Asking Clifford Antone to pick the best performance he ever heard at his club is like asking Troy Aikman to select his favorite touchdown pass; there's been so many of them over the years that they blend together after a while. You'd figure the Austin blues impresario would rattle off some cliche about how they're all great, and picking one above the other just wouldn't seem right. But Antone seems to have no pressing need to take the easy way out of the question. So without hesitation he says the act to beat was a 1976 pairing of Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"Albert was Stevie's hero, and the first time I asked Albert if it would be okay for Stevie to get up and play, he said, 'I don't let nobody on my stage,' " recalls Antone. "I said, 'Look, man, I wouldn't ask unless I knew he could play and wouldn't embarrass anybody.' When Stevie played, I think it scared the hell out of [King]. But next time, he didn't need any convincing."
Sadly, that transcendent mid-'70s evening wasn't captured on tape. Otherwise, the performance would undoubtedly have made it onto Antone's 20th Anniversary, a recently released, two-disc compendium of live recordings from the legendary nightclub. More than half of the 21 tracks included on the new 20th Anniversary set were recorded during a showcase celebration in July 1995, with the rest culled from anniversary shows held since the present location for the club was established nine years ago. (The original Antone's debuted on Sixth Street in July 1975 with a weeklong stand by zydeco king Clifton Chenier; soon, the club moved to a second location before finally settling into its current home on Guadalupe Street.) Though the 1995 recordings were spread over a four-day period, there is a unifying element evident both in the person of longtime engineer Malcom Harper and producer Derek O'Brien, an Antone's alumnus and guitarist who appears on six tracks as part of the well-schooled Antone's house band. The CD includes three generations of Antone's artists, from aging blues legends Pinetop Perkins, Lazy Lester and Snooky Pryor to the first crop of Austin-area musicians Antone helped nurture, such as Angela Strehli and the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Kim Wilson, to the latest group of label mainstays, such as Sue Foley, Guy Forsyth and Teddy Morgan.
What often helps make or break live blues tracks is the element of surprise -- the near-religious experience that sometimes results when a well-honed backing band is tossed together with a different vocalist or lead instrumentalist on any particular night. Although only a few tracks on 20th Anniversary make it into the spiritual zone, there are some stirring moments nonetheless. The best of these include a take on the Eddie Taylor chestnut "Big Town Playboy," which features Chicago-style vocalist Angela Strehli and ex-Arc Angel guitarist Doyle Bramhall II; Buddy Guy's scorching rendition of "The Things I Used to Do," backed by the six-piece Antone's band; and "Little Girl, Little Girl," featuring former Muddy Waters pianist Pinetop Perkins. Houston's Lavelle White weighs in from the gut with "Go to the Mirror," a ballad she penned with Sarah Brown, and the collection's emotional highlight.
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If there's anything amiss on 20th Anniversary, it's the glaring omission of roadhouse veteran Lou Ann Barton and the brassy, country-tinged stylings of Austin-via-Nashville crooner Toni Price. Over the years, the contributions of female Antone's artists have been the best barometer of the club's success; it's a mystery why more contributions from women weren't included on this disc. As for the performances from third generation Antone's artists such as Sue Foley and Guy Forsyth, their bits are largely forgettable, which is a shame, especially in the light of their excellent solo efforts.
Still, 20th Anniversary is a reminder of how much good music has seeped out of Antone's over the decades. And it's also a reminder of how useful the Antone's Records label, which was founded in 1987, has been in giving a home to Texas acts that might otherwise have trouble making it to CD. To keep club and label alive, Antone has relied on a combination of instinct, stubborn will, dumb luck and a little creative financing -- i.e., he's always had a knack for finding friends to chip in a buck or two when things looked bleak.
Today though, thanks to a deal with the California-based Discovery label, which covers distribution in North America and Australia, and a new batch of CDs out in stores along with 20th Anniversary, Clifford Antone is more optimistic than usual. If the current distribution deal works out, he wants to release a series of live recordings featuring members of blues' old guard. Tentatively titled Antone's "Home of the Blues" Master Series, this music would provide a juxtaposition to the label's recently spawned indie offshoots dos and DMZ, which are home to Austin alternative acts such as Dangerous Toys and King Friday.
Considering that the majority of Antone's blues releases are purchased by an over-35 crowd, the new labels aren't a bad idea. They can not only reach a new crowd of Lone Star listeners, they might even lure them toward the music that's long made Antone's special. Like needle-etched skin art, you just can't wash away the Texas vibe from Antone's releases. And if Clifford Antone has anything say about it, there will be plenty more deep vibes to come.