Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Hot Cong Fever Forever

I ran into Al Perry today at Los Betos. He was just sitting there, waiting on his burrito. “Blazing set, man,” I said.

He thanked me, then without any hesitation said it had been one of the best weekends of his life.

He was right – he had to be.

Club Congress 20th Anniversary was nothing short of historic – three nights of outstanding music, accompanied by the feel that something absolutely unheard of was happening.

I felt it right away. The whole crowd was geared up; they all knew it. They all knew that this was something damn special.

I was hosting Stu LeBlanc and CH for their weekend out of the pines, a preview weekend of the eventual move. Also swinging through town for the weekend was our favorite expatriate, Mr. Tim Finagain, on loan from Paris.

I was riding high all week for the show and Tuesday’s show by the Knitters only added to the anticipation.

When thousands of people congregate – and dozens of bands reunite – to celebrate a city’s music scene over the years, there’s an obvious tendency to think there’s something special in that scene, something special in that sound, something special in that town. And it’s all right.

My own knowledge of the Tucson music scene goes back just eight years. I know most of Greyhound Soul and Fourkiller Flats, of Calexico and the latter Giant Sand years, of the newer clubs. I know nothing of the defunct clubs, nothing of the departed acts and sadly, next-to-nothing of Rainer Ptack.

But even in those few years, I’ve caught on to the enduring legends, caught a buzz from what came before.

The counterpart to the weekend, the documentary film High and Dry, spent a while pondering on what precisely makes up the Tucson sound. Some speculation went as narrow as a particular drum style, a sort of off-beat, opposite sound. Others cited the heavy guitar presence. Some spoke more esoterically about “space” in the sounds. Some merely over simplified it with the “desert rock” tag – which has been around long enough to actually come to mean something.

I can’t cite anything in particular, other than the city itself. It’s more of a feel and a character than anything else. It’s relaxed, with the only urgency in the music itself. It’s quirky at times, beyond unique at others. There’s a landscape to Tucson music. It’s four dimensional. Its connection with a Tucson listener is immediate – and deeper than pretty much all but that listener’s most favorite music. Tucson’s music is filled with contradictory characters – from the anti-hero Howe Gelb to the British bluesman Tom Walbank. Tucson’s music is contradictions piled on each other, competing sounds and genres layered as if they were instruments. And the perfect mix is achieved in so many different ways, it’s hard to cite a particular sound.

The first act I really caught Friday was the Sidewinders, and Rich Hopkins’ guitar alone is plenty enough to make you believe they were truly screwed out of hitting the big time. Leave the Gin Blossoms comparisons at home, the Sidewinders are more like a dust-baked Replacements in sound, if not impact and Paul Westerberg’s songwriting.

I caught a tantalizing bit of La Cerca – a band ready to make a big impact. Let “desert rock” now take over the indie stage.

The highlight of Friday, and probably the whole weekend, was Giant Sand. Howe Gelb has a presence alright, and it only grew with the importance of the event.

He’s certainly been the longest-playing and widely appreciated and revered performer associated with the Tucson music scene, as innovative and influential as you’d find anywhere these days.

There were new songs and old songs, with his old bandmates Calexico back in full force. I lost some of the specifics as the night grew hazy, but that sound is still in my mind: Howe Gelb doing whatever he wanted with that guitar. And I was constantly amazed.

Saturday brought the Al Perry All Star BBQ, with Al hosting court as the Legend he is. Not that he needs a lead guitarist, but Al brought out two, including Chuck Prophet, for a triple Telecaster attack that was stunning. He played a friendly set, filled with the classics: Loserville, Little Bird Flies Away (though I’m not sure on that title) and Dreaming. The best, though, was “We Got Cactus,” the near-signature song he rescued from obscurity, complete with its Bloodspasm songwriter singing backup. Incredible.

Next I caught the peyote blues of Greyound Soul inside the wonderfully renovated Rialto Theatre. Greyhound was in great form, perfect form really, but I had to make the toughest decision of the weekend and run across the street to catch the Drakes, performing under their new name, the Townies.

If Giant Sand hadn’t been so perfect, this would have easily been the set of the weekend.

The Drakes played old and new and sounded perfect. The guitar/keyboard combo was spot on. Tom Stauffer’s got some top quality new tunes – including one I woke up humming the next morning and couldn’t shake all weekend. Their brass section fit perfect. The Drakes’ sound is terribly hard to describe because it’s so versatile. They can swing between dense and spare like few others. I’m not sure if anybody else could go without a bass on some songs and have a tuba (that for some reason they kept calling a sousaphone) hold down the low end. They closed with Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927, but the second-to-last tune was the one that really brought the house down. Here’s to more shows and more records by the Drakes/Townies, who sound like they’ve got the “Fantasy Jones.”

And the night kept going, with a shot of pure adrenaline known as Chango Malo. The boys were in high spirits, but were either forced or offered to cut their set short to get the gig back on schedule. No problem. As the drummer left his kit to announce it would be the last tune of the night for them, he invited the crowd up on stage. So there MP and I are, dancing right onstage, along with Chango Malo and about 50 other crazies. Excellent.

But Saturday wasn’t done yet. In the surprise bonus great act of the night, I finally caught Tom Walbank, playing a righteous boogie blues like it was the New Year or something. I was groovin’ and shakin’ it – and I rarely groove, and never shake it.

I caught High and Dry on Sunday and am now vastly more informed about the scene –vastly more impressed, and vastly more appreciative of the fact that I chose this place and have been here for nearly nine years.

Sunday night however was a bit tougher. The legs weren’t holding up so well. The stomach wasn’t quite sure why it’d been drowned so much the two previous days. But the music didn’t stop and despite my lower-key demeanor, I didn’t withdraw. And the bands were perfect for a sitting back time. The swooping mysterious desert jazz of the Friends of Dean Martin and Friends of Dean Martinez (I’m still not up to speed quite on the precise difference) could float right on over to me sitting on a curb without losing a thing. And then Calexico (performing as Spoke) just kept it going. The current ambassadors of the Tucson scene played the good guys, cutting their set short to get the night back on track.

Fourkiller Flats closed off the weekend for me, a second reunion gig in two weeks and I couldn’t be happier. They played with the keyboards again, a new sounds that just slides right on in and makes the music a little denser, a little richer. I’ll never figure out why Fourkiller Flats didn’t explode. Maybe they hit the alt.country wave just a bit late, but Jim Cox’s songs of heartbreak and boozing are incredible and his voice just kicks you. The set had a couple songs that thrilled me because they were familiar from shows in years past, never recorded or left off albums for whatever reason. Ah man, what a happy comfortable time standing in front of that stage.

So that’s the roundup. I’m an appreciator in the whole scene here and the weekend was mind-blowing. I hope every performer and participant can join Al Perry in proclaiming the weekend one of the best of all-time.

1 comment:

JLC said...

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