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Charlie Robison

Charlie Robison, at the Ziegenbock Festival

Not that long ago it seemed like Charlie Robison was going to single-handedly change Nashville and country music. Instead of playing the it's-all-good, speak-no-evil, how's-my-wardrobe-look game, Robison was great copy. He once called Brad Paisley "that little moron" and started a huge brouhaha by publicly trashing Pat Green and his clones for hijacking the mantle of "Texas music." When accused of selling out when he signed with Sony Nashville, Robison replied that he was "Nashville's worst nightmare."

Well, he did okay with Step Right Up, but Charlie Robison neither pulled down the walls of the citadel nor chased the moneylenders from the temple. Like fellow Texas outlaw Jack Ingram (with whom he shares this bill), after a short run, Robison quietly parted ways with Sony. His new album, Good Times, is due out this week on Dualtone, the Nashville independent label that's home to such artists as Jim Lauderdale, Chris Knight and Radney Foster -- acts with loads of integrity but little of the dumbed-down homogeneity that today's tightly controlled radio play lists demand.

For Good Times, Robison returned to Lloyd Maines, who produced Robison's signature album, Life of the Party, as well as his first album, the hugely underrated, out-of-print Bandera. The new album is pure Robison, featuring a mix of cheeky double entendres like "Love Means Never Having to Say You're Hungry," barroom sing-alongs like "Good Times," and dark touch-of-evil folk ballads like Keith Gattis's "El Cerrito Place," the surreal border sketch "New Year's Day" and a classic remake of the tender "Always," which originally appeared on Bandera.

Rather than marking a drastic sea change, Good Times is a logical extension of Robison's previous work. Marriage and fatherhood and a couple of hard years in the ring duking it out with the country music establishment have seasoned and tempered Robison, but what counts is that he's still plenty capable of John Prine-ish lyrical genius and South Texas get-outta-my-way swagger, all delivered in that guy-two-double-wides-over voice that first brought him to our attention: "I woke up Sunday morning / Had myself a piece of toast / Had $50 in my pocket / Gonna chase myself a ghost / Went down Camino Espinoza / Gonna get me a divorce." While Good Times may not quite achieve the Zen moment that Life of the Party did, it still displays all the maverick traits and musical breadth that drew us to Charlie Robison in the first place. -- William Michael Smith

Saturday, September 25, in Old Town Spring Preservation Park, 405 Main. Eli Young, Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers, Drew Womack, Cory Morrow, Phil Pritchett, Honeybrowne, Reckless Kelly, Jack Ingram and Roger Creager are also on the bill. Admission is free. For a schedule, visit www.ziegfest.com/oldtown.htm or call 832-237-8900.

The Cramps

In 1976, while Americans were celebrating the bicentennial with a lot of renewed interest in the past, mondo bizarro aspiring musicians and romantic couple Erick Purkhiser and Kristy Wallace pursued their own sort of history lesson. Rechristening themselves Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach, they fused their interest in vintage sounds like rockabilly, surf and garage and mid-20th-century schlock culture like B-grade horror movies, kitschy drive-thru Americana and primitive sex flicks -- all that seedy '50s nostalgia that Sha Na Na, Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley ignored.

The illegitimate offspring of Link Wray and Jayne Mansfield have pursued this rarely varying sound ever since, with Interior's screaming/moaning vocals and Rorschach's dirty, bottomed-out chords anchoring a changing but always reverb-drenched quartet lineup. Their live shows, equal parts rock and Rocky Horror, are celebrations of fun-loving decadence. And forked tongue-in-cheek album titles include Gravest Hits, Smell of Female and Look Mom, No Head!

Their latest release, on their own Vengeance label, is the double CD How to Make a Monster. The first disc includes early demos, rarities and studio outtakes, while the second features two gigs at venerable NYC punk venues: a 1977 date at CBGB's (their third performance ever) and a 1978 gig at Max's Kansas City. And though the sound quality varies wildly, the fact that you can hear patrons heckle the band and even make a drug deal with a waitress (!) shows how confrontational and dangerous many of their early gigs were. The surfeit of repetition makes it a collection for diehards only, but it nonetheless provides an interesting glimpse of the band's earliest days as fledgling fiends. -- Bob Ruggiero

Sunday, September 26, at the Meridian, 1515 Chartres, 713-225-1717.

Jon Dee Graham, with Steve Wedemeyer

Some of my crit-comrades complained about the thin lyrical content on Jon Dee Graham's last album, Hooray for the Moon (did they just fast-forward through "Laredo"?). But I'd like to hear them try to argue with me about his next album. On the great battle, Graham has bowed his literary neck, channeled into John Updike territory and, in the process, delivered the most complete album of his solo career.  

Graham begins with "Twilight," a theme-setter that immediately lets us know where he's coming from -- middle age -- with these cracked-mirror, rusty-razor, where-did-that-ache-come-from musings that seem ripped still bleeding from his subconscious: "How much trouble are we in / Don't you hear those violins / Do you believe we were conceived in sin / Well, I do." Listen to the album a few times and the title becomes less and less ironic. In Graham's vision of the great battle, beautifully harmonized with Patti Griffin, "Good things will happen / Bad things will happen / And very often I won't know the difference at all."

