit of a walk around the Texas Capitol, the main govt building in the centre of town.
I walk the hallowed halls of Texas’ Senate, House of Representatives and the very halls that their most famous Governor walked, George Bush Jnr. ha ha it’s interesting the feeling walking amongst all of that history we know via proxy in Aus. Especially since there is so much crazy stuff going on in the world today, and votes etc in Australia on issues. There is also fairly strict security policy and security gates to get thru to get in. It’s still unnerving to pass by a swath of officers maning metal detectors, being scrubbed over, and having a soldier standing by with a M14 Sub Machine gun right there, hovering in the wings.
Anyway after a jaunt around the halls of strictedity, I have a relax in the green public park out front which is rather pleasant with monuments to the greats, war, history, the usual. But there are also lots of squirrels burying nuts for the winter, it’s always nice to see nature finding a way. I head back to the HAAM day see a few more acts.
Head home for a rest and then head out to Rich’s gig, where he is takin’ care of an acoustic gig for a mate who’s on tour @ The Hardluck Cafe. He enlists the help of some touring friends from Colorado (I think) and they do songs in the round, each doing a feature in turn, and sometimes guest harmony or play guitar as well. Great sets and some funny moments, watching seasoned tourers with history jibe each other and play solos over each other, and bring up tour “incidents” ha ha after they finish, I head to Dozen St bar which has supposed to have blues jam, and is on my list of venues to see.
Dozen St doesn’t have a jam… it is actually a Buddy Holly-esque country rock n roll band. Which at first I think is a loose jam collective taking the piss… but in true Austin style they are not, and are extremely adept at this genre, and I stay for most of their set. It’s not really my thing, but they are quite entertaining.
I head back to the Whitehorse which I know will have a late band. It’s a crazy punk/country all gal band. They are reckless in their approach and seem to not give two flying fucks about the true honkytonk crowd that have hung in til late (which puts them in the good books with me). I just realised I crammed a lot into that tuesday ha ha! gal band cranks thru lots of angsty hard country blues :) <3
Wed, have a slow start. Have a bit of a drive around Central Austin, and Cherrywood, just to see some other place around town, check the communities. stop off at near Wholefoods again on the way back to Office Max to get a USB stick and a new back-up harddrive, as I left my full backup of my computer in Aus, wrapped in plastic in storage (as you can’t be too careful). But now I have heaps of new stuff that I don't want to lose, so decide to start a new USA backup that stays separate to my laptop :) ha! do i sound like a computer nerd now! later head back to The Whitehorse because Lauren’s other big band outfit is playing swingy tunes there. They are seriously good, and the Two-Steppin’ western swing dancers love it, and there are a few swing dancers there too. I’ve started to feel the western swing dancers vibe, but it’s still a challenge, to match enough to not confuse them with Lindy moves. I head over to Dozen St again where there is listed Butta & Jam listed, but when I get there it’s actually more a band playing smooth grooves, and not much intention of any jamming happening. I watch for a while, it’s groove / RnB / hip hop, but then head home.
I decide to to a bit of a day thing, and thurs make it to an earlier brunch @ Cenote Cafe, one recommended by Rich. The cafe is super cool, lots of indoor and outdoor areas, great selection of foods, and coffee, and plenty of spaces, laptops, and power points abound. These guys know where it’s at. It’s full of trendies, hipsters, neighbourhood folk, business meetings, excersise freaks, a great mix that shows they must be doing something right.
I head out to Barton Springs for a swim, but it’s closed all thurs for cleaning and maintenance, sadface, but I take a great look around an area I wouldn’t have been, Zilker Park (with great views to the city, their 100 year anniversary) and check out some other areas near The Doke, the lake on the Colorado river.
It’s fun to do tacky shit sometimes.. ha ha “YOU are the 1 in 100…” this area is outdoor living! huge park spaces, beach volleyball courts, Barton Springs natural swimming hole, the lake, rowing clubs, all sorts of healthy things to get some sun, instead of being cooped up in dark night venues all the time.
I check out the Kung Fu Bar in town, which is suppose to be a classic video arcade / bar… but unfortuntately they went out of business before I could arrive :( wahh still a great mural.
