Magic Bus "Does" Nash-Vegas:
On Thursday Aug. 10, I finished my last final of the semester, a mind-numbing case study exercise in employment law. My partner and I wrapped up the project just in time for me to catch the end set of the Stingers rocking the roof at the Hole, then I went home and packed. On Friday, after a quick stop at Sears for some cheap carry-on luggage and a fortifying lunch at Tamale House, Sir Landis dropped me at Bergstrom International and sent me off armed with Sir Doug's Texas Blues band CD for good luck.
American delayed my connecting flight in Dallas for over an hour to replace an O-ring in the left engine, so I ended up missing my arranged pick up at the Nashville Airport. Recalling that my friends had mentioned a show in town that night, I looked up the club on the internet at a travel agent's office, grabbed a shuttle into the city and popped into the Bluebird Cafe just in time to hear the applause for Miles' sitting in with Big Al Anderson from NRBQ at a songwriter's showcase. The audience knew all the words to some of their big country hits and they were all funny as hell storytellers giving each other shit, with an especially big helping served to hunky CMT upstart Jeffrey Steele.
We caught up on old times for a while to the strains of the T-bone shuffle and the next morning hit the highway to Memphis for the opening of Elvis week, joined by the lovely miss Krispy Kreme Turner. We checked in right in the midst of a Shriner convention and caught the trolley to the Peabody Hotel just in time for the afternoon marching of the Mallard ducks from the fountain to the elevator. We drank very dirty martinis at the historic lobby bar and scanned the local listings. It didn't take too long to discover the hot call. The Bottle Rockets and Jason Ringenberg of the Scorchers were in town. We caught an Elvis set outside the ball park, chowed down on Rendezvouz ribs, took in a stroll by the muddy banks of the big river, and then rested up in the room.
We watched the acrobats and blues buskers on Beale street for a while and then caught a cab across town just in time for Jason taking the stage at a great little club around the corner from Sun Studios. He played some solo gospel stuff and then took requests for all our favorite Scorchers classics, including "Broken Whiskey Glass, "Pray for me Mama," "Harvest Moon" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie." After the show he autographed a newly released live Scorchers CD from 1985 and expressed a genuine interest in coming down for a Redriverfest set in November. The Bottle Rockets were an exhilirating blast also, but the evening had climaxed.
The next morning, it was a fresh-made omelette at the lobby buffet and then a quick jaunt down Riverside drive past Maclemore avenue to Elvis Presley Blvd. About a mile past the overrun Graceland tourist compound , and down a sleepy little country road to the right was the little piece of salvation that we had been craving since we first got the tip from the concierge...
We arrived at the Full Gospel Tabernacle at 11:30. The warm up performances by the choir and Rev. Valentine were soul stirring. "My right foot is bless him and my left foot is praise him!" he cried, spinning around the altar. The choir belted out some great gospel, and then a sister at the podium mentioned something about "his absence." I thought to myself, even if this is the whole show, I am more inspired by this service than anything since I was a child in Houston. I looked around at the people dancing in the aisles, I raised my hand to the heavens, and then I looked up at the lectern.
Reverend Al Green was smiling at me. He talked for awhile about how many people from all over the world were at the church. He introduced Teensy Hodges and reminded everyone of his famous Love and Happiness guitar riff. He introduced about 20 people from Japan and elsewhere by name. As we filed past the offertory plates, he asked where we were from and the reply was "Texas." He looked to the rafters for a message from above and began to speak about good Christians' responsibilities. He joked about answering the phone repeatedly before the service and answering the question of whether Rev. Green was preaching. The house band was amazing and the organ would swell at just the right moment for him to chime in and start singing gospel strains in the sweetest voice you could imagine. The intensity heightened several times, and there was feverish dancing and clapping and speaking in tongues. They had to fan the swooning women down at some points. He gave a long interpretation of a passage from Ezekiel and kept saying, "I'm almost finished..." He took his time and let the place get really warm as he spoke about the Lord's harsh message to part-time Christians. We left as the choir kicked back in and we walked for awhile with his angelic voice echoing in our ears. We got a ride back to the highway with a good samaritan and her son Dwayne.
Later on we toured the Graceland site and it is once again a very well done and moving exhibit. The geriatric band in the souvenir shop parking lot was playing Roy Orbison. The new digital system of self-guided tour presentation is impressive, and the reverence was astonishing as always, but they still won't let you go upstairs. The security were nice enough to let us double back to some stuff we missed. We stood over Himselvis' grave during a light afternoon shower and tried to think of suitable harmony for heartbreak hotel, but it is much too lonely a song.
