Devotion, But No Doubt

Richard Buckner enlists the help of a talented local for an unforgettable performance

In theory, but all too rarely in practice, music can -- as former rock scribe Jon Landau once wrote -- "answer every impulse, consume all emotion, cleanse and purify -- all the things that we have no right to expect from even the greatest works of art but which we can occasionally derive from them."

And although I didn't see the "future of rock 'n' roll" in Richard Buckner's performance this past Sunday, I did see, or rather felt touched by, his music in a way that closely fit Landau's description.

I've had the opportunity to see Buckner perform on numerous occasions (he's a frequent visitor to the desert by virtue of his close friendship and collaboration with Tucson's Giant Sand/Calexico contingent), and while he's unquestionably a gifted songwriter and talented singer, I've never felt the kind of visceral connection that this past weekend's show brought. Perhaps it was the darkened intimacy of the room or the general vibe of the respectful Sunday crowd. Whatever the contributing factors, it was Buckner's impassioned -- and at times gut-wrenching -- 90-minute set that was chiefly responsible for my awakening.

With his quirky tales of love gone bad, it would seem -- on the surface, at least -- that Buckner is folk artist. Yet broad terms like folk, country, or even more descriptive labels like "urban blues," fail to fully capture the spirit of his songcraft. Ultimately, Buckner's work is far too personal, too idiosyncratic to be constricted by any narrow genre tags.

Playing a variety of acoustic and electric guitars, the bearded and husky Buckner cuts a far different figure than his perpetually broken-hearted musical persona suggests. Although he played material spanning his entire career, the highlights were a number of especially impassioned readings of songs from his recently reissued 1995 debut, Bloomed. A hushed silence overtook the audience as Buckner sang, "She let me down so far/I never quite made it back" (from "Surprise, Arizona"), and it seemed for a moment that the whole room might be plunged into those same lonely depths.

Buckner's roots performing in San Francisco's Union Square and his later travels as a cross-country drifter have served him well. He seems to instinctively combine the wizened intensity of a big-city street singer and the rural earnestness of a Delta bluesman.

His in-between-song banter was equally entertaining, especially the story of an East Coast road trip where he met corporate scum/KISS bassist Gene Simmons' (presumably illegitimate) son working as a gas station attendant somewhere off the New Jersey turnpike.

Buckner doesn't have the acrobatic vocal range of some of his singer/songwriter contemporaries -- yet it's that lack of vocal pretension that lends a greater everyman quality to his work. Buckner's gruff barks and guttural howls somehow mutate into shattering whispers, all of which convey far more emotion than any high-octave histrionics could produce.

The most pleasant surprise of the evening, and a large factor in the overall success of the night, was the guest appearance of local steel guitar virtuoso Jon Rauhouse (who also played the middle slot on the bill with pop trio Sleepwalker).

I've mentioned Rauhouse in passing over the past few weeks (mostly because of his participation in the Buck Owens Birthday Tribute and his own busy touring and recording schedule). At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I can say -- as can the 30 or so others who were there -- that his impromptu contributions were nothing short of amazing.

Rauhouse had not rehearsed with Buckner, nor even planned to perform with the singer, yet his spontaneous bit of musicianship was a perfect complement to the set. Because he was unfamiliar with all of the singer's material, Rauhouse would begin each song listening from a table in the audience. As he figured out the changes, he would rise from his perch offstage to join Buckner and then quickly return to his seat before the applause of the appreciative crowd had died down.

Rauhouse repeated this act of show-biz deference until the affectionate hoots of the crowd (and Buckner himself) demanded that the bespectacled musician take a permanent seat behind his instrument.

The remainder of the set found Rauhouse filling the gaps of the simple guitar/vocal setup with a dreamy sonic radiance that had even Buckner shaking his head in admiration.

Gradually, the crowd began to thin out (some apparently eager to get a sufficient night's worth of sleep before the dawn of the work week), and the remaining members of the audience began to draw closer, clustering around Buckner, collectively sharing in his sonic catharsis and urging him to continue even when it seemed he would collapse under the emotional weight of his own prose.

After a lengthy encore, and with closing time quickly approaching, Buckner ended his set to a standing ovation, and urged his fans to "come up and talk." Needless to say, Buckner's show (and Rauhouse's tasteful contribution) had those fortunate enough to witness the show eagerly anticipating his next appearance in the Valley.

On the Money: White-boy funksters Yoko Love will be celebrating the release of their new CD with a party/performance this Friday at the Green Room in Tempe. This is the first of two back-to-back statewide performances scheduled to mark the release of the group's sophomore effort, Money Shot. The band will head north on Saturday, where they will perform at Flagstaff's Hotel Monte Vista. The Green Room show will feature opening sets by Dislocated Styles, and Mr. Pink. Festivities are scheduled to begin at 9 p.m.

Roosevelt Avenue Social Club: For most people, the mention of Cuban or Brazilian music conjures up images of salsas, sambas, and Desi Arnaz. Thankfully, those narrow stereotypes are being shattered due in large part to growing public appreciation for world music and the recent popularity of the collective of Cuban musicians featured in Wim Wenders' film Buena Vista Social Club.

Stinkweeds owner and local music impresario Kimber Lanning is hoping to expand Valley residents' appreciation and understanding of these geographic and culturally unique styles with a three-day Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian festival and workshop. The minifest runs this Thursday through Saturday and will be held at Lanning's downtown Modified club. The program will feature Ana, a group formed earlier this year by Emilio Caruso and Eric Udell -- a pair of local folkloric percussionists. Filling out the roster with third drummer/percussion man Dan Mock and singers Debbie Lorray, Joann Yanez and Kim Shelton, the outfit is dedicated to bringing these "compelling but relatively unknown" musical forms into the public consciousness.

Caruso and Udell are well equipped to do so, as both are longtime students of the master musicians of Latin America and the Caribbean and their native idioms (including the sacred Cuban Bata drums). The group hopes the program will be an informative seminar on the musical history and heritage of both Cuba and Brazil and its foundations in the heavily percussive rhythms of African music.

Admission is $5 in advance (or $6 at the door) for each individual performance, or $30 for a one night admission, plus the workshop.

The Afro-Cuban & Afro-Brazilian Folkloric Music Festival runs Thursday, August 26, through Saturday, August 28, from 9 to 11 p.m. each night. The Saturday workshop is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 602-252-7664. Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: bmehr@newtimes.com

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