Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Heartbreaker Banquet

I have seen a whole lot of music in the past decade.  I'm a sucker for music documentaries, musician biographies, and, most of all, live concerts.  In music documentaries, there is a recurring figure: usually a gray-haired and gray-bearded guy in his late-50s or early-60s reflecting on the event in question: Woodstock, the Festival Express, etc.  He's probably wearing tie-dye because the director asked him to, but you get the feeling the tie-dye may come out a bit more often than his children would like.  You also get the idea that Jerry Garcia always was and always will be this guy's hero.

Anyway, at some point in the interview, the guy says: "Something really happened there, man.  I mean, really happened."

This comment, said in the most "far out" voice possible, generally produces a smirk or an eye roll from me.  I assume that what "happened" was substance abuse, probably some decent tunes, but altogether moments of passing significance. 

This cynicism, and I think it's fair to call it that, has been reinforced by my live music experiences.  I've delved into the festival environment through eight or so Austin City Limits Festivals and two Bonnaroos.  I've also hit a handful of smaller gatherings.  These events are a ton of fun.  Great music, great food, interesting hardships, logistical challenges, and stories that may or may not be shared someday with my son.  But these events have also grown to unwieldy proportions. I've had a great time, but it rarely feels like a unique experience, and the crowds are just too large to really allow for connections between festival-goers.

But this week Megan and I attended the Heartbreaker Banquet, and I can finally tell you: something really happened there, man.  I mean, really happened.

The Heartbreaker Banquet

I first learned of the Heartbreaker Banquet through a musician named Jonny Burke (more on Jonny below) who also happens to be one of the brains behind the operation.  Last year he told me about the event and invited me to join.  Between a brutal caseload and a wife who was eight months pregnant, I decided to make the terrible decision to stay at home.  Afterwards I drooled over the press write-ups and decided this mistake could not be repeated.

For starters, the venue is absurdly good.  The festivities take place in an abandoned movie set from an old Western that happens to be located on Willie Nelson's ranch in Spicewood, Texas.  The ranch is far enough from Austin to feel like a break from the SXSW chaos but close enough to be accessible.

Within the Wild West town, known as Luck, Texas, music was performed on two stages--a larger outdoor stage and a small stage in the movie-set church.  Given our particular bias for acoustic guitars and heartfelt ballads, Megan and I spent most of our time in Willie's church, but the big stage is perfectly set up to pack a punch but still feel connected to the band.

The amenities were incredible as well.  Sponsors include Lagunitas, Left Hand, and Tito's Vodka, which means no one went thirsty.  Food trucks provided the grub.  Any cardiologists reading this will be happy to know I helped develop their future business with some bacon fried rice with fried egg on top, courtesy of Be More Pacific.  I'm not even sorry.  I probably worked it off by dancing later.

Most importantly, tickets are somewhat tricky to come by.  We chatted with quite a few of our fellow concert goers, and it seems people obtained tickets one of two ways: they either knew somebody on the inside or jumped through the various entertaining social media hoops to land tickets (at one point they were providing ticket codes to people who managed to get to a particular donut shop and post a picture with the owner . . . another code was projected on the side of a building at 5th and Congress . . . pretty innovative stuff).

This meant the crowd was both intimate and full of people who really wanted to be there.  At one point Megan sat down in Willie's church without realizing she was sharing a pew with Shovels & Rope.  We had a great conversation with Valerie June's publisher, which gave us some real insight into her music and background.  We met a guy who used to build furniture with the bass player for The Happen-Ins.  Maybe this is just what life in or near Austin is like these days, but the ticketing process helps narrow the crowd into superfans and music lovers.  It's a special thing when sound checks and stage changes vanish in a moment due to excellent conversation.

The Music

Of course, none of that matters without extraordinary musical talent.  While the acts cross a number of genres and styles, most of the bands at least this year loosely fit into an Americana-singer-songwriter-roots-blues-rock type vibe.  Someone on stage has a guitar in hand, and that guitar most likely has a hole in it, and the hole was probably put there by someone else during a bar fight in 1973.  Banjos, slide guitar, tube amps, mandolins, an old Strat, a Martin OM, fiddle, mustache, beard.

I'd say the acts speak for themselves, but a lot of the talent at Heartbreaker fits in the "up-and-coming" category.  I raved to my friends: "Guys, guys, . . . guys, I'm going to get to see Houndmouth live and in concert.  So stoked."  The return expression made me question whether I'd somehow slipped into Mandarin.  I'm guessing my regular reader hasn't heard of them either, but seriously, just listen to Penitentiary.  So so good.  And turns out they do a damn good live performance as well. 

