Listen In

On Saturday, Harry Sheppard and Bill Miller celebrated their 25th year of making music together.
Amy Spangler

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Compaq Center
Tuesday, April 18

During an extended version of his classic "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," Bruce Springsteen dropped to his knees in front of a bouquet-bearing female fan and, smirking, looked across the stage toward his wife, E Street Band backup vocalist and guitarist Patti Sciafla. Facing Sciafla, Springsteen put his hands together as if in prayer and mouthed the word "Please." After swaying her head to either side, her lips curled in mock disgust, Sciafla gave the okay, and the Boss jumped to his feet, plucked the bouquet from the concertgoer's hands and held the flowers aloft for the rest of the packed Compaq Center to see. The place exploded in applause.

No less than 24 years ago in this very building, then known as the Summit, another rock and roll icon (in fact, the rock and roll icon) was also, in the middle of performance, being offered tufts of flowers. Elvis Presley, only 41 years old at the time, had at this point of his career begun accepting such tokens of appreciation with the perfunctory air of a tax man collecting checks. A year later, in 1977, Presley was receiving roses from the cold embrace of his tomb.

Eight years older than Presley was at his death, Springsteen is blossoming into the Presley Presley left behind -- down to the well-timed karate kicks and hand orchestrations on stage.

The New Jerseyan's latest shtick, an equal mix rock and roll tent revival and tree-house boys' club, is lifted directly from the Book of King. All of the things that go into making the Reverend Springsteen are the same things that went into making Rocker Boss: energy, conviction and more energy. The only things missing are a crucifix, choir, collection plate and the Stamps. No other solo male performer since Presley has been so attuned to the messianic spirit of rock and roll. Like Presley, Springsteen and his loaded messages nestle in the ear as lovingly and sincerely as drops of Robert Pinsky's beloved Jersey Rain. But where Presley proselytized through song, Springsteen does it through impromptu sermons.

"I want a rock and roll exorcism," the Boss shouted during the intro tones of "Tenth Avenue." "I want a rock and roll," pause, "bahhhp-tism." Everyone cheered.

Like a Baptist preacher, Springsteen had been encouraging crowd participation all evening. Earlier, toward the end of a rambunctious "Badlands," the Boss shouted: "Is anybody alive out there tonight?" (Applause.) "Then get up off your ass." (More applause.) House lights revealed that just about everyone was, in fact, up off their asses. "I'm talking to you," Springsteen then yelled. "I'm talking to you."

Though he has lost a couple of inches off his vertical leap, and does not possess a black belt as Presley once did, Springsteen can act the part of ants-in-the-pants, karate-kickin' rock and roll savior perfectly. Toward the end of his three-hour set, and while steering his band through a crescendo, the Boss took a knee and, facing stage right, stuck his open palms out in front of him as if he were preparing to stop a moving train, and jiggled his hands in sync with Max Weinberg's splashing, crashing cymbals. Springsteen then punched the air with a fist, which Weinberg timed perfectly with a matching cymbal bash. "BAM." And again, fist-punch with "BAM." And again: Fist, "BAM." (At the end Springsteen even turned over his right shoulder and said, in his best Presley impersonation, "Thank yuh vera much.")

Anyone who had ever seen Presley live or on tape, especially in his '74 television special, Aloha from Hawaii, knew a show of power like this was exactly how Presley used to control his band -- which was really, in some existential way, just an extension of Presley, a means by which the King could achieve the sensation of actually being larger than life. When Presley swiveled a hip, which he would do repeatedly in a song such as "Fever," his drummer played a little roll to coincide with that pelvic motion. He did the same thing with song endings. When Presley punched the air, the entire band hit a note. "BAM." "BAM." "BAM." We've seen this movie a million times over, but it still rocks.

The average Springsteen fan is about as old as Presley's was in the late-1970s: old. If the thousands of Broooooce-heads at the Compaq last week were really "Born to Run," they'd be in trouble. Saggy all over and encumbered by cell phones, creaky joints and slippery loafers, most Houston fans could probably get only as far as the I45 entrance ramp before either doubling over in exhaustion or putting off their Springsteenian fantasies indefinitely for hot coffee and kolaches at a roadside diner. For them, the majority of Springsteen's stuff is a philosophy to return to, like a warm memory, about once every year, or whenever some personal tragedy befalls them that only pop music (and only Springsteen's empathetic pop) can help remedy.  

