SXSW: True Believers
In the mid-‚Äė80s, the True Believers were the toast of Austin‚ÄĒa a rock’n'roll quintet that seemed to marry the Border rootsiness of Los Lobos with the power-pop of the Replacements. In 1986, after opening many shows for Los Lobos and Green on Red, the True Believers released a Jim Dickinson-produced, self-released album that was picked up by EMI, which agreed to finance a second album. But the band fractured in the studio, and the second album‚Äôs release was canceled. A new line-up struggled on for a while, but soon it was over.
But from the ashes of this promising band arose two momentous careers in Austin music. No Depression Magazine named Alejandro Escovedo the Artist of the Decade for the ‚Äė90s, which might have seemed like a joke unless you had actually heard the minimal-selling artist on stage. Jon Dee Graham blossomed in the following decade and might have been No Depression‚Äôs Artist of the 2000s, if the magazine hadn‚Äôt given the title to the equally deserving Buddy Miller.
The True Believers reunited and played a handful of blistering shows in 1994 when Rykodisc released both their first and second albums as a two-CD set. They reunited again this year for South by Southwest to play another handful of shows. At Austin City Limits‚Äô Moody Theatre, the band went on just before John Fogerty Saturday night. All five members of the original line-up were on stage: the three singer-guitarists Graham, Escovedo and kid brother Javier Escovedo as well as bassist Denny DeGorio drummer Rey Washam. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not like it was,‚ÄĚ Alejandro declared; ‚Äúit‚Äôs even better.‚ÄĚ
Maybe. The show had its moments, but the wall of guitar noise tended to overwhelm the words and melody. Far better were the shows where Alejandro and Graham each led their own bands. As has become an annual ritual, Alejandro curated a free outdoor show in the parking lot for Jo‚Äôs Coffee on South Congress Avenue. This year‚Äôs line-up included the North Mississippi Allstars, the James Hunter Six and Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale, but Alejandro Escovedo & the Sensitive Boys and Girls deserved the headlining slot. This year there were no strings, horns or keyboards, just a sextet that brought out the rock’n'roll side of the leader’s folk-rock compositions.
The set focused on Alejandro‚Äôs recent trilogy of albums with producer Tony Visconti and co-writer Chuck Prophet. These tunes were given new life by new lead guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson, who has that rare knack improvising melodies that echo but don‚Äôt repeat the vocal melodies. On a song like ‚ÄúCan‚Äôt Make Me Run,‚ÄĚ Jackson set the mood of paranoia with sci-fi guitar noises but eventually cohered into a tunefulness that set up Alejandro‚Äôs lead vocal and the wailing female harmonies.
Even better was the set by Jon Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks during Mojo Nixon‚Äôs day party at the Continental Club Saturday afternoon. The one-two punch of Graham and James McMurtry in the cave-like darkness of the Continental on the bright afternoon of a SXSW Saturday is often the highlight of the whole week, and this year was no different. Backed by guitarist Mike Hardwick, former Fastball drummer Joey Sheffield and former Son Volt bassist Andrew DuPlantis, Graham played with a ferocity that should have embarrassed all the wannabe iconoclasts clattering around town in their raised-heel boots.
Sobriety has transformed Graham into a grizzly bear with a gray beard, a rotund torso and a growl like a cement mixer full of slurry. It has also removed the final veil between him and his audience, so that when he now sings about his old battles with addiction (genuinely scary songs such as ‚ÄúBeautifully Broken‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúLaredo‚ÄĚ), you feel yourself hanging onto the wagon with your own fingernails. And when he tries to convince himself of reasons to believe in the world (songs like ‚ÄúYes Yes‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúFaithless‚ÄĚ), the little victories seem so hard won that they feel like grand triumphs.