Lucinda Williams unveiled a brand new song about Janis Joplin, then sang back-up vocals for Roky Erickson, and Alejandro Escovedo covered the Butthole Surfers’ "Pepper": these were just three of many singularly Austin moments from Saturday night's 18-artist, 31-song "The United Sounds of Austin" concert at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater.
Originally commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Center in 2011 for its "United Sounds of America" series, the show put Escovedo in the role of MC, curator and historian as well as musician, digging deep into the roots of a city well-known nationally for Janis, outlaw country, singer-songwriters and SXSW, but not always its older African-American and Mexican-American musical traditions.
Early on, gospel (Bells of Joy performing "Let’s Talk About Jesus") and country (Rosie Flores and Butch Hancock performing Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys’ 1948 song "The Austin Waltz") gave way to country-blues, with Steve James telling the crowd about Alfred "Snuff" Johnson, who was born in 1913 but didn’t see the inside of a recording studio until the 1990s.
"As the playback rolled, Mr. Johnson looked around and said, ‘who’s that?'" James recalled.
Flores also set an early high bar with her roaring vocal and sweltering guitar solo on Lavelle White’s "If I Could Be With You."
Arguably, it was as much a Lubbock show as an Austin show, with transplants Terry Allen, Joe Ely, Kimmie Rhodes and Hancock all heavily featured. "I came here to learn about songwriting and country music," Escovedo, a California native, said of arriving in Austin in 1980. "I hadn’t even written a song, and here were some of the best."
Hancock remembers being similarly spurred by Allen, an older high school classmate, purely on the conceptual level. "I just heard somebody sing a song they wrote!" he remembers marveling.
The Lubbock-to-Austin songwriters were also famously inspired by the late Townes Van Zandt, represented on this night by Rhodes and Van Zandt’s son JT. "I can’t believe I get to hang out with those people," JT said. Before that, Escovedo crooned his way through "Alleys of Austin," by Michael Martin Murphey ("Wildfire") a key figure in the city's "cosmic cowboy" scene.
Introducing organist (and former Ray Charles Orchestra member) Dr. James Polk, East Austin music impresario Harold McMillan gave the crowd a history lesson on Austin’s not-so-secret shame of segregation, which created the "Negro district" that became a jazz and blues haven from the 1940s on. "No disrespect to the gentleman that has the statue," offered Polk, referring to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s likeness on Austin’s Auditorium Shores. "But there were many great guitarists who were here before him."
Polk’s two songs with saxophonist Elias Haslanger and trumpeter Ephraim Owens, both Austin jazz mainstays, brought down the house. "Applause for a musician is like eating a fine meal," Polk said. "Thank you for giving us a big old prime rib roast."
Three conjunto songs by Los Texmaniacs’ Max and Josh Baca were also raucously received, including "La Cacahuata," written by Austin’s Louie Guerrero (and better known to Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass fans as "Peanuts").
Onstage nearly all night, the six-piece backing combo – guitarist David Pulkingham, bassist Glenn Fukunaga, drummer Chris Searles, violinist Susan Voelz, pianist Stephen Barber and pedal steel/electric guitarist Lauren Ellis – was the show’s true star, moving easily from Western Swing to blues to punk rock. They were especially ferocious backing Roky Erickson, who was otherwise not entirely engaged on "Two-Headed Dog," and seemingly unaware that Williams had joined him onstage to sing "Starry Eyes" – one great idea that didn’t quite pan out.
Having already unveiled her Joplin song, "Port Arthur," Williams would return two more times, playing "Lake Charles," "I Lost It" and "Drunken Angel" – the latter written about Austin singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, who, as Williams put it, has "become quite the legend since he was shot and killed in a senseless argument."
Austin’s punk scene got a brief blast of recognition from the Skunks (with original members Jesse Sublett and Jon Dee Graham joined by Searles on drums) and "the Dickoids" (the Hickoids, who have been together since 1984, playing "Dead in a Motel Room" by the Dicks). The evening’s sonic timeline ended in the early 1980s, with two notable exceptions. One was Escovedo’s wild, noise-drenched show-closing improvement on the Butthole Surfer’s 1996 Beck-soundalike "Pepper." But before that, instead of bringing out their own triple-guitar army, 1980s Austin rockers the True Believers, Escovedo and Graham turned things over to the high school-aged Painted Redstarts, one of the city's many thriving "U18" bands, featuring Graham's son William and, to further complete the history circle, guest guitarist Marlon Sexton, son of prodigal Austin guitarist (and eventual Bob Dylan sideman) Charlie.
"The future," Jon Dee promised, before retreating to the side of the stage to take pictures with his phone.