But that's the brilliance of the banquet.  Performance after performance, we would walk away thinking we just couldn't believe we saw that level of talent in that size a crowd.  The accessibility was truly amazing.  The person sitting next to you at one show would be playing drums during the next one.

We saw a lot of music over the 10+ hours we spent at Willie's.  I recommend looking at the lineup and exploring every artist, but I thought I'd hit some of our favorites here.  I need to DEEPLY qualify this by noting that we did not see everyone, and, as I mentioned, we had a strong bias for watching bands playing in front of the four rows of pews in Willie's church.  I didn't even see Shovels & Rope, which was one of the bigger draws for me at the outset.    

So, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, here are the five performances that really made our day.

Riley Downing & the Tumbleweeds

I have a playlist called "Bourbon Sippin'."  This playlist is one of my guilty pleasures.  It comes on late at night after its namesake has been consumed in sufficient quantities and goes best with a campfire.  The artists are what you might expect:  Hank Sr., George Jones, Willie, Warren Zevon, Vern Gosdin, David Allan Coe, Bill Monroe, Townes Van Zandt, and others.

Every song performed by Riley Downing and the Tumbleweeds belongs on this playlist, and I intend to add them once I can track down the music.  These guys write great songs that your grandfather would be proud of.  They are songs I wish I could hear out of the radio in my great-grandfather's El Camino that I remember riding in on his farm in Panhandle, Texas.

I spoke with Riley for a while after the performance and got the feeling these songs came from a deep place in his upbringing as well.  He asked me to take his picture next to Willie's church, noting that where he comes from everyone keeps a framed picture of Willie Nelson next to their fireplace.  That's the kind of music these guys play, and we loved every minute of it. 

Samantha Crain

Going into the event, I knew Samantha Crain had a song about my favorite city, Santa Fe.  That song happens to be called Santa Fe, and you should check it out.  Not surprisingly, that brilliant bit of songwriting is not her only great work.  Her gorgeous voice and intricate lyrics joined beautiful instrumentation from a fiddle, upright bass, drums, and pair of guitars.  We got the idea immediately that we were in for a treat, as Samantha indicated she was able to play some songs that didn't quite work in the crowded bars she usually played.  If you are a fan of heartfelt lyrics and performers who pour themselves into everything they do, check out her albums.

Valerie June

My path toward loving blues music goes back quite a ways.  I remember as a kid listening to my dad play Robert Johnson recordings often followed by Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  In college, I ended up doing a research project comparing Elvis Presley and Che Guevara.  My research on Elvis's influences pulled me deeper into blues music including Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and the pantheon recorded on the Sun Records label.  The research prompted me to balance my blues listening--as I would rotate between Robert Petway or Howlin' Wolf and newer bands with a blues basis like the Black Keys or the White Stripes.  I probably learned the most about the blues from Megan's father who blogs about blues music and who has written two thrilling mysteries loaded with blues music and history, River Bottom Blues and The Devil's Blues.

With that in mind, Valerie June's music fits beautifully in the blues tradition.  Her take on classics as well as the songs she has written herself fit within the tradition of great blues music while including her very unique twist.  Her music has strong echoes of country and gospel influences carried by captivating vocals and simple instrumentation ranging from guitar to soprano banjo (think banjo ukulele).  She calls her music "organic moonshine roots music," and after hearing her play in Willie's church, I don't think I can improve on that description.  Megan and I would have loved to sit in the church and listen to her play all afternoon.  We eagerly await her future releases.

Jonny Burke

In September 2006, I headed to Austin for my bachelor party.  Our group gathered at Threadgill's on a Friday night to enjoy a relatively cool evening and live music.  The headliner that night was Bob Schneider, playing with the Texas Bluegrass Massacre, but as we walked in, an opening act we had never heard of was playing.  We walked through the venue, bought some beers at the bar, and sat down at picnic tables.  Pretty soon we realized we had stumbled across some real talent.  The band, consisting of Jonny Burke and Sean Faires, was called the Dedringers, and these guys could write some songs.  The lyrics had strong echoes of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, and we were thoroughly impressed.  The next morning one of my friends checked the Austin Chronicle and learned that the Dedringers would be playing again on Sunday night at midnight at Momo's.  So, a few days later, we rounded up even more folks and showed up to the gig.  Apparently Sunday at midnight is normally a lonely time to play, and Sean and Jonny seemed pretty surprised to suddenly have a crowd of hard partying fans who had shown up just to see them.  It was a great show, and I am certain my exceptionally rare "Live at Momo's" Dedringers' album will someday be a valuable collectors item.

