Under His Spell Again

A Buck Owens tribute turns into a celebration of the local music scene

"That was fucking insane."

When all was said and done at last Wednesday's Buck Owens birthday salute, that succinct verdict from Flathead bassist Kevin Daly was probably the assessment that best captured the tenor of the evening. Standing in a corner and looking resplendent in a Nudie-style suit and silver sparkle Western tie, Daly could do little more than shake his head at the events that had transpired earlier. Even longtime local veterans like Daly hadn't seen the kind of outpouring of support and excitement that the Owens tribute generated.

Amid the glare of lights from a TV news crew, a capacity crowd gathered inside Tempe's Balboa Cafe for a two-and-a-half-hour show that turned out to be as much a celebration of local music as a salute to Owens.

Peacemakers front man Roger Clyne proved himself a capable country singer with spirited run-throughs of "Tiger by the Tail" and "Streets of Bakersfield." A Grievous Angels reunion was thwarted by the absence of singer Russ Sepulveda, who missed Dan Henzerling's tasteful work on "Think of Me" and "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line." And Flathead's Greg Swanholm was solid throughout what he described as the "shuffle portion" of the show.

The performance of the core band -- featuring guitarists Swanholm, Steve Larson and Jim Beach, bassists Daly and organizer Danny White, and drummers Jesse Navarro and Vince Ramirez -- was inspiring throughout. But the real highlight came, as expected, with the dueling steel guitars of John Rickard and Jon Rauhouse. Rickard (a transplanted Pennsylvanian who performs with west Phoenix country act Haywire) wowed even the music-savvy members of the crowd with the Dobro sounds he wrung from his specially wired setup. The interplay between the two men of steel was worth the price of admission alone.

The most harried moment was the sight of Revenants front man Bruce Connole racing directly from the entrance to the stage to take his place leading a rendition of Owens' signature instrumental "Buckaroo." Connole's mini-set, which included his evocative take on "Close Up the Honky Tonks," was the most memorable chunk of music in a night full of them.

The show ended with the surprise appearance of BR5-49's Chuck Mead and "Smilin'" Jay McDowell. The Nashville retro twangers were in town opening for Brian Setzer, who played to a packed house earlier in the evening at the Celebrity Theatre. Mead and McDowell capped the festivities with a raucous reading of "Playboy" (from Owens' 1964 album I Don't Care) and the Dave Dudley gear-jamming standard "Six Days on the Road."

By the time the festivities were over, you could feel a genuine spirit of community and comradeship -- something that's been missing in the local music scene since the label suits started showing up on Mill Avenue nearly a decade ago. The event proved to be enough of a success that another tribute has been slated for September 14. The forthcoming show will be a dual salute to two of country music's most talented and self-destructive figures -- George Jones and Hank Williams. Many of the same participants are expected to be involved.

What's Up, Drummer? Haggis drummer Scott McDonald is officially leaving the group. Reportedly off to pursue "personal interests," McDonald's last show will take place this weekend at Boston's in Tempe, where the pop-rock quartet is scheduled to perform with Big Shot Allstar.

Longtime band friend and fill-in drummer Jack Obregon (a former member of Sledville and Brick Chair) will officially take his seat behind the kit with a September 4 show at Mustang Sally's, which will be a power-pop double bill also featuring Sugar-High.

The announcement comes just days after the group opened the Gas Giants CD-release party at Alice Cooper'stown with a spirited set that ended with an onstage free-for-all cover of Cheap Trick's "Surrender."

The band has apparently resolved the drumming situation just in time, as it is only weeks away from the release of its second CD, Piper Down. Although there are a couple of possible indie deals in the works, the band members say they plan to go ahead and release the disc themselves and "see what unfolds."

Wherefore Art Thou, Windigo? Local metal monsters Windigo are going on a two-month hiatus. Group front man Matt Strangeways says he's leaving the Valley for several weeks to visit family members in New York. It's the first extended break for the group, which formed more than five years ago. One of the leading lights in the contemporary Valley metal scene, Windigo has earned back-to-back New Times music awards in the Hard Rock/Metal category. Strangeways says he plans to use the time off to "work on some new songs and generally take a deep breath." He adds that the group plans on resuming its live performances sometime in November. Windigo will make one more local appearance before the break; the group is scheduled to perform an all-ages show at the Bash on Ash Friday, August 20, along with BLESSEDBETHYNAME.

Hot Freaks: Secret Fox, the Valley's (and the nation's, for that matter) only Guided by Voices cover band, will be making a rare appearance at Boston's this Sunday, August 22, opening for Death Takes a Holiday. The one and only GBV released its Ric Ocasek-produced TVT debut Do the Collapse to somewhat mixed reviews earlier this month (check out the September 2 edition of New Times for an interview and feature on the group).

The Secret Fox show will likely be a much more solid affair as the band plans to offer up faithful covers of some of the Dayton rock collective's "greatest hits." The show also promises to feature a number of special guests, including local luminaries Larry Hicks (formerly of Aquanaut Drinks Coffee) and Jimmy Eat World guitarist Jim Adkins. Secret Fox's all original alter ego, Red Shifter, will be performing its brand of GBV-influenced arena minimalism at the Green Room in Tempe on Thursday, September 2. Death Takes a Holiday will open the show.

In the Rauhouse Now: Local steel guitar virtuoso Jon Rauhouse is quickly becoming alt-country's favorite guest musician. A member of country insurgents the Grievous Angels and pop trio Sleepwalker, Rauhouse has earned a rapidly growing reputation as a sought-after session man and road hand. After a successful East Coast tour with Bloodshot labelmates the Waco Brothers, Rauhouse has returned to the Valley.

