4.27.2012, Oak Cliff
On the way, stopped for dinner at Norma's Cafe on Davis, my old neighborhood spot, and fell by the Kessler Theater to see Jeff Liles and Paul Quigg. Jeff informed us that Junior Brown was playing that night, and graciously invited us to come back after the art show to check him out. Paul -- who recorded a live album for Junior last night -- was still enthusing about the (shamefully underattended) Khaira Arby show the previous night. Khaira's a singer from Mali in Africa, who brought a band that included a couple of guitarists in the King Sunny Ade juju mode, and Dennis Gonzalez's Yells At Eels had opened with a four-horn front line that included ex-Ghostcar trumpeter Karl Poetschke, trombonist Gaika James, and altoist Aakash Mittal (a childhood friend of YAE drummer Stefan Gonzalez) alongside Dennis (who told me later that he'd particularly enjoyed the evening because "It's been a long time since I've written for four horns").
Headed up to Jefferson Boulevard, where I hadn't set foot in 35 years. As we were walking toward the theater, we heard drums, looked through a window, and saw Yells At Eels with Aakash Mittal performing before a small but attentive crowd at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center. They were playing "Document for Toshinori Kondo," so I figured they might be finishing, but after the tune ended, Dennis waved us in and we took seats up front with his wife Carol. YAE played an absolutely blistering set. It'd been awhile since we'd seen them, and they seem to have reached a new plateau of intensely focused communication.
Stefan kicks the traps like a warrior god, molding and sculpting time and reveling in his authority. On bass, his brother Aaron looks like a naughty cherub as he wrestles monolithic slabs of sound from his upright. "They still kick my ass," their dad says, but from where I was sitting, it only looked like they were inspiring him to ever-wilder flights of exploration, and when Dennis picked up a gong, he and Stefan coordinated their hits with astonishing precision. It seems YAE's music is becoming more structured and arranged, while retaining its spontaneity and near-telepathic -- maybe make that genetic -- interplay.
There's a surprising amount of humor in YAE's performance, as they crack each other up with their own jokes, or Dennis vocalizes through his trumpet. A couple of times, Aakash Mittal looked like he was being fed to the lions before soloing in front of this crew, but he extemporized intriguing variations on the tunes' thematic materials, then dug deep and blew from the bottom of his feet like it was 1966 or something. The mutated funk groove of "Namesake" (dedicated to Dennis' dad) was a particular highlight, and they closed with a blazing rendition of "Wind Streaks in Syrtis Major," their new 7-inch on local indie Treefallsounds.
The Texas Theater was a great venue for Clay's show, with vast expanses of white wall that he filled with his large canvases, which evoke '50s pulp magazines as much as they do comic books, replete with lots of visual gore and sleaze, oozing colors and Clay's distinctive redneck-from-outer-space imagery. It seems like his bride Lanette has really helped him to kickstart his art career, and it's muy impressive how productive he is these days.
Clay's also kicking the traps with Saddle Tramp, a Dallas-based C&W outfit -- a far cry from the improv flights of Ghostcar, the indie rock of the Boom Boom Box, or the soul-Rawk of The Black Dotz, until one remembers that he also used to drum with Hank Hankshaw. They're playing in Fort Worth today at the Rahr Brewery from 1 to 3pm, when I unfortunately will be shilling potions 'n' lotions for the man.
Junior Brown looks something like Homer Simpson would if he was a honky-tonk muso, and when he lights into his self-designed "guit-steel," he evokes the spirit of every crazy country picker that ever touched a Telecaster, doing a sleight-of-hand act to switch between the straight guitar and steel necks. He uses a very unorthodox right hand technique (flatpick and two metal fingerpicks -- whenever he dropped one, his rhythm guitarist wife Tanya Rae would hand him one of hers) and plays a lot of runs that work of off hammering on open strings, while singing in a vocal range that you feel through the bottom of your feet before you hear. You'll come for the honky-tonk, but you'll stay for the blues and surf-rock.
He's a witty songwriter, too (although he avers that "just because I write 'em doesn't mean I can remember 'em"), and put us in stitches with his hits "My Wife Thinks You're Dead" and "Gotta Get Up Every Morning (Just To Say Goodnight To You)," as well as the brand-new "The Apathy Waltz" (a rumination on our modern technological malaise, which Junior played on Tanya Rae's acoustic) and one with the refrain "Hang up the phone and drive." My sweetie got one of Tanya Rae's picks as a souvenir, which she's keeping in the heart-shaped box that she bought at Ooh La La, a recently-opened gift wrap and novelty store that just opened across the street from the Kessler. It was a sold-out house -- typical for the Kess these days. We'll be back there on July 7th, when Ronald Shannon Jackson takes the stage, if not sooner. And that live album of Junior's should be a corker.
All in all, a nicely serendipitous evening. We may not get out of the house much, but when we do, we don't fool around. And we always have a good time in Oak Cliff. Nice to have such good friends there.