Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Vacation, BBQ, friends and tunes...

Sitting here with a cd going on the stereo, trying to put myself back in the mindset of an overwhelming weekend, what I’m struck with most is the notion that recorded music is shit.

And that, friends, is how awesome the Club Congress 21st birthday festival was.

The wake of three days of live tunes – of hours and hours of watching and nodding and even some unlikely dancing – is infested with an inability to really grab onto these sounds coming out of the stereo, even from one of my favorite local albums.

In the wake of the past weekend, recorded music seems mild, sedate, lifeless, part of a damn little black box across the room instead of a living, breathing, sweaty, wrinkled, (likely drunk), dude or dudette.

You climb a mountain, you gotta come back down, and it’s the same with this. It’s just far too much to ask that all the music I listen to could come from a band or a performer 10 feet away, amps turned high, the singer’s face scrunched with pain or joy. The sound envelopes you in the live context, whereas it just kinda comes atcha recorded.

And what I was enveloped in was such a strange mix of styles and sounds, from aging punk legends taking the acoustic route to guitar torch mechanics to rock ‘n’ roll bands as full and broad and pounding as there ever were.

Club Congress commands much, and for its 21st the bar is set even higher. Last year was historic, but this year is when it got to come alive, bring along a few friends and settle into being a tradition.

I took a vacationer’s strategy for the weekend, leaving my apartment (just four miles away) about 7 p.m. Friday and returning home just after noon on Monday. In between it was me and Congress, friends and music and downtown and three nights spent on my brother’s floor.

I hit into the Rialto just before Dave Alvin’s set on Friday, anxious to hear an artist full of contradictions. His history is all blues and rockabilly, then he joined X briefly, continuing on with the Knitters before turning out amazing solo albums. With a deep, rich, outdoorsy voice, Alvin the singer is best as a country-folk acoustic dude. But his guitar work screams and shimmies, an effortless expertise best suited to the old school rock ‘n’ roll of his roots. But he’s not necessarily a bandleader – so often an appreciator of his own influences. Stu ditched out not too far into Alvin’s set – just too damn much guitar. I can understand that, but I was transfixed.

Friday closed with the Pork Torta and Weird Lovemakers both cramming sets into the final hour, but the energy was incredible. I jutted out to catch a bit of the Jons meld of Arizona horn-punk on the outside stage for a bit and jammed with some Chango Malo friends. Back inside, rock was punk and the crowd was pogo sticks, at least up front near the stage where I finished the night.

Waking up, there was no doubt that Saturday’s low-key time was going to be devoted to the new Bob Dylan. It was the only album I brought on vacation and Stu hadn’t heard it at all. So we chilled with that for a while before catching lunch and friends at Epic Café. I spent the afternoon with a girl and some dogs before reloading for Congress 21: Night Two.

Al Perry’s BBQ Extravaganza served up some old school guitar crunch in Gila Bend, train-whistle-blues-harp from the Hecklers (I swear the local legends at the helm made that band up, complete with back story), beautifully crafted neo-country from Lonna Kelly and the Broken-Hearted Lovers (or as I called them: Hot Chick and the Dudes), and beef brisket or pulled pork at $8 a pop.

The Tucsonan in me couldn’t stop running into the Tap Room (shout out Tokar!) to catch the Wildcats score, another world away even though the lights atop Arizona Stadium were just visible from outside the club.

Jello Biafra was in all likelihood the most anticipated act of the weekend, a politically radical punk whose spoken word work of late had a lot of humor and more than a touch of vaudeville. Biafra came out with a satiric screed on the new world order of G.W. Bush and then got political. He toned it down for a long list of bad band names, going as far as Dr. Chung and I used to in assigning them genres as well. Some weren’t bad – or maybe were bad but just barely so; I thought Sausage Gong could’ve fit as a real band name. Jello’s performance continued with the backing of Al Perry, a see-it-to-believe-it combo if there ever was one. The Phil Ochs cover “Love Me I’m a Liberal” and the newly anti-war spin on Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” were true gems, and the showmanship of Biafra, combined with Perry’s hot-shit band, was the weekend’s highlight.