Throughout, Graham is fixated on the trials of simply getting out of bed and doing what you've got to do to make a life in spite of your mistakes and illusions. Most of these songs are dark-of-night insomniac soul searches that, it seems, somehow always manage to find a touch of salvation and purpose -- even Graham's blow-down-the-walls covers of Neil Young's "Harvest" and the traditional lament "Lonesome Valley." Graham, second guitarist Mike Hardwick and producer-guitarist Charlie Sexton burn up the strings on these and other guitar romps such as "I Don't Feel That Way Anymore." But it's the addition of quiet, humorous musings like "Something to Look Forward To" and the gentle "Robot Moving" that flesh out Graham's existential view and make it palatable instead of boorish: "I swore I'd never use the word irony in a song / 'Course the irony is that I never meant to live this long / Yeah, but I did / Now what am I supposed to do about that?" These aren't disposable Ryan Adams pop-star songs scribbled on wet napkins at the spur of a drunken moment. Like Hemingway once said of Nelson Algren, "This is a man writing." -- William Michael Smith

Saturday, September 25, at the Continental Club, 3700 Main, 713-529-9899.

Social Distortion, with the Explosion and Tiger Army

X, Black Flag and Circle Jerks may get the most accolades as pioneers of the SoCal punk scene, but Social Distortion has best withstood the ravages of time. Founded in 1978 by Mike Ness and brothers Frank and Rikk Agnew (who would later form the also influential Adolescents), the band had already undergone a number of lineup changes by 1983, when they recorded Mommy's Little Monster, their seminal debut. Led by the title track and opener "The Creeps (I Just Wanna Give You)," it was a raging slab of alienation and chunky, searing riffs that would serve as a template for many who followed. But Ness continued to mature, as evidenced by their follow-up, 1988's Prison Bound, which found him melding their punk attack with a rootsy, country-ish approach that compromised a bit of tempo, but none of the power. They continued in this vein, scoring a minor hit with their cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," and recording three albums for Epic along the way, until 2000, when Ness's childhood friend, Social Distortion guitarist Daniel Danell, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. There were doubts about the band's future, but they've returned with Sex, Love and Rock'n'Roll, their first studio album in eight years, with Rancid's Matt Freeman replacing John Maurer, their bassist of 20 years. Whatever the lineup, the crux remains the same: Ness's gruff, brash vocals, fiery, rootsy riffs, and hot-blooded tales of hard luck and redemption. -- Chris Parker

Tuesday, September 28, at Verizon Wireless Theater, 520 Texas, 713-230-1600.

Dr. John, with B.B. King at the B.B. King Blues Festival 2004

For a guy who first wafted like the smoke off a voodoo candle into the national consciousness in 1968, Dr. John ain't doing bad at all. After all, think of all the wrong turns he could have taken, not the least of which is this: He could have wound up as the Jimmy Buffett of the Big Easy, a tedious champion of weekend-warrior Bourbon Street dissipation, a purveyor of "I got loaded at the district managers' convention" ditties like "Show Me Some Titties (If You Want Deez Heah Beedz)" or some such. There's sure to be big money for somebody in such a career, and about 15 or 20 years ago, when he was at loose ends, Dr. John could just as well have reinvented himself along those lines.

But thank God and Marie Laveau he didn't. Instead, he indulged his always-present archival bent, and became the foremost preservationist in a city full of musical conservatives. His new album, N'Awlinz: Dis, Dat Or D'Udda,continues the recycled, updated classics streak he started with 1972's Dr. John's Gumbo and revisited in 1992 with Goin' Back to New Orleans.  

The latter of which this album greatly resembles. There's a similar all-star cast of New Orleanians, including the Dirty Dozen, Monk Boudreaux, John Boudreaux, Wardell Quezergue, Snooks Eaglin, Davell Crawford, Willie Tee, Cyril Neville, Dave Bartholomew, Nicholas Payton, Smokey Johnson and Eddie Bo, all of whom acquit themselves well. (B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples and Randy Newman also drop in, with more mixed results.) There's a spooky quasi-classical opening number in "Quatre Parishe," much like Goin' Back's "Litanie des Saintes," and some hoary old N'Awlins lore by the likes of Kid Ory and Cousin Joe, whose "You Ain't Such a Much" contains the memorable lines "You wouldn't give a blind pig an acorn / you wouldn't give a crippled crab a crutch / but babe, you and your food stamps, you ain't so such a much." And there are also overfamiliar standards almost unrecognizably reborn: The Mavis Staples collabo of "When the Saints Go Marching In" becomes the bluest of dirges, while "St. James Infirmary" is transformed into a conga-replete ass-shaker featuring an excellent guest verse from Eddie Bo.

And so while we wait for Dr. John's next installment of updated New Orleans tradition, what can we expect next?

If his past is any indication, perhaps something along the lines of Anutha Zone, which found him keeping company with strange bedfellows like Portishead, Paul Weller, Primal Scream and Jason Pierce. Or maybe it will be something closer to home. Or maybe it will be something closer to home and with strange bedfellows -- he could team up with Juvenile, Silkk the Shocker and Lil' Romeo on Dr. John and Master P Brang Da Crunk Funk or something like that. But rest assured it won't be any Jambalaya in Paradise nonsense. -- John Nova Lomax

Friday, September 24, at H-Town's Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway, 713-988-1020.


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