Before his stunning, soul-stirring tribute to late best friend and sometime bandmate Chris Gaffney (Hacienda Brothers), who passed away last April from liver cancer, roots-rock eminence grise Dave Alvin was out back of the Continental Club talking to a mutual friend about his flight to Austin from Dallas. The plane, he said, was full of 20-year-olds with guitars, excitedly talking about "getting deals."
"I felt like Benny Goodman at Woodstock," the 53-year-old Alvin laughed.
Alvin may have been joking as a distraction from the extremely difficult task in front of him - a set composed of all Gaffney songs (save one), many of which the thick-as-thieves duo co-wrote - but it was a salient reminder that not everybody comes to SXSW looking to get ahead. Some just want to honor a fallen friend.
The band Alvin assembled for his Gaffney tribute, billed as "Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women with special guests," couldn't have been of a higher Americana caliber: fiddler and 1-A vocalist Amy Farris; ex-Asleep at the Wheel steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar; Austin Continental Club linchpins Sarah Brown (bass) and Lisa Pankratz (drums); ex-Joe Ely squeezer Ponty Bone on accordion; and rockabilly ringer guitarists Bill Kirchen and Chris Miller.
Obviously much more invested in this than they would be a typical SXSW performance, the one-off band honored Gaffney - who had played and recorded with many, if not all, onstage - with an hour that showed both how much he's missed and what an impressive and soulful country-rock legacy he leaves behind.
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As ringleader, Alvin introduced the songs with brief anecdotes about their origins, and also who covers them on May's Yep Roc album A Man of Somebody's Dreams: A Tribute to the Songs of Chris Gaffney. There were bloody-nose roadhouse rockers, sad-hearted Spanish ballads, barroom jukebox twangers and - courtesy of Alvin's entry on the album, "Artesia" - a lesson in how the smell of cow manure can trigger feelings of almost overwhelming nostalgia. Although the mood was certainly melancholy, Alvin injected enough warm humor and amusing Gaffney anecdotes to keep things from ever turning maudlin - quite an achievement, considering Gaffney's daughter was watching from about three feet away.
Other highlights were the swaggering whammy-bar workout "Lift Your Leg," the first song Alvin and Gaffney wrote together ("Which actually grazed the country charts in 1987," Alvin noted); aching waltz "The Man of Somebody's Dreams"; and elbow-bending honky-tonker "Six Nights a Week." Closing out was the Cajun two-step of "Fight (Tonight's the Night)" and "Marie Marie," the one song not on the album but, as Alvin noted, always an "accordion showpiece" for Gaffney. Stoked by Farris' fiddle and Bone's accordion, the band built to a fever pitch of Louisiana lightnin' that couldn't bring Gaffney back but ensured that nobody in the absolutely packed Continental would ever forget him. One of the most memorable SXSW sets in many a a moon.