Dave Alvin & the Guilty Ones, Mike Stinson Crighton Theatre, Conroe June 15, 2013
Making the relatively short trip to the Crighton Theatre can't help but feel a bit like stepping back a few decades, but with a contemporary twist. The Montgomery County fathers (and mothers) have invested no small amount of money into making Conroe much more than a sleepy bedroom community in danger of being subsumed by Houston's ravenous suburbia. Indeed, the town of some 60,000 people has nearly doubled in size since 2000, and renovated its quaint little courthouse square into a picturesque destination with enough nightlife options to make heading into the city on a Saturday night wholly unnecessary.
A handful of cafes, art galleries and antique shops now dot the square alongside bail-bond offices and law firms. This particular evening alone, within a stone's throw of the Crighton was a Waylon Jennings tribute show at the Corner Pub and former Nashville Star finalist Sheila Marshall at the Red Brick Tavern, plus whatever was going on at the Owen Theater across the way.
But it's the Sounds of Texas Music Series, presented by A&H Electric, civic nonprofit Friends of Conroe and Houston's own 90.1 KPFT, that brings top-shelf Americana talent to Conroe and makes it worth the 45-minute drive from "town." Even that might not be enough if the charmingly restored Crighton weren't, seriously, every bit the acoustic equal of the Wortham's Cullen Theater.
Saturday, Dave Alvin was an exceptionally apt choice to close out the 2013 edition of a series that plops big-city acts into into this community that is -- barely -- still more small East Texas town than extension of Houston's endless suburban sprawl. As much learned musicologist as both-barrels rocker, the former member of L.A. roots-punk holy trinity the Blasters, X and the Knitters has an acutely discerning eye for the "lost side of town," as well as a spongelike ability to soak up and spit back the talents of seemingly every crusty old bluesman he ever heard. In one of several little touches that made it clear he understood his surroundings, Alvin repeatedly addressed the well-behaved, appreciative audience as "Conroe" or "East Texas," not "Houston."
With desert-dry wit and lethal licks from his pearl Stratocaster, Alvin and his three onstage compadres -- pigtailed guitarist Chris Miller and married-couple Austin rhythm section of bassist Brad Fordham and drummer Lisa Pankratz -- had the Crighton crowd eating out of their hand even during an extended instrumental jam at the show's midpoint that, by Alvin's own admission, was just the four of them goofing around.
The balance of the evening, largely drawn from 2011 LP Eleven Eleven and scattered career nuggets like the oft-covered "4th of July," was high-octane, low-fat roots music dominated by the drifters and grifters of brooding Justified theme "Harlan County Line" and Alvin's guitar leads that, on "Long White Cadillac" and a whammy-bar of a three-song encore ("Wanda and Duane," "Out of Control," "Marie Marie") that were sharp enough to draw blood. He loves to tell stories about Texas, like writing spare Haggardesque gem "Every Night About This Time" while circling Hobby Airport, how Memphis R&B great Johnny Ace met his tragicomic end on New Years Eve 1954 at Houston's old City Auditorium ("Johnny Ace Is Dead"), and even passing through Lightnin' Hopkins' hometown of Centerville on the very trip that brought him there Saturday.
It was Hopkins, among others, who echoed in Alvin's talking-blues tribute to the old L.A. blues dives where he learned his trade, "Ashgrove." Easily the most solemn and moving part of Saturday's show was "Black Rose of Texas," Alvin's tribute to his late bandmate Amy Farris, the Austin/L.A. fiddler who passed in September 2009 at age 40 and, it was obvious from his choked-up introductory words, haunts Alvin and his bandmates to this day. That song hurt, drawing palpable grief from thin air.
But then songs like the shimmering "King of California" and "Dry River," rich with images of concrete rivers and orange groves, spoke just as glowingly of his home state. In fact, with apologies to Brian Wilson, Henry Rollins, Ice Cube, the Hag and a few others, no other single living musician (arguably) has done more to give his Golden State a robust musical mythology of its own than Alvin has. Hard as it may be for a tried-and-true Texan to admit, that much came through loud and clear Saturday night -- even all the way up in Conroe.
Personal Bias: Usually Californians are as easy to make fun of as the recurring SNL sketch. Alvin and his ilk are most definitely exceptions.
The Crowd: Distinguished Conroevians out for a Saturday night on the town and Houston hipsters savvy enough to make the drive. Those in their late thirties were the youngsters.
Overheard In the Crowd: "What a band!"
Random Notebook Dump: Houston transplant Mike Stinson, an old friend of Alvin's from the L.A. scene, opened with a set of sad-sack songs that masked deep desires and a steely resolve. Most of it was drawn from his forthcoming album Hell and Half of Georgia, Stinson's first full-length since 2010's The Jukebox In Your Heart. It's a keeper -- stay tuned.
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