Back in Nashville Monday I got dropped off at a bookstore, ate some decent quiche and walked back to the house. I underestimated the distance by a country mile or two, and just when I thought I was on the wrong road and started seeing mirages, a friendly teacher at a local elementary school told me it was the next block. Later after an extended service wait for a new headlight on the beemer, we popped into the local Mars and said hi to my old housemate Brent Wilson, who manages the guitar department and had just returned from his bi-annual Austin Elvis gig. Monday night after dinner at Sunset grill I was taken to a club in east Nashville called the Slow Bar. The house band the Slowbeats features the smoking guitar of former Lucinda sideman Kenny Vaughan and a stand up bassist who backed the man in black for awhile. They had cool bluesy originals and jazzy arrangements of Purple Haze and Route 66.
Tuesday I started reading a great book, the diary of Brian Eno. He has at least two brilliant, futuristic ideas about music, science or culture every day and quotes Nietsche and Chopra while hanging out with Bowie, Bono and Jah Wobble. I checked out the scene down on Broadway where the souvenir shops, Ernest Tubb's record store and Planet Hollywood are situated. There are pickers playing all day long to tourists for tips in a row of clubs along the strip. I stopped in the Hatch Show Print Poster shop just as they were closing. The historic posters and the counter staff are all gorgeous there. Things were kind of slow Tuesday night so the best thing going was a summer farce flick and a quick drink at a bar situated in an actual greenhouse. A highly competitive strip Scrabble tournament ensued later.
Wednesday we ran into the Departure Lounge bassist while vintage shopping for shirts and vinyl. Later we caught a decent set by songwriter David Mead and a very annoying Johnatha Brooke at the Uptown mix street party near Music Row, packed with lovely dancing people. The Boundary is a decent restaurant and voted Nashville's best pickup joint, with a groovy treehouse bar...
Thursday I spent some time wandering downtown while Z took a piano lesson. Thankfully the Frist Museum and the Deja Vu cabaret were right across the overpass. I ended up at 12th and Porter where the Derailers were just sitting down to a post soundcheck meal. While we talked about Big Star singles, softball, and San Marcos, some delightful friends from Austin, the Beaman girls, arrived at the club with birthday cookies. We drove over to the new Country Music Hall of Fame and got soaked in major summer shower after parking the car. Alan Jackson was doing a live cable broadcast in the lobby to a huge throng of tourists. The exhibits are restrained and reverent and give tasteful treatment. There is a whole floor devoted to Texas music, with artifacts from Austin City Limits and photos by Butch Hancock. There is a video clip of the Chixie Dicks grammy acceptance speech and you can clearly see the Scalzos sitting behind them. The most memorable artifact was Gram Parson's Nudie Suit with embroidered pot leaves and pills. He truly wore his vices on his sleeve. Later that night we returned to 12th and Porter to rip up the under-utilized dance floor while the band evoked Buck and Chuck. They do a great version of "Shake Your Hips" and Tony sings "What do you know, Antonio..." Later on I accepted an invitation to meet some new friends Kristina and Michael at the Beer Sellar off 2nd and Commerce. A very dynamic solo artist named Tall Paul was cranking out a litany of frat party pop favorites while a packed house of locals downed two for one pitchers.
Friday we hit some guitar shops and I cruised around to Elliston Square and found the small club that I played on my first east coast tour with the Urge in 1986. It is called the End now but it hasn't changed much at all. Bob Schneider played there a few weeks ago and Jewel sat in with the opening act. It's near the Exit Inn and the historic Soda shop where they filmed Sweet Dreams. I ate at a small taco place where a precious family of Mariachis arrived to serenade a birthday party. I sat in on the end of a sonwgwriting session and later we watched excellent videos of Spike Lee's Bamboozled and Hitchcock's Suspicion.
Saturday we drove out in the countryside for steak and eggs with golden biscuits at the legendary Loveless Cafe. We napped and listened to the Specials and Thelonius on the turntable. Later on, I returned to 12th and Porter for dinner and another Jason Ringenberg set. He put me on the list, and this time he was joined by Scorchers drummer Perry Baggs on guitar for a few chestnuts including "White Lies." His opening act Tommy Womack told a funny off-color fable about Gene Simmons and an aging groupie, with the punchline: "I'm sorry about your daughter Mrs. Janowski, but I do want to let you know the Kiss coffin is $4500 and we do take American Express." Later Jason was joined by a band of ringers for a fully plugged in set of scorching classics and was in fine form with full-on mic cable lariat tricks and manic boot scuffling stage moves. Later I got a ride to Slow Bar for last call with Briana in her '73 Charger.
