Music: Live & Otherwise

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  • Photos & Review: Ryan Bingham in Austin

    It’s nice to see Ryan Bingham smile.

    That’s what the singer-songwriter did, early and often during his solo acoustic show at the 299-seat One World Theatre in west Austin on Wednesday. Bingham, whose first album since 2015’s “Fear and Saturday Night” comes out in February, tested out new material from the forthcoming “American Love Song” and played some of his more familiar work in an intimate setting that is far removed from the larger venues he plays with his full band.

    On Wednesday, Bingham was a jovial, salty ringmaster, providing the audience with a somewhat linear, at times slightly scrambled narrative of his difficult upbringing. He apologized on several occasions for the rambling during the two-hour show, but there was no need because the stories were so interesting and entertaining.

    The basics of Bingham’s life and career are well known to fans. Born in New Mexico, his parents struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse, and he lived a largely itinerant childhood. Eventually establishing deep roots in Texas, Bingham scored a record deal in 2007 and then became known nationally when his song “The Weary Kind” from 2009’s “Crazy Heart” won a Grammy and an Academy Award.

    Kicking off the show with “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So,” he moved into “Nothing Holds Me Down,” a bluesy number from the forthcoming album. After a sublime “Dollar a Day,” Bingham said his father told him to “keep a real open mind because a lot of people are going through similar things and hard times, too.” He then launched into “Hard Times,” which features the wordplay of “When it pours it rains,” and told a funny yet sad story about following his father to Laredo.

    The funny: Bingham hitched a ride with two girls from Houston who were driving to South Padre Island, where he saw his first concert on the beach. Run-D.M.C. was playing, and two University of Texas football players put the skinny kid on their shoulders so he could see.

    “It was badass,” Bingham recalled.

    The sad: His friends realized how far Laredo actually was from Houston, so they dropped him at a truck stop so he could hitchhike the rest of the way. A truck driver named Al offered him two pieces of sage advice: If you’re going to hitchhike, get a pocket knife and keep it with you at all times. And, if you’re stuck at a truck stop with nowhere to go, wait for the big rigs to come in and snuggle up to next to one of the tires to keep warm.

    Bingham then sang “Long Way from Georgia,” a tribute to Al, and then told how learning how to play a mariachi song on guitar inspired him to play music. The guitar, a gift from his mother, “became my voice and my identity and my soul,” he said as an introduction to the classic mariachi tune “La Malaguena.”

    The stories continued. “Sunshine,” about Leonard Peltier, was partially inspired and written after he met a man working as a dime store Indian at Disneyland Paris, where he had flown with a one-way ticket to get a job on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The job didn’t pan out, but the experience provided him with fodder for a song.

    At that point, Bingham started sharing more songs from the new album, which has the potential to be his best yet. “Jingle and Go” talks about playing for tips. “Lover Girl,” the story of Bingham meeting and wooing his wife of almost 10 years, was illustrated with a tale about convincing her to drive from Los Angeles to Texas to pick up his belongings, which turned out to be a box of records his uncle had given him.

    The strongest new songs played came toward the end of the evening. One is “Wolves,” which he wrote for students who have spoken out against gun violence in schools. He said the response of adults to student activism in the wake of last year’s shooting at Stoneman Douglass High School “takes me back a little bit” to his own feelings of abandonment by adults, noting that is “at a time when kids need someone to listen to them the most.”

    The second was “America,” a simple, emotional state-of-the-state ballad that likely will be controversial when it is released. The song asks a number of questions (“Can we see what we’ve become?”) and is replete with vivid imagery (“A bullet is only dressed in blood”) that likely will not be played on conservative country radio.

    That’s not what Bingham cares about though. Unlike most performers, he does not perform his biggest “hit” at the end of every show. He played “The Weary Kind” during the previous evening’s encore but left the stage without mentioning it on Wednesday.

    That felt somewhat ironic, given his focus on the past, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. They cared more about the stories and the other “damn good songs” that he has in his canon. For two hours, he delivered plenty of those. And all with a wink and a smile.

    This story and photos were posted to the Americana Highways  website. You can see more of my photos  here.

  • Fathers, Family & Austin

    I need live music. It feeds my soul. Since my late teens and early 20s, when I lived in Houston, I’ve found myself in bars and clubs, absorbing the sounds of musicians telling their stories and pouring out their souls to crowds large and small. Usually small.

