Junior Brown McGonigel's Mucky Duck September 9, 2011
Aftermath has absolutely no excuse for not having seen Junior Brown before, at least not in a nightclub setting. The man is one of the biggest workhorses of Texas swing, coming to Houston at least every few months and plays somewhere near 250 shows a year. All that steady work shows, because at Friday's night's intimate Mucky Duck show (his second of the night), Junior was reminding us of another hard-working man in show biz who goes by a similar name - James Brown.
The parallels are plenty. It's not just Junior's infamous rules for his band members - he supposedly regulates everything from how they dress to how long their hair can be - or his toiling ways. There's also the spirit of invention: Junior's Frankenstein-like double-neck guit-steel guitar and James Brown's fancy footwork, not to mention the seamless improvisation onstage.
We don't mean this as a dig to the band, comprised of Brown's wife Tanya Rae on rhythm guitar, a bassist and a drummer who played only a snare, but at times it felt like the other musicians faded into background and Junior was all alone out front, perfectly able to carry the audience by himself.
Aftermath caught a brief set by Brown at Free Press Summer Fest earlier this year, which only served to whet our appetitite. Back then, Brown gave up nearly a third of his set to Tanya Rae, who sang a few duets and a few of her solo songs, just after spending his time noodling around on the guit-steel playing country-flavored versions of several surf songs. The summer heat almost called for it.
In the cooler climes of Friday night, though, Brown was keen to play nearly all his hits, from what is probably his biggest success "My Wife Thinks You're Dead" (eliciting guffaws from the crowd) to "Broke Down South of Dallas," on which his baritone nearly made us swoon. On "Hung It Up," his solos were interspersed with notes straight out of pedal steel legend Speedy West's repertoire, and "Give Me A Little Old-Fashioned Love" could have been penned by Hank Williams 60 years ago.
Just those smattering of songs should give you an idea of how versatile a Junior Brown show is. In between his own recordings he also played a couple of sloppy instrumental blues songs, The Shadows' "Apache," some Hawaiian pedal-steel standards and even more '60s surf-rock, all the while constantly tuning his guitar, to get the effects he wants, switching swiftly and deftly from the electric neck to the steel neck and making what may be the best "solo face" in Texas music.
During the encore, Brown took requests from fans, and a man from the crowd walked up to the stage, waving a $20, which seemed to catch Brown by surprise. "Money? We love money." Several other fans followed suit.
"You started a... thing," Brown said. "Thanks to that guy! Go ahead, throw more money. Look at all that cabbage. The garden's growin'! Water it, water it!" It was awkward, but funny to watch.
Brown played just a few more songs called out by the crowd, finishing with the fun and funky "Peelin' Tators."
Aftermath hoped to catch a few words with Brown after the show, but the line for autographs near the merchandise section was long. So we finished our beer, then walked back, hoping the crowd had cleared.
Brown and bandmates were already packed up in their cars, ready to hit the road. Guess the hardest-workin' man in honky-tonk has an early bedtime.
Personal Bias: Why'd we wait so long?
The Crowd: Lots of cameras, lots of older country fans, and one very large table that looked like a meeting of the Young Republicans. Maybe the most boisterous crowd we've ever seen at the Duck.
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Overheard In the Crowd: "Those white people love their electric guitar!" - said by one of the (white) Young Republicans above.
Random Notebook Dump: "It's happening all so fast on stage that I want to go back and re-listen to his records to catch everything."