As much as he deserves one - make that several - Doug Sahm is a tricky subject for a tribute album. The late San Antonio native known as "Sir Doug" was a true musical polymath, a master of just about every form of post-WWII popular music, both the big ones - country, blues, rock and roll - as well as more regionally specific genres like conjunto, Norteno, Cajun and swamp pop. More often than not, Sahm would roll several of the aforementioned styles into one song. Keep Your Soul executive producer Bill Bentley calls Sahm the "father of Americana" and, official designation or not, to Rocks Off and many others he will always be the State Musician of Texas.
Sahm, who died of a heart attack in November 1999, played with many of the artists on Keep Your Soul, from San Antonio homeboys the West Side Horns and Texas Tornados bandmates Flaco Jimenez and Augie Meyers to latter-day disciples the Gourds and sons Shawn and Shandon. As such, his distinctive musical personality dominates the album like he were still alive - which, in a way, he very much is - to the point where only a few of the performers here are able to pay tribute to the man in their own style instead of his. Nice problem to have, because either way, Keep Your Soul is a thrill from start to finish.
Some of the more successful efforts, though, include Little Willie G's (of '60s L.A. Chicano rockers Thee Midnighters) rough-throated rendition of "She's About a Mover" with Ry Cooder on guitar; Jimmie Vaughan's late-night empty-bar blues "Why, Why, Why"; and Greg Dulli's "You Was For Real," which glowers with the same lothario nonchalance Dulli patented in the Afghan Whigs. Charlie Sexton & the Mystic Knights of the Sea's "You're Doing It Too Hard" comes off as a hard-rocking hybrid of two of Sahm's favorite bands, the Beatles and Thirteenth Floor Elevators, while Los Lobos and Alejandro Escovedo add laid-back Latin swing and gritty glam-rock guitar, respectively, to "It Didn't Even Bring Me Down" and "Too Little Too Late."
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Equally enjoyable, if a little harder to differentiate from Sahm's originals, are the honky-tonk trifecta of Freda & the Firedogs' "Be Real," Delbert McClinton's "Texas Me" and Dave Alvin's "Dynamite Woman," and south-of-the-border boogies courtesy of Joe "King" Carrasco ("Adios Mexico") and the Gourds ("Nuevo Laredo"). And Shawn Sahm's album-closing "Mendocino," meanwhile, channels his dad's groovy-Texas-hippie vibe so uncannily it's hard not to believe in ghosts. But then, to do that, you'd have to believe that Doug Sahm is truly dead and gone, and Keep Your Soul makes it abundantly clear he's not. Whatever the flavor, beautiful vibrations abound.