I found out a while ago about a THE great swing night that happens in Austin, which is run by The Swing Syndicate. They have lessons on thurs nights at The “Fed”, The Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs. It’s huge classical building with a great Dance Hall.
Massive dance lesson, must be at least 100 people there! and then there, and once the lessons are over, more of the local dancers pile in for social dance most of the night. Get some great dances in and work on my 2 step texas-style swing. Heaps of fun! many dances with lots of people of varying levels and styles... crazy to keep up with.
Of course after the dance runs down to midnight, a night wouldn’t be topped without a trip to The Whitehorse honkytonk bar… and luckily Georgia Parker Band is doing their residency the late slot on Thurs nights. So I get to catch up with Nick and Georgia one last time, which is lucky as I forgot to give them the photos and footage of that i took of the band while I was here, usb stick to the rescue! in person, ha ha 5.5GB of stuff ha ha
The weekend is a toss up, but nothing is grabbing me in Austin, and I remember a festival that I wasn’t sure if it would time out, but as I spent a bit more time in New Orleans, it schedules out OK! so I decide to make a run for the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival, which turns out to be their 40th Anniversary Fest! leave friday lunch and travel halfway to a small town called Marshall, stay in a motel, travel the rest of the way on Sat morning to arrive at lunchtime for the festival in Greenville Mississippi! basically a 9hr journey! just of hop skip and a jump for a touring aussie muso ;)
Highways are generally pretty good, major divided affairs, and this part of the country is mostly pretty flat, so they are big and straight… but luckily some of the places I’m going to are small, so I get to travel some byways and little places. Past cotton fields, and farms and towns of a few thousand, and every small village proudly has a water tower with their name on it. I cross a state line into the corner of Arkansas, then the mighty Mississippi river again into Mississippi, The home and heart of the Blues and Rock and Roll.
It’s a little bit of a moment, for me as this is the area where many of the types of music I love to play originated. Blues, Bluegrass, Jump Blues, Rock n Roll, Country skiffle.
These very fields way back when, toiled so many musicians to etch out a living, working in the fields a lot of the time, playing their music where they can, travelling the byways, hitching trains, playing down on the crossroads of many of these small towns and rail lines to earn money to survive. Then some of them forged the vibe that we all love now, and created music that just explained how they felt, & told their story.
First stop The Delta Fest! it’s pretty crazy, and very low-fi compared to say Byron Bay Blues Fest in Australia. There is little pretence here, NO major corporations gauging as much cash out of you as possible. Tickets for the whole festival are $30!! that’s right… 4 stages, music all day and night, there are only basic facilities, plenty of BBQ and food trucks onsite, and really no restrictions… people just bring wheelie trucks of marques, cooler boxes (eskies) full of beer, their own smokers and BBQ grills, foldout chairs, the whole she-bang! & like a lot of festivals most setup up camp in front of the mainstage & don’t move.
It’s pretty dry and very hot this day in a dusty paddock! lots of round bales of hay are dotted around, in case of rain and mud etc but I find they are also good to sit on later for a good view. Main stage is huge, and has a massive PA, the Duke stage is small, and basic, I mean really basic, but I find like most festivals I find myself moving around during the day and evening to different stages to check out some interesting stuff. As with most main stages, the performer are all pretty good to great, but sometime can be a bit “safe” (read commercial) for my liking… ha ha the Duke stage has heaps of local acts, which are good and great. I buy one CD. There is also the Gospel Stage, which I gather after a few performances is actually a full gospel blues stage, like run by churches, with church bands and band/choirs that sing full on Church music southern style! Pretty amazing to watch, as the LEAST amount of harmony singing I saw on this stage was 3 part harmonies, and it went up from there, amazing! but after a while, each time, it started to sound a bit same-y to me, and when all the lyrics are about Jesus and God, and being uplifted, Amen! I get a bit lyrically tired, and went for some more variation on the Duke Stage.
