Prefacing Saturday night’s marathon United Sounds of Austin show at ACL live, Alejandro Escovedo admitted that the show might not be “the history of Austin as you know it.” Indeed, such an endeavor could never be definitive, given the endless musical permutations that have sprouted from the city’s varied communities across generations.
Allowing that the show’s contents inherently would be subjective, then, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting curator than Escovedo. Probably no local songwriter since Doug Sahm has pulled as many elements of Austin’s culture mix into their music than Escovedo; his repertoire draws from country, folk, punk, glam, psychedelia, Latin, soul, blues, jazz and more.
United Sounds of Austin brought together a cast of dozens to weave a loosely connected musical narrative through more than 30 songs. Escovedo explained at the outset that a Chicago Symphony series called United Songs of America that he took part in a couple of years ago helped lead to this project.
Performers ranged from the gospel group Bells of Joy, who opened with their 1951 hit “Let’s Talk About Jesus,” to teenage band the Painted Redstarts, whose cover of the True Believers’ “She’s Got” was a raucous next-to-last-song more than three hours later. Escovedo subsequently closed the show with an inspired cover of the Butthole Surfers’ 1996 hit “Pepper.”
In between, the proceedings included everything from mini-sets of jazz (featuring James Polk, Elias Haslanger and Ephraim Owens) and conjunto (from uncle and newphew Max and Josh Baca of the Texmaniacs) to healthy helpings of West Texas songwriter fare (from Butch Hancock, Terry Allen and Joe Ely) to a punk-rock double-shot of the Skunks and the Hickoids (the latter covering Raul’s-era heroes the Dicks). A pairing of Lucinda Williams with Roky Erickson on Roky’s “Starry Eyes” might have been magic but turned into a sonic trainwreck; even so, just seeing the two onstage together was a moment to remember.
With a half-dozen guest speakers sprinkled amid the songs, the show sometimes felt a bit like trying to cram a semester-long music history course into a single evening. That said, many of those spoken passages were fascinating, particularly Harold McMillan’s account of music that rose from East Austin in the early 20th century, and Joe Nick Patoski and Jody Denberg’s conversational overview of print and radio resources that have enriched the city’s music landscape over the decades.
Tributes to departed artists abounded as well. Williams paid respects to two ill-fated Texas legends, Janis Joplin and Blaze Foley, with her songs “Port Arthur” and “Drunken Angel.” Blues guitarist Denny Freeman played a Pee Wee Crayton tune in memory of Antone’s founder Clifford Antone. The house band (with David Pulkingham featured on guitar) gave a nod to country-blues guitar pioneer Bill Neely in rendering his instrumental “Pflugerville Boogie.”
No moment was more poignant, though, than the delivery of Townes Van Zandt’s mournful “Tower Song” by the late songwriter’s son, J.T. Van Zandt. Though his performances around town remain few and far between, J.T. has an innate ability to connect with audiences; he’s hushed crowds at the Cactus singing his father’s material before, but it was eye-opening to see him do so in the far larger ACL Live hall.
When it was all over and the entire cast and crew took a bow, Escovedo told the crowd, “See you next year.” If this is becoming an annual event, there’s certainly no shortage of Austin sounds that could be united in future iterations.
A fond farewell from George Strait
He’s earned the right to retire. But country music needs him now more than ever.
A sold-out crowd of die-hard fans greeted George Strait on Friday night at the Erwin Center, the second stop in the home stretch of his two-year “Cowboy Rides Away” farewell tour. Technically, Strait isn’t retiring — “there’s still things I want to say and do,” he assured the crowd near the end of the set in the chorus of “I’ll Always Remember You” — but his plan is to make records without touring after a June 7 grand finale at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.
Though two dozen dates remain on the tour between now and then, it was clear from the start that this one was special to Strait. The Poteet native was raised in Pearsall and cut his teeth in the 1970s at venues such as Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos (while he attended college there) and the Broken Spoke in South Austin. He gave a shout-out to both places before launching into his signature tune “Amarillo By Morning” two-thirds of the way through a marathon 33-song show that ran almost two and a half hours.
The audience’s appreciation overflowed for most of the night, with extended ovations and spontaneous sing-alongs. Strait was clearly caught up in the moment as well: Several times, he gazed out at the crowd with a sense of wonder, savoring the moment of his final major concert in Central Texas. “It’s a little sad for me,” he acknowledged early in the set, noting that he and his Ace in the Hole Band had played the Erwin Center “about 15 times” by his count.
But any bittersweetness was easily overshadowed by Strait and his 11-piece crew’s masterful performance, which drew liberally from a repertoire that trumps every other country artist of the past four decades (save perhaps Garth Brooks). Standouts included “Blame It on Mexico” (from his 1981 debut “Strait Country”), “How ’Bout Them Cowgirls” (from 2006’s “It Just Comes Natural”) and “Easy Come, Easy Go” (the title track to his 1993 release).
Ten songs in, opening act Jason Aldean joined Strait on “Fool Hearted Memory,” the headliner’s first No. 1 hit back in 1982, and “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” from 1986. “Growing up listening to George Strait songs helped shape what I do,” Aldean said between the songs, telling Strait that “if it wasn’t for you, there wouldn’t be a Jason Aldean.”
We won’t hold that against Strait, but it’d be nice if the understudy’s music actually showed more evidence of the mentor’s influence. Too much of Aldean’s hourlong opening set testified to all that has gone awry with mainstream country in recent years. Where Strait’s approach was smooth and true, Aldean’s was bombastic and contrived.
A rare moment that revealed a connection was “Amarillo Sky,” a memorable tune with a nice pedal steel solo. More telling, though, was the contrast between Aldean’s wretched “Johnny Cash” — an arena-rockish abomination that ventures nowhere near the spirit of The Man in Black — and Strait’s decision to go straight to the source in his encore by covering Cash’s classic “Folsom Prison Blues.” Aldean would do well to learn from the master, while he still can.