I saw the Dedringers several times after that over the years at places like Gruene Hall and Floore's Country Store.  As time passed, you could tell that Jonny and Sean were headed separate directions creatively, and by the last show I saw, it felt like watching two different solo artists swapping songs.  A great time, but you could tell the end was near.  Turns out is was.  Now Sean and Jonny are running separate directions, and it has allowed them to really develop as musicians and songwriters.

Jonny played Saturday late in the afternoon in Willie's church, and the performance brought me right back to the gig at Momo's.  Jonny's set consisted almost entirely of new songs, and the writing was just brilliant.  His songs craft images and tell stories in such detail that you feel like you are living them.   In some sense this is scary, as he pulls his audience into dark stories of strippers and drugs and people down on their luck, but that's often where great songwriting takes you.  El Paso is one such song.  Saturday afternoon he played a new song about a stripper named Chloe, which reminded me of Townes' Tecumseh Valley.

Jonny mentioned the show was being recorded, and I eagerly await its release.  His prior records are excellent, but I got the sense on Saturday that Jonny's best work is still ahead of him.

Shakey Graves

In November I found myself in Austin for a conference for work.  When such an opportunity arises, I try to track down my college friends to get an update on what I'm missing by not living in the ATX.  My former college roommate, Shelby, picked me up from my hotel to go visit another former roommate who had just had a baby.  As I got into the car, I noticed some interesting music playing.  Some of the songs sounded like something I should have known about or felt like I would have heard before, but there was something different about it I couldn't quite place.  The pick patterns were spindly and surprising, and there was a fuzzy feel to the recording that made me think it came from vinyl that had been slightly damaged by decades of use in a backwoods Southern juke joint.  There were songs about moonshine and death and a lyric that resonated with me strongly following a long day at my conference: "Life's too short for a business lunch."

Shelby told me the recording was from Shakey Graves, and he popped it in the player because he thought I'd like it.  Good call, Shelby.  I liked it a lot.

Shakey Graves is the brainchild of Alejandro Rose-Garcia, who has steadily built an ardent following in the Austin area.  Some great press has helped, but, most importantly, he writes amazing music that listeners connect with very deeply.  The Austin Eavesdropper has a great post about this connection and his music in general, so I'll let her talk about that and move onto the dancing.

While his recordings have a gorgeous melancholy feel, the live performance is electric.  Part of this is a product of the mechanics of the performance.  During sound check, Shakey walked out with a strange suitcase, which he set down behind the microphone.  I anticipated the suitcase to be full of pedals or other equipment until I realized the suitcase itself was an instrument--a drum.  He set up a tambourine and two bass drum pedals, which he operated by stomping his heels.  Then he shouldered his archtop acoustic guitar, and Willie's church came alive.

The performance was mesmerizing.  He produced consistent rhythm through hundreds of calf raises while picking his guitar with frenetic energy and remarkable accuracy.  The exertion of the performance appeared in his face but resonated well with the music played.  The crowd was hooked.  By the end of the show the entire congregation was on their feet dancing and stomping along with Shakey.  I wondered at times whether the old church in Luck, Texas, would finally fall apart as the crowd became one giant percussion section.  I've seen a lot of live performances, but nothing I've attended compared to the energy and pure collective joy of that moment.

Next year?

Megan and I stuck around a bit longer to catch some of Will Johnson's haunting music and to see Jim James, someone I had last seen as he fronted My Morning Jacket in the pouring rain at Bonnaroo.  Both were great performances, but we were pleased to let Jonny and Shakey wrap up the day for us.

As this was the "second annual" Heartbreaker Banquet, I can only hope that it will be followed by a third annual Heartbreaker Banquet.  It is hard to replicate the magic of an event from one year to the next.  With this level of talent, I imagine it is tempting to open the floodgates to larger venues, larger crowds, and pricey tickets, but the folks running this event seem to do it for the love of great music, and I am optimistic that they will preserve the feel of this event going forward.  I know I'll save a little space for this on my calendar next year.  I have no idea who will be playing then, but after this year's event, I am certain it will be a wonderful time.


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