    Most of my family doesn’t understand this need; at least I don’t think they do. The music I typically enjoy is miles from the top 40, although I’ve been known to embrace the occasional pop song that is played ad infinitum on the radio. But mostly I appreciate singer-songwriters whose music strikes a common cord with who I am, who I’ve been, or who I wish to be.

    Jon Dee Graham cuts across all three. His music touches and informs; the honesty with which he writes and plays is something I related to immediately. He writes as a father and a husband who has acclaim and hardships in equal measure. I’ve been a fan for almost two decades, albeit one who has experienced the topics he writes about both vicariously and up close and in person.

    Like The Replacements, another band I tried to see but couldn’t manage to connect with live until a few months ago, my attempts to see Graham seemed thwarted at every turn. I’ve caught Dave AlvinSteve Earle, John Hiatt, and Buddy Miller — other genre-crossing favorites in my ongoing music queue — numerous times. Other than one show in the mid 1990s when he was the opening act, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I missed Graham by a day or a week, seemingly caught in an inextricable conflict that prevented me from making that live connection.

    Still, I’ve bought everything he’s released, ranging from the music on mid-major labels (New West) to his self-released material. I made a contribution via mail when I heard of his son’s rare disorder, which led to a live album/DVD that I also purchased and lapped up with the fervor of the fans who’ve seen him live hundreds of times. I’ve read with envy of his weekly 17-year residency at the tiny, infamous Continental Club in Austin, and wondered how I could catch a show at the infamous small club in my home state’s capital.

    This past Wednesday, thanks to a fortuitous spur-of-the-moment trip and my wife’s indulgence, I finally managed to see Graham live. In Austin… at the Continental Club … with Jill and I sitting on a former car seat against the wall.

    And it was worth every penny, even if the cover charge was only $8. I gladly would have paid much more.

    These photos (plus the ones on my Facebook page here) tell the story of that night. They alternate between photos of the club and the groups we saw — Graham with his incredibly tight band, the Fighting Cocks, and his tremendously talented teenage son, William, leading his band, the Painted Redstarts.

    The best part for me was seeing my wife enjoy one of my favorite musicians in a club in my home state. The next best was seeing Graham standing on the opposite side of the room, watching his son perform and leading the cheers. Just like any other proud dad.

  • My Grandmother, Dad & Elvis

    The story goes something like this…

    In early 1955, my 14-year-old father went over to his girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. A few minutes after he arrived, and was sitting on the girl’s living room couch with her parents in the other room, the phone rang in the hallway.

    It was my grandmother, and she wanted to talk to Dad.

    My father was mortified — the Methodist version of teenage guilt in the 1950s — but dutifully went to pick up the phone.

    “Turn on the Louisiana Hayride,” my grandmother said. “I just heard this guy perform and he’s coming back in a little while. He’s going to change everything.”

    The “guy” was Elvis Presley.

    ••••••

    Music has always been a huge part of my life, even though I can’t sing, dance, or play an instrument. A good song, no matter the genre, appeals to my artistic sense as a writer and storyteller. Finding a compelling, talented new artist or group brings with it a sense of discovery and wonder.

    I have a profound appreciation for artists of any kind who are willing to lay it on the line for their passion. This is true for my children, and is one reason I believe so strongly in being honest through my writing and imagery.

    I get my love and appreciation of music from my father and paternal grandmother, who died in 1989 at age 83. In addition to being a packrat and chronicler of life, my grandmother was an explorer when it came to music. When she was almost 80, I came home from one day and found her watching “The Last Waltz,” the 1976 documentary of The Band’s final concert. She thought it sounded interesting, although she had trouble understanding Bob Dylan.

    Grandmama could whistle a symphony or add a jazz-like hum to a country song. She loved to sing at church, and her cousin Bessie told me she loved to dance, especially during her single years in the 1920s that she rarely discussed.

    In the 1950s, the radio was always on, and Saturday nights — with few exceptions — were devoted to the Louisiana Hayride. The show was broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, 60 miles from where my grandparents lived in East Texas.

    For more than a decade, the Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole’ Opry in importance among country and western singers. Elvis, who famously was rejected by the Opry for being too, well, out there, was signed by the Hayride and made numerous appearances on the show from late 1954 until December 1956.

    Presley, as we all know by now, was different, and it was during this time that his fusion of country and western, gospel and rhythm and blues became early rock and roll. His presence and influence on teens, especially during the late 1950s, was undeniable. It certainly had a lasting effect on my father, who collected Presley’s music along with every other artist from that era that he could find.

