Austin's Fave

Jimmy LaFave's meat-and-potatoes blend of rambunctious instinct and softhearted sincerity is about as awe-inspiring as blue-collar rock gets these days. That may explain why he's become a live music institution throughout Texas, even if fans in his adopted hometown of Austin would prefer to keep LaFave to themselves. And who can blame them? Four releases in five years, and hardly a critical denouncement to speak of. Heck, if LaFave and his backing band, Night Tribe, continue at the same remarkably consistent pace, they could become the region's Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band by decade's end -- though it's likely Springsteen would have the fashion sense to pull his jeans out of his stovepipe boots in front of a paying audience.

A Texas native who spent his teen years in Stillwater, Oklahoma, LaFave returned to his birthplace in 1985 as a fully formed bandleader. But finding the right band to lead took longer than he'd imagined. It wasn't until the early '90s that LaFave settled in with the original version of Night Tribe -- and settled into a regular gig at Austin's La Zona Rosa. Despite that dorky boot thing, women have always dug LaFave. Maybe that's because his songs strike a perfect balance between a vagabond's restless spirit and a family man's thirst for stability. Like the songwriters he emulates -- primarily Springsteen, Lowell George and Bob Dylan -- LaFave finds settings for his assorted rocky romances, moral dilemmas and semi-spiritual excursions in some of the most unlikely locales -- and often within the shittiest of circumstances.

On Road Novel, his latest CD, it's largely LaFave's love/hate relationship with his tour bus that informs some of his most focused and substantial compositions yet. The ballads shudder and ache while the rockers haul ass like there's no tomorrow. LaFave treats his soulful sandpaper vocals to the gamut of human experience -- love, loss, regret, reverie, joy, hope, melancholy. It's nothing new, of course, but LaFave does the familiar better than most, and maybe most important, he endows that familiarity with a vivid sense of place. Sort of like a steak house dinner, LaFave's vision may lack variety, but it never fails to satisfy.

-- Hobart Rowland

Jimmy LaFave performs at 9 p.m. Friday, May 2, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $12. For info, call 528-5999.

Kim Richey -- Richey is a bit of an oddity in the current world of country music, in that she's received praise from both the No Depression crowd and the hat-act acolytes. Not long ago, that type of appeal was thought to be pretty much impossible, but if Don Walser can sell records to tattooed punks, then why can't the wayward children of Gram Parsons and Garth Brooks find their own common ground?

Richey does live and record in Nashville, but REO Speedwagon with a fat belt buckle she ain't. In fact, the greatest accomplishment of Richey's material may be that it maintains the thematic appeal of mainstream country -- heartbreak, romance, regret and the "l" word (sorry, no trucks or trains) -- without underestimating the intelligence of the listener.

As for her acceptance by the disciples of Uncle Tupelo, that may be a result of the songwriting flavor of John Hiatt -- or even Roy Orbison -- evident in her material. Part of the credit goes to Richey's good choice of writing partners, primarily Tia Sillers and Angelo ("No last name, but you'll know me by my beard"), both of whom made contributions to Richey's self-titled debut as well as her recent follow-up, Bitter Sweet. Richey bucked convention for Bitter Sweet by shying away from renting a flotilla of hired hands and instead using her touring band almost exclusively to back her.

The appearance by John Leventhal -- best known for his work with Shawn Colvin and current wife Rosanne Cash -- as co-writer and producer of one song appears like an attempt by Richey's label to engineer a hit single, and Leventhal should send Sheryl Crow either a thank-you note or, more appropriately, royalty checks for the pop-ish "I Know." Still, "I Know" is an aberration on an otherwise beautifully decorated release of kinder, gentler country music that's occasionally punctuated with desolate but alluring guitar sounds, pushy romanticism and the resonant insecurity of lines such as "I might be laughing if I weren't the joke."

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Richey, though, is that she's created a superior successor to a debut that already had the sound of a well-worn veteran. Didn't anybody tell her that there's supposed to be a drop-off in quality from the first to the second CD?

For Richey, the praise has come, and now, if all goes as planned, the popularity should follow. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 8 p.m. Friday, May 2. Sisters Morales open. Tickets are $15. 869-TICS. (Michael Bertin


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Michael Bertin
Hobart Rowland