LIVE: Ray Wylie Hubbard @ the Hangar, 5/1/14
Review by Fred Rudofsky
In many ways, it felt like Texas itself had taken over the venue. With its growing collection of rustic art, PBR flowing and crushed peanut shells on the floor, The Hangar offers a visual trip to another world. A trio of pretty women in their late twenties, who danced and shouted out song requests with ecstatic smiles throughout the evening, made it seem even more like one was basking in the warmth of an Austin night.
Two artists at the peak of their craft, who happen to call Austin home, just happened to provide the sonic landscape for a good time.
Kelley Mickwee, whose acclaimed band the Trishas is on hiatus, played a well-received solo set. “It’s my first time north of West Virginia!” she quipped. Decked out in a peach shawl, jeans and buckskin boots, Mickwee was easy on the ears, too, opening with “River Girl,” a slow country soul tune for acoustic guitar and harmonica about her hometown of Memphis and what hearing its rich music tradition meant to her as child. She ingratiated herself with the crowd, speaking of being enamored with the heaps of driftwood flowing down the Hudson earlier in the day before offering “Take Me Home,” a waltzing uptempo song.
Mickwee dipped into the Trishas’ songbook for an engaging “Liars and Fools,” and debuted her own “Beautiful Accidents” (the chorus of “All those beautiful accidents/ Over the years/ Look good on you” had many nodding in agreement). Mickwee spoke with awe about writing “Blameless” with John Fullbright, and then conveyed the song’s ache with a quivering, Kelly Willis-like lilt. “My husband did not like this song,” joked Mickwee as she closed her set with “Temptation,” a confessional tale by a woman who
admits a powerful attraction’s nothing but ill-fated (“We’ll never turn these stones into bread”). Look for an album featuring these fine songs and more by Mickwee later this year.
Last year, Ray Wylie Hubbard wowed the Ale House with his unique blend of rock and roll, blues, country and gospel – not to mention, a slew of free-ranging stories of life’s lows and highs and ironic twists and turns. If anything, the larger space of The Hangar topped that show’s brilliance given its superb acoustics, the opportunity for patrons to dance and the especially strong voice he was in. Hubbard strapped on his acoustic guitar and counted off the swampy beat to “Rabbit,” accompanied by his son, Lucas Hubbard, on an incisive Les Paul Gold Top (more about that guitar’s significance later) and Kyle Snyder on nail-driving drums. “Snake Farm” had the place singing along to Hubbard’s delight, so he extended the chorus a few times over its usual take. He referenced the poetic decadence of Verlaine and Rimbaud in “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” the merits of Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and William Blake. “Train Yard” and “Name Droppin'” (dedicated to the late John “Mambo” Treanor, an iconic drummer and spur of the moment roadkill hat-maker) and the slow-burn blues of “Count My Blessings” heated up the room further, the trio hitting grooves that would be the envy of any band.
“I am an acquired taste!” cracked Hubbard before “Mother Blues,” an epic tale from 2012’s The Grifter’s Hymnal about his wild, youthful days in Dallas involving a stripper girlfriend, a prized Les Paul Gold Top (now played by his son), the right song at the right time, and the realization that comes with age and sobriety: “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations/ Well, I have really good days.” The luck of the draw themes continued in “Mississippi Flush,” “Cooler N-Hell” and the introduction (“I once got to open for the coolest guitarist in the world… His only Tweet for three years was ‘I make rock ‘n’ roll records!'”) to a tasty, wah-wah-driven rendition of J.J. Cale’s “Crazy Mama.”
Hubbard’s energy, wit and rapport with the crowd never wavered. “The Ballad of the Crimson Kings” celebrated the overlooked souls whose fingers bleed for writing enduring songs. He spoke of meeting one of his favorite musicians (the remarkable, as yet unrecorded “Charlie Musselwhite’s Blues”) and dedicated his immortal singalong, “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” to “those of you who have a void in your life” and the intolerant days before a long-haired Willie Nelson transformed Austin into a progressive music town. “Wanna Rock and Roll/ John the Revelator” brought a roadhouse-meets-gospel revival mood to the room; if anything, it was all a prelude to the bare-bones declaration of redemption in “Whoop and Hollar” and profound gratitude of living bravely in the moment in “The Messenger”: “And the message I can give is from this old poet Rilke/ He said, ‘Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures.'”
Called back to the stage after a resounding standing ovation, Hubbard recalled how he had conquered his fears and demons to become a solo artist at age 43. The tale of his first gig was hilarious – you had to be there – but he also offered this aside about what it too often means to be a serious working musician in the USA: “No one cares about you tearing off a piece of your soul and making it fit the rhymes of music!”
In a twist, Hubbard opted to play James McMurty’s “Choctaw Bingo,” an unflinching portrayal of a family from the school of hard knocks that appears as the last track of 2005’s Delirium Tremelos. Snyder laid down a hypnotic tribal beat, Lucas Hubbard played wah-wahed fills that stung like a mixture of Stephen Bruton and Neil Young, and Ray Wylie Hubbard grinned like a nomad who had almost found a home when the rowdy crowd nearly sang a verse right.
To whoops and hollers from a full room, a departing Ray Wylie Hubbard promised to say hello to everybody at the merchandise table – which he did, graciously, for over an hour – and exclaimed, “We had us a time!”
That would be an understatement.
RAY WYLIE HUBBARD SET LIST
Drunken Poet’s Dream (Hubbard/Hayes Carll co-write)
Down Home Country Blues
Train Yard (Hubbard/Liz Foster co-write)
Count My Blessings
Crazy Mama (J.J. Cale cover)
The Ballad of the Crimson Kings
Charlie Musselwhite’s Blues (Hubbard/Musselwhite co-write)
Up against the Wall, Redneck Mother
Wanna Rock and Roll/ John the Revelator
Whoop and Hollar
Choctaw Bingo (James McMurtry cover)
KELLEY MICKWEE SET LIST
Take Me Home
Liars and Fools
Beautiful Accidents (Mickwee/ Owen Temple co-write)
Blameless (Mickwee/ John Fullbright co-write)