    Dad, especially in his later years, seemed to regress to his teenage days in his tastes. When I was growing up, his eclectic record collection was housed in a six-foot wide, coffin-like wooden cabinet that held the somewhat flimsy turntable on the right side.

    The albums included some of the era’s more modern music — The Beatles, Rolling Stones, even AC/DC and Aerosmith — along with Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtracks and a little too much Mario Lanza and Johnny Mathis for my taste. After my Grandmother died, Dad begrudgingly moved into the CD era, but would still turn back to obscure 45s by singers and doo-wop groups from the late 1950s.

    Still, Elvis seemed to top them all. 

    ••••••

    The first concert I remember attending — at age 6 — was an Elvis show with my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle at Hofheinz Pavilion in November 1971. Three years later, for my second concert, the mom of a childhood friend took two of us to Rodeo Houston to see Presley perform before a then-record crowd of more than 44,000 in the Astrodome.

    The first album I owned was the Camden budget release (remember those?) “Burning Love and Hits from His Movies, Vol. 2,” purchased in part because my father loved the single. (The movie cuts were not the best, hence the budget release.)

    Like my dad, I was hooked by “Burning Love,” the last single Presley placed in the top 10 before his death, but sadly, I didn’t realize that publicly declaring my love for the song was cause for me to lose cool points on the elementary school playground. (In my defense, I was smart enough to know that jumpsuits are definitely not the fashion statement any second-grader wants to make, no matter the era.)

    Several months later, seeing my growing interest in Elvis and wanting to bond with his son, Dad took me to Parker Music on Ninth Avenue in Texas City, thumbed through the albums on the rack, and pulled out Presley’s 1956 self-titled debut. He bought it that day and later gave it to me as a present.

    To really understand what made Elvis the king, he said, I needed to go back to the very beginning.

    ••••••

    1956 was a crazy year for the former truck driver from Memphis, between constant touring, multiple (and controversial) television appearances, and making the movie “Love Me Tender.” Even if you’re not a fan, watch the documentary Elvis ’56 and you'll see how that one year changed everything, both for Presley and for those who listened to him.

    By year’s end, Presley had outgrown the Hayride, although he had one more show in his contract. The show, held at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds on Dec. 15, was attended by tons of screaming fans, including my father and then 51-year-old grandmother.

    The story, like one about my grandmother’s Presley discovery, was somewhat legendary in my family. My grandmother went for the music; my dad went to look for girls. Because neither drove, my grandfather begrudgingly took them, complaining all the way.

    My grandmother recalled the show fondly, although it was tough to hear amid the screaming. And apparently my dad found the girl, because her name is written inside the 50-cent program that my grandmother bought.

    We still have the program, which would be worth about $200 except for the girl’s printed address in ink on the center spread, but my father could never remember what happened to her. 

    ••••••

    Twenty-one years later, on Aug. 16, 1977, I was sitting in the waiting room at the Tyler Chest Hospital when we got the news. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema and COPD that killed him four years later. My aunt and I were waiting for my grandmother to bring him to the lobby.

    “Elvis is dead.”

    I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do or say. My grandmother and aunt took me to the Gibson’s in Longview that evening and we purchased “Moody Blue,” the blue LP that was Presley’s last major release. There were some decent songs on it, but it was nothing like the stuff I heard from 1956.

    Over the years, I’ve remained an Elvis fan. If you can sift through the dreck, and there is plenty of that, you will find so much music that is worthwhile. In the earliest sides, going back to the beginning, you can see the influence that continues to resonate today.

    There is so much to choose from, and it has all been packaged and repackaged so many times that it’s tough to find out where to start. But a couple of years ago, I found something special.

    The five-disc box set, “Young Man With the Big Beat,” features the complete 1956 masters, as well as alternate takes and three short live shows, one of which was previously unreleased. That show happens to be the Dec. 15 concert at the Hirsch Youth Center in Shreveport.

    The audio quality is not the best, but every once in a while, I put it on my CD player, close my eyes, and am transported to the auditorium with my dad and grandmother.

    And that means more than you know. 

    About the Photos:

    Top: Cracked plexiglass on top of the Elvis picture at Sun Studios in Memphis, September 2013. Upper middle: Photos taken of late 1920s programs saved by my grandmother. Middle: Photo of Presley in Dallas is part of an exhibit at Graceland, his Memphis mansion. Lower Middle: Elvis-related memorabilia collected by my family over the years. Bottom: The original 1956 program and the cover of RCA's "Young Man With the Big Beat."