As the sleek new trains swoosh past down Main on a cool winter's night, the Continental Club is filled with some of the oldest (and best) sounds in town. It's Wednesday happy hour, and the Swank Countrypolitans are on stage -- singer-guitarist Johnny Wolfe, singing fiddler Hilary Sloan, singing upright bassist (and former Hollister) Cletus, drummer Steve Candelari and, as Sloan calls him, the "cranky old bastard" of a pedal steel man, Bill Howard -- and they're ripping through one vein of classic country gold after another.
This most definitely ain't the classic country you've been hearing on 97.1 -- there's none of that T.G. Sheppard, Ronnie Milsap or Crystal Gayle fool's gold to be heard. Instead, there's the high-grade ore of Johnny Bush, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Gene Watson, Buck Owens and Lefty Frizzell. They even played the World War II classic "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again." Wolfe, Sloan and Howard trade off solos on their instruments, and all the singers -- especially Sloan and Wolfe, but Cletus has a surprisingly strong voice, too -- deliver the songs with conviction and flair.
What's more, you aren't gonna get only the overly familiar hits. This is as much an education as it is an exercise in nostalgia. When a request for "Whiskey River" goes out, you get Bush's original version, not Willie Nelson's theme. You don't hear Hag's "Okie from Muskogee" or "Fightin' Side of Me" -- instead, they play "My House of Memories." The set closes with the ancient Appalachian fiddle mantra "Sally Gooden," which likely hasn't charted since 1822, when it was No. 1 on the Mississippi River flatboatman's chart. (Just kidding.)
"It's funny, man, people have been coming up to us and getting really emotional," says the pipe-smoking Cletus. "They say they thought they would never hear these songs live again."
It's a side project for Cletus, Wolfe and Sloan. The former two are both backing Davin James, who has a brand-new album out. Wolfe is branching out a little into rock -- a recent performance at the Continental introduced Houston to a new side of the lanky honky-tonker. Wolfe admits that someone wasn't ready, either him or the audience. "It was rough, man," he says, looking into his glass of whiskey. "I played a bunch of my old stuff that nobody really got. It was fun -- I never get to play that stuff Sometimes I wonder why."
Still, Wolfe is hoping to release an album of rock material sometime soon. "I seem to be in that cycle these days."
Sloan is fronting her own band -- Aunt Erma's Fillin' Station -- which also includes bassist Ben Collis and flat-out genius guitarist Pablo Burnett. At a show a few months back at the West Alabama Ice House, one they played without their rhythm guitar player, they showed flashes of why Collis claims this is his favorite project ever -- which is saying something, given that stints in Horseshoe and Fleshmop are on his résumé. The band's tight enough to get really loose -- when they stretch out for instrumental jams it's to stone-cold country what Junior Kimbrough or R.L. Burnside is to blues: raw, primal and hypnotic.
And with Wolfe, Cletus and company, Sloan makes music almost as sweet. Truth be told, the only sour note at this gig was the fact that hardly anybody was there. Maybe real-deal classic country doesn't have a home here. Whenever the Continental puts on cool weekly shows like this -- be they real-deal blues or country -- they die on the vine after a few weeks. You can't blame the musicians or the club when they pull the plug. The blame lies squarely with all of us who don't go and support shows like these, especially when, like this one, they're free. You can't say you missed the gig 'cause you were hungry, either. There's free red beans and rice on offer, too. And parking has been removed as an excuse as well. There's a train stop right there on the Continental's doorstep. You can drop in, check out a free show for a few minutes, and move on down the line if you don't like it. (And bring a country/Americana cliché to truth -- you really can catch a ride on one of those ubiquitous "southbound trains" bad songwriters are always littering their songs with.)
Or you can stay home and watch Paris Hilton make an ass out of herself in rural Arkansas or some such shit. But the next time one of your favorite musicians packs their bags for Austin, you'll have only yourself to blame.
The Continental will also have a couple of brand-new weekly engagements starting this week. As of January 14, excellent local 1950s-vintage country traditionalists Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys will be in residence Wednesday nights after the Swank Countrypolitans. The trio is composed of John Evans's drummer Sean Raiford, former Hank III/Moses Guest steel guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Dan Johnson and former Wayne Hancock bassist Shawn Supra. If you liked the Weary Boys, you'll love these guys. Also, David Garza's six-week run of solo Sunday-night shows begins January 18 Meanwhile, over at DiverseWorks, an evening of art, rock and generalized debauchery is planned for January 16, with the "Paradise Is Waiting" art/music gathering, which promises you the chance to "luxuriate in a Utopian convection dream of a tropical fantasy steeped in palm fronds, umbrella drinks, Coppertone, and whale songs." NTX & Electric Deth, Muzak, Rotten Piece and Two Star Symphony will be providing the tuneage, while the Scatterbrain Collective will be handling the artage. Videos by Brandon Davis, Shaun Kelly, Amalia Harithas and the Electric Set also will be screened, enabling you to ignore the bands with even more facility than you usually display at more traditional gigs. A donation will be collected at the door, even though the show is technically, like, free. But only if you're a scumbag From the Ask and Ye Shall Receive Department: A few weeks ago Racket opined that a package tour of edgy contemporary blues acts would be a good idea -- and it is. And what's more, it's now a reality and is coming to Houston. On January 18 the Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan -- starring T-Model Ford, Cedric Burnside, Kenny Brown and Paul "Wine" Jones -- will pull in to the Rhythm Room. Expect an evening of musically narcotic mayhem As usual, the mid-March South By Southwest piggyback effect is setting in, and March will be the coolest month for live music in Houston. Fat Cat's offers up Calexico on March 20 and follows that with the Sleepy Jackson, Earlimart and On the Stereo the following night. Thea Gilmore will be at the Mucky Duck on March 15. Additionally, Athlete, Atmosphere, Comets on Fire, the Fiery Furnaces, the Hives, Limited Express (has gone?), Modest Mouse, Starsailor, Toots and the Maytals, TV on the Radio and the Walkmen all also have confirmed South By gigs, and could just as easily play here as not The Zombies, one of the few touring classic rock acts worth getting in a swivet about, will be playing Numbers on February 21. You don't need to be some kind of oracle to know you won't want to miss that odyssey.
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