This mix, highly idealistic rock with people whose ideals have mostly long since burned out, seems like an arranged marriage -- doomed to fail and egregious to casual observers. But what else is pop but a series of arranged marriages between artists and fans? What else is it but temporary distraction? Even the best, Springsteen, Dylan, Presley, are -- in the grand scheme of things -- momentary antidotes to the drudgery of everyday life. Once the CD player stops or the concert lights go off and the rock hero and his mates make for their next gig, and fans return to their cars, real life begins again. Springsteen with his odes to youthful exuberance just helps listeners put off reality a little while longer -- a little while longer than most other pop artists can or possibly ever could. The King is dead. Long live the King. -- Anthony Mariani

Harry Sheppard


Saturday, April 22

In 1975 vibraphonist Harry Sheppard and bassist Bill Miller played together for the first time at an informal Monday-night jam session in New York City. Neither suspected it, but that night would lead to a musical relationship that has lasted a quarter of a century. Sheppard, whose lofty résumé includes gigs with Billie Holiday, moved to Houston in the 1980s and convinced Miller to do likewise in the mid-'90s. Saturday night marked their 25th year of making music together.

Joined by the versatile Tim Solook on drums, the trio set up in a circle to allow for greater eye contact and communication between players. Throughout the evening Sheppard and Miller seemed to be telepathically linked. They sympathetically traded melodies and provided solid foundations beneath solos, having fun the whole time. So advanced were Sheppard and Miller that they could stray off melodies and never lose each other -- or Solook.

The trio blended dynamics, power and subtlety into a wonderful show. During the first set, which consisted mostly of Duke Ellington tunes, Sheppard employed his electronic vibraphone's synth effects (e.g. piano on "Mood Indigo") as Miller cued reverb on his acoustic bass. Though the effects were intoxicating, the substance was what mattered. -- Paul J. MacArthur

McGonigel's Mucky Duck
Friday, April 21

The wanna-be Highlanders who piled into the Mucky Duck for the second of Clandestine's two Friday-night sets were about as Celtic as the fluorescent green clovers in a box of Lucky Charms. From the guy in the kilt who fell over his waltz partner's one-step to the insipid drunkard who claimed to be kissing the Blarney Stone when his lips met the parking lot pavement, everybody there sure wanted to be Celts. Even the band.

The traditional Highland bagpipe, fiddle and drum along with the more modern folk guitar and lyrics were a genial listen. But the band's defensive stage presence undermined its authenticity. Demanding appreciation for the Old-World-meets-New tunes, angelically blond lead singer Jen Hamel sang her sweetly confusing songs while devilishly glaring at boisterous back-of-the-bar carousers. Drummer Emily Dugas followed suit, complaining that the adoring audience's whistles of appreciation annoyed her sensitive drummer's ears.

And though they all groused intermittently, piper E.J. Jones and fiddler Gregory McQueen included, Dugas was the only one entitled to a prima donna's persnicketiness -- not so much for her full-forced percussion, but for her piercingly honest voice. In fact, the real highlight of the show was her heart-wrenching solo rendition of the Scottish independence song "Both Sides the Tweed." In that beautiful moment, even the flashiest of Guinness drinkers was perfectly silent for Dugas's agelessly passionate notes. Dugas also added authoritative harmony to Hamel's lamely put-on brogue in songs like "Babylon" and "Cannonball."

Although each band member matched Dugas's consistent talent in particular moments, their collective bad attitude belied the kind of Irish good cheer one might expect from a rising Celt-nouveau band. The Friday-night crowd didn't seem to mind, but Clandestine's passion for music should at least match its passion for undivided audience attention. -- Jennifer Freytag

Dave Nevling and the Blues Kats
T-bone Tom's Backyard
Friday, April 21

Smoky barbecue and fried seafood aromas, permeating the packed picnic tables out in back of this Kemah club, mixed well with the sounds of Dave Nevling and the Blues Kats's jazz-influenced jump blues.