The pedal-picker has played a handful of shows with local country act the Ignitors, and is scheduled to make a series of further appearances (including a September Hayden's Ferry label showcase) with the group. This week, Rauhouse joins the band for a showcase date at the Gavin Americana convention in Boulder, Colorado. Rauhouse will return from the trip just in time to perform with Sleepwalker, which is set to open singer-songwriter Richard Buckner's August 22 show at the Balboa Cafe in Tempe (Rauhouse is also scheduled to sit in with Bloodshot buddies Split Lip Rayfield at the same venue on August 27). At the end of September, Rauhouse will return to the road as part of former Mekon Sally Timms' band. Timms' solo tour will include a month's worth of cross-country dates with Freakwater.

Yee-Haw, Mon: Billed as the "West Indies meets the Wild Wild West," Toronto's Reggae Cowboys first began mixing those two seemingly incompatible geographical and cultural styles in 1993. However incongruous the two may seem on the surface, reggae music has long flirted with Western imagery. From Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" to "Buffalo Soldier," the idea of the noble outlaw has played an integral metaphorical role in the genre. The Reggae Cowboys were similarly born out of a fascination with the black cowboy and the lives of those African Americans who settled in the West.

The group recently released its second album, Rock, Steady, Rodeo, on its own independent label, Tumbleweed Records (distributed by Rykodisc). The new album furthers the group's idiosyncratic style by mixing the band's reggae/country foundation with dashes of ska, R&B and jazz. The band makes a case for its unique mix with tracks like the spry "bronco bustin' dub" of "Reggae Rodeo," the barroom candor of "All That Drinkin'" and the Klondike boom anthem "Gold Rush." The band will be making its local debut with a performance at Tempe's Green Room next Thursday.

A more traditional form of reggae comes to town in the person of Burning Spear. The Jamaican singer (real name Winston Rodney) will be making an appearance at the Red River Music Hall this Friday. Burning Spear's career began nearly 30 years ago after a chance meeting along a rural St. Ann's road with Bob Marley, who recommended the young singer to the island's legendary Studio One. Beginning with 1969's self-titled debut and its follow-up Rocking Time, Burning Spear has created a vast and influential body of work. Since 1985, the artist has also been a favorite of Grammy voters, receiving a total of seven nominations for his Heartbeat label albums.

His latest effort, Appointment With His Majesty, continues a tradition of songs containing thoughtful cultural and social commentary. Influenced heavily by the teachings of Marcus Garvey (whom he has long cited as a source of lyrical inspiration), the elder statesman of reggae infuses Appointment with a dignified sense of culture and history on songs like "Glory Be to Jah" and "My Island." However, the album's most touching moment comes with a much more personal statement; a musical eulogy for late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, called "Play Jerry."

The Reggae Cowboys are scheduled to perform on Thursday, August 26, at the Green Room in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m. Burning Spear is scheduled to perform on Friday, August 20, at the Red River Music Hall in Tempe, with Walt Richardson. Showtime is 8:45 p.m.

Hard Road: Sometime in 1994, I received a copy of a single from Alejandro Escovedo's second solo album, Thirteen Years. The five-song disc included the album cuts "The End"/"Losing Your Touch," but it was a trio of live covers that caught my attention. One of these was the Ian Hunter chestnut "I Wish I Was Your Mother." Backed only by a cello, violin and his own guitar, Escovedo's elegiac reading of the song is still one of the most beautiful and stirring musical moments I can recall. Five years later, I stood (along with 50 or 60 others) watching Escovedo in the backyard of a South Austin house/taco shop. On that sun-kissed March afternoon, I listened again with the same rush of amazement as Escovedo and his mini-orchestra played song after song for an equally enthused crowd of locals and visiting industry types.

The best (and perhaps only) way to describe Escovedo's music is to say that it's awash in torrents of sorrow, anger and pathos. From Escovedo's tenure in Austin's seminal True Believers, the repetition of those themes has been the cornerstone of his moving songcraft. Such depth of emotion is understandable when you consider the personal suffering he's endured (the death of a brother and the suicide of his ex-wife among them). Escovedo's music has always teetered precariously on the edges, merging punk's deconstructivist leanings with the more solid foundations of traditional country and rock 'n' roll.

Although it may have seemed a bit hyperbolic when alt-country magazine No Depression proclaimed Escovedo its "Artist of the Decade" last year, it made it no less an accurate statement. Consider his output since 1992: four stellar solo records, a brilliant live compilation, and an album with garage band side project Buick McKane, plus the repackaging of the True Believers' first album and unreleased follow-up.

Add to that a career that has included stints with legendary Bay Area punks the Nuns (the group opened the Sex Pistols' final show at San Francisco's Winterland), and insurgent country pioneers Rank and File, and you can see why Escovedo is held in such high regard. His own battle-scarred past notwithstanding, it's his recent musical efforts that have garnered him the most respect and praise.

After a commercially disappointing one-album stint with Rykodisc (which produced 1996's musically varied and ambitious With These Hands), Escovedo seems to have found a home with Chicago's Bloodshot label. Last year's More Miles Than Money was a stirring effort showcasing the best live moments from Escovedo's 1994-1996 tours with his string-heavy band.

His latest record, Bourbonitis Blues, is something of a transitional album. Originally intended as an EP, the nine-track disc features four new originals plus covers ranging from the Gun Club's "Sex Beat" to Jimmie Rodgers' "California Blues."

In the midst of a two-month-long road swing in support of the record, Escovedo says he plans on retuning to the recording studio after the tour to begin work on his first album of all new material in more than three years.

Whether he's singing from his bottomless bag of originals or working through equally powerful takes on classics like the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and the Rolling Stones' "Sway," Escovedo's ability as a live performer is such that his upcoming Valley appearance should not be missed by even the most casual music fan.

Alejandro Escovedo is scheduled to perform on Thursday, August 26, at the Balboa Cafe in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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