This festival seems more like a locals sort of festival though, there probably are people from a lot of places, and it’s very interesting during the day for me to really only be one of about 50 non African Americans at this festival of about say 6000-10000 people. There really aren’t many white people here at all, which surprises me, I’m just glad I look a bit mixed race, or maybe Mexican with my hair. I feel that inherent racism in me that has been subconciously instilled in me via TV/News & class-ist white dominated entertainment industry, even as a mixed race person it’s bizarre to feel that way, outnumbered in this foreign situation. I totally get why America is so racially unstable.
Anyway I get over it, and start to have some conversations with a few people around and some of the stall holders, who can’t believe I came all the way from Australia! Whenever you talk most people assume you are British… I soon poo-poo that and set them straight ha ha! and after some great musical conversations and some BBQ ribs with spicy beans and potato salad, I could get used to this… hanging at the Duke stage I chat more closely with people and the barriers are breaking down, even the main stage area I start to get lots of smiles and nods from people that see me moving backwards and forwards from stage to stage, I think they know that only blues enthusiasts make it to this festival :)
I stay at the fest til close of the main stage, and during that evening, in true journey style hadn’t even organised accomodation yet… But while at the fest @ about 9pm I just book a cheap motel in a local-ish area online. All the accom in Greenville is booked out. I love how random, unplanned but centred this trip has become.
Next day I travel through Greenville which on Highway 61, which is part of the Blues Trail, a journey right up the Mississippi River that blues musicians used to travel, and many of them discovered and honed their talents in these very small towns. Side note, Jim Henson of The Muppets fame was also born here. Also Nelson street which many blues musicians played in clubs in the 40s & 50s, got discovered and recruited here. Sadly now Nelson st is a shell of its former self, and lies in ruin.
I travel to Leland, where Johnny Winter lived for a while, 80s Blues guy who admired Muddy Waters and BB King, and later played with Muddy Waters and produced several albums for him which were Grammy nominated.
I then travel up to Clarksdale which holds the famed “Crossroads” where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil for musical success. Hometown to Muddy Waters for a while, and birthplace of John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, Junior Parker and Ike Turner.
But I have my own connection to Clarksdale, besides all the famed blues mumbo jumbo, and have always wanted to see the place. Many years ago I was at a blues jam in Thirroul Australia, and ended up thrown into a jam with Matt Foster, a wild drunken slide bluesman from Maine in the USA, but he lived in Australia for years (Sidenote: and as a carpenter, Matt built some of the Nebauchadnezzar, Morpheus’ space ship in The Matrix 1) but we ended up jamming and playing many gigs over the years, and we did a song called "Going Down to Clarksdale”. It always made me wonder about the place, it was a great song, and had incredibly bluesy, raucous, inciteful story lyrics, now I have stood in that place & walked that blues trail.
Also another totally random thing, I always wondered what happened to The Vanguard in Newtown Sydney, it had such a great vibe, and seemed to be going so well. Then it has lately changed hands and become a bit more lack-lustre as Leadbelly. But randomly walk into Levon’s in Clarksdale Mississippi, and run into Daniel Champagne! (Aussie Guitarist/Singer, who lives in Nashville now) who is playing in Levon’s. He explains that Johnny Cass who used to run The Vanguard, sold up everything and moved to Clarksdale, and now runs this venue! crazy!
After watching the great local support act Jacqueline Nassar (Check her out she is great!), and Dan’s set I head off to Memphis to make a blues jam on Sunday night at 7pm, it’s not far only about 1.5 hrs drive.
Memphis downtown doesn’t seem that big, and I find out that the Blues Society jam is on hiatus for while, and their other exploits are also on hold…so like Blues Societies everywhere.
Anyway I head out to the famed Beale street, from the 1920s to the 1940s, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon and other blues and jazz legends played on Beale Street and helped develop the style known as Memphis Blues. But these days it’s like Burbon St in New Orleans, and has become the touristy, crass armpit of a place where the music is what is expected, and has lost the heart of what it was. There seems to be great artists here, and it probably depends on the night and venue, and I see one great act at Rum Boogie Cafe’s - Blues Hall Juke Joint. The side band room has old musos playing with a great female singer, who holds us in the palm of her hand… Memphis still has some of IT, lets hope there is more when I dig thru this week.