Nevling and his backup trio did not stray too far from tradition, thankfully. The band's rendition of Big Joe Turner's "Lipstick, Power and Paint" was propelled by Nevling's full-bodied, driving, old-style harmonica. The rhythm section showed an equal tendency toward throwback. Bassist Mike Davenport maintained a steady backdrop while drummer Andy Rogers kept the pocket with pop, never overkilling with sledgehammer rock licks.  

On the medium-tempo Sonny Ritter tune "Tenor Madness," a sax classic workout that Nevling and company adapted for harp and guitar, guitarist Matt Johnson showed his jazz chops, trading call and response licks with Nevling. Surprisingly, the song worked. The band immediately followed up with Nevling's 12-bar, minor-key original "You Haunted Me," from the band's latest CD, That Look. On it, Johnson switched gears for a five-minute, straight-ahead blues ride, showing off technique and his honest blues tone.

Two other upbeat originals, "All I Need" and "Short and Stout," went over well, thanks mainly to Nevling's driving harp.

Though a remarkable blending of jump blues and hard bop, the show lacked top-notch sound quality. Too often the volumes of the instruments were out of sync, though the big and enthusiastic crowd didn't seem to notice. -- Jim Shortt

Tommy Dardar and the Sheetrockers
Cosmo's Cafe
Saturday, April 22

Approaching Tommy Dardar during one of the breaks, a young man testified. Reverentially, he told Dardar how his approach to music had been changed as a result of his and Dardar's recent jam together. It was one of those symbolic moments in which the young student acknowledged the master.

And blues master is indeed the status of Tommy Dardar. Once sitting at the feet of Lightnin' Hopkins, Dardar began his musical journey 40 years ago. Since the early 1960s Dardar has been playing his brand of blues and swamp rock all over town, cutting his teeth on the sounds of Bobby Bland and Jimmy Reed. During one magic evening in 1968 at the Music Hall, legendary Chicago harmonica player James Cotton threw one of his harps from the stage into Dardar's hands. Dardar still has it.

Cosmo's was packed with older folk and local musicians, all of whom seemed to know Dardar personally. The date was billed as a CD release party for Dardar's latest, Fool for Love, cut live over two days in Los Angeles, produced by Tony Braunagel and featuring most of Bonnie Raitt's backup band.

But tonight was vintage Sheetrockers. Sax player Gerald Gray took lead on the classic Bill Doggett song "Honky Tonk" and played two instruments at the same time. Guitarist Sam Dunlap delivered tasty solos on "Going Back to Louisiana" and "Love Me with a Feeling." Let it be known that few artists can cover Freddie King successfully, but Dardar did it compellingly on the latter. His vocals were lush with a distinct gritty bottom. Dardar both pleaded and threatened his way through the song. And his harp playing was peerless, particularly on "Let the Good Times Roll." Dardar even performed a blues version of "Happy Birthday" for two ladies in the audience.

The evening can be summed up in the words of Dardar's "Louisiana Country Blues": "Turn it up all night long / Gonna dance until the break of dawn / Wear a hole right out of my shoes / With those Louisiana country blues." -- Aaron Howard

Beenie Man

Garden in the Heights

Sunday, April 23

After audiences endured a full day of sparse seating arrangements, stepping over discarded turkey legs and listening to reggae renditions of such Top 40 hits as "Believe" and "Bug-A-Boo" blaring over loudspeakers, they still hung in there to catch the headlining act of Reggae Supa-Fest 2000.

As the accompanying band, the Blaze Men, provided the bass line from Kool & The Gang's "Jungle Boogie," this lean Kingston-born brotha stepped to the stage, decked out in a red overcoat with matching fedora, shoes and socks. He kicked off his performance by doing something that can only be described as boogie-woogie reggae, flowing one song into another as the band delivered a roots rock canvas for his swinging wordplay.

Much of his act consisted of his schooling the kids, who were rustled up an hour beforehand and strategically placed on stage and in the front row. Apartheid comprised the brunt of Beenie Man's subject matter.

For the first hour the Man had the folk in the crowd jumping out their draws, but near the last half hour the audience began to thin. Beenie Man's spiel started to turn into a ramble. A barely endurable hour later, Beenie Man finally left the stage. An uneven performance at best, it was still better than listening to some wack-ass reggae band cover Savage Garden. -- Craig D. Lindsey

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