The schedule threw a curveball and I missed the first song from the Drakes, who’d been moved inside. One of the highlights of last year’s festival put on probably an even better show this time around, with more of the two guitar attack and a violinist the whole way. Gene the Audiologist and Tom the Newsman turn it up and turn it down, jam on cue and drop a spare tune beautifully on a dime. Add in a brass section for a few numbers and just enjoy.

Following the Drakes inside was Richard Buckner, an honorary Tucsonan I’d seen close to a dozen times before. It’s been amazing to watch as he’s become an absolute expert in looping guitar parts on top of each other. The performances have become more nuanced and detailed as his distinctive strumming has evolved into a whole other instrument with the technique. The trouble is, it leaves little room for applause, but I reckon Bucker kinda set it up that way. He played more songs of Since than I’ve seen in ages, and from the buzz of his new record being more of a full rock band affair in the same lines of Since, I’m excited.

That was mostly it for the tunes Saturday, as Stu and I got to talkin’ a lot with Charlie and folks, riding high on the great sets of the festival so far.

Club Congress isn’t Lollapalooza, or Coachella, or SXSW – the scale just isn’t possible, but even more importantly it isn’t driven by the fly-by-night buzz of new acts. Every set there was earned by years and years of good records and Tucson-crowd-pleasing shows. And in that you have an audience so tailored to the music, performers so tailored to the fans, that it can’t fail, not for a second.

I seem to recall Sunday morning being a bit easier to digest than Saturday… Epic Café again was the lunch spot and again I couldn’t have had a better afternoon with a girl and her dogs…

Howe Gelb was BBQ Master for Sundays festivities, and my only regret is missing the Golden Boots set by just a few minutes. I’m told that band has great promise… but onto the main acts.

Vic Chesnutt blew me away, with a passionate voice and brilliantly crafted songs. Kristin Hersh was the perfect antidote to Chesnutt’s pained tales. John Doe covered Joni Mitchell… and for a moment I could imagine “A Case of You” as an X song, with Doe and Exene’s intertwined wail turning folk to punk – just as Doe has turned punk to folk.

Howe sang his “Ballad of the Tucson Two,” celebrating the reemergence of common sense, with felony charges against two activists dropped, a reaffirmation of human dignity.

Howe brought up the night’s supergroup – Vic, Kristin and Doe – to sing “Wayfaring Stranger” and then Dylan’s new “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” It’s just a shame they kept it to two songs.

Fourkiller Flats took the stage next and for a band that took a three-year hiatus, proved its return to the fold of Tucson’s best with no questions. It was the third time in a month or so I’d seen the Flats, following a loose Che’s show and opening for the Little Morts. About six or seven songs in their set were unrecorded, at least to my knowledge, so here’s to another album from one of Tucson’s finest rock bands.

The manic Doo Rag closed out the festival with rapid-fire slide blues and trash can banging that probably would have never existed if not for them. Every Congress festival should close with Doo Rag, if for no other reason than to remind you you’re in Tucson.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Fare Thee Well

I never saw anybody smash a banjo before. But neither could I have dreamt of a better description of the drunken punk-country of the Little Morts, or a more fitting moment as their final show spun out of control and crashed in sweat, smiles and tears.

It helps that the Morts aren’t just another band, but friends and a tremendous set of musicians, some who are off to Austin, counting down the miles as in another of the band’s hard-charging fiddle and Telecaster romps.

Irish and proud, Daniel Long is a red-headed growler, not so much a stranger as an friend as he writes of booze, jail, travelin’ and the last moments of reason in a day, the strange, uncomfortable, curious sobriety of a bright noon. Just wonder.

The Little Morts stole from Johnny Cash and Tom Russell and the Stones (and not just songs for their last show), a while back borrowed a guitarist who elevated the performance past great to incredible and begged a lot from their audience (mostly shots of whiskey and Jaegermeister). But they loved a lot too, the tunes, the fans and the stage.

I’ll leave it to someone down the line to write the history of the Little Morts, because they sure as shit ain’t done yet. Bigger stages are waiting out in the Texas night.

But I will say that as I stood in front for their final show, head bobbing in a corduroy cowboy hat, ears open and joyous and mind swimming in a whiskey river, the Little Morts couldn’t have been better. It was a good-bye full of swagger and joy and 20 songs that weren’t nearly enough.