Sunday was rather slow, more Eno reading and a jog at an idyllic private school track. We were too late to get into a sold out Bluegrass benefit, and then we just missed the 7 o'clock showing of Quadrophenia at the historic Belcourt art house theatre, so we decided to take in the Parthenon replica. As we drove into the park, we noticed some sort of production going on, and we realized it was Shakespeare in the Park. We settled into the bleachers for a breezy, magical Midsummer Night's Dream. "What if you fell in love with the next person you saw?" During intermission we climbed the greek steps and did the Rocky dance.
Monday we rode around doing some errands and saw some of the slummier side of town. We stopped at a florist off Nolensvile Road that was in the same old frame house since 1919. I drove a borrowed beetle downtown to the historic Ryman auditorium to take my chances at running into the girls from Tosca, who were just starting their sound check. As I approached the backstage door, David Byrne walked up. We spoke and he told me he would get a message to Sara and Lee for me. Someone returned with a pass a few minutes later and I watched the sound check while browsing the museum artifacts: Hank's suit and Ernests's hat, Patsy and Loretta's dresses. In spite of my presumptuous entrance and mixing up their names the girls were genuinely glad to see a familiar face and graciously put us on the list for the show. We returned later for the gig and ran into the BR-549 bassist who joined us for a drink in his home club across the alley. Just as we returned, the lights went down and we found our seats right down in front. People were dancing in the aisles as soon as they launched into "And She Was" and "Once in a Lifetime." The sound in the Ryman is the best I have ever heard and there is not a bad pew in the house. Tosca came out after a few songs and sounded great on "Life during Wartime," "This Must be the Place" and the encore of Whitney Houston's "Dance with Somebody." They were just asked to join up for the Europe leg of the tour so they were in great spirits. The crowd bangs the pews for a curtain call and the wood roars. After the show, Tim Keegan and I went backstage for some meet and greet time with the band, and soon we were joined by the entire string section, David Byrne and crew at Tootsie's Orchid lounge across the alley where all the greats used to take a break from the Grand Ole Opry. A cover band was playing Doobies and Skynrd and we were all burning down the house...
Tuesday was shaping up to be kind of a quiet reflective last day of vacation. Tim Keegan joined us to interpret the cockney dialects at a private screening of Quadrophenia in a fully empty theatre that they are struggling to keep the doors open at. It was truly inspiring on the big screen in spite of the less than majestic sound. I grabbed some souvenirs at the great escape record and comic shop. We ate a farewell feast at a fabulous intimate little place called Cafe Nonna. When we got home, an invitation had been left to join Tonic singer Emerson and his wife Nicole at Slow Bar for an incredible Neil Diamond tribute band. I was dragging ass at first but by the time the band started strumming Cherry Baby I was onstage with Denny Diamond banging a tambourine, bidding a fond adieu to music city, usa.
Before sleeping I read the chapters on the Replacements, Butthole Surfers and Husker Du in a great new book by Michael Azerrad called Our Band Could be Your Life, which chronicles the rise of the american indie music community in the late eighties. Another book that kept me company during the relaxed vacation days was a collection of in-depth interviews about songwriting with legends like Dylan, Neil Young, Randy Newman, Townes Van Zandt and others.
Wednesday morning after a delightful breakfast at Pancake Pantry and a way wrong turn through east Nashville, I was dropped off like a load of dirty laundry at the airport and got on the plane for Austin. Upon arrival, Dahegebegebees were on the Austin airport stage, Capitol Metro took me right off the terminal curb to my doorstep for 50c, and I took a nap and a hot bath before I could get acclimated. I made it down to American People at Emo's at midnight, and later sat in with the illustrious Conrads at Black Cat on a spirited "London Homesick Blues," before cruising back by Emo's for the Dismukes full volume finale.
Walking down 6th street tonight, I realized why I missed Austin- everything is looser and groovier here. The bible belt has got a tight grip on Tennessee. Low cut dresses with crucifixes. The best musicians on the planet play for tips and make decent money, but it's mostly kind of sterile. The independent culture there is trying hard with weekly magazines, the art house cinemas, and a few small funky local restaraunts. But it's all just a little too clean and suburban, like what Austin is threatening to become. It's a great place to visit and I made some wonderful friends.
Texas T-bone Walker said it best: "Let your hair down baby,
let's have a natural ball."
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