Aftermath is so busy in the city, we don't get down to Wrecks Bell's Old Quarter Acoustic Café in Galveston enough. But we caught a free ride down Saturday and rectified that situation. And what a unique show we were privy to, with Jesse Dayton playing with two of his favorite writers, Brennen Leigh and Mike Stinson.
Dayton, who has been working 14-hour days directing his first film, Zombex, was a bit under the weather, but he soldiered on like the pro he is and gave a solid two-hour performance. He had actually planned to record the show a his next release, the follow up to his One For The Dance Halls. But he (probably wisely) scrapped that plan due to his hectic schedule and instead did a run-through of what will probably eventually become his next CD.
Working with his acoustic guitar and bass player Rick Watson, Dayton opened the set with a searing version of longtime favorite "She's Kissin' Abilene Goodbye." By the second verse, as club owner and former Townes van Zandt compadre Bell twiddled with the sound, Dayton and Watson had it squeaky tight. With his schedule so crowded these days, we wondered how Dayton, who had a different bassist the last time we saw him, finds time to rehearse his acoustic show and dial it in so well.
As Bell continued to tweak the sound, Dayton quipped, "Welcome to the Beaumont sound check. That's when you do the check after the sellout crowd is seated."
Dayton broke hard into his Joe Strummer homage, "Camden Town" and had the crowd 100 percent. This was no Houston audience; these people were totally quiet, totally into what's happening onstage. Bell made a couple more tweaks when the song ended.
"OK, I think the Beaumont sound check is officially over," Dayton quipped.
"Jesse, don't make fun of me, I love you," Bell replied.
"Actually I'm making fun of me, Wrecks," said Dayton to howls.
And then Dayton got serious, rendering a George Jones-ish take on Nick Lowe's loser's masterpiece, "Lately I've Let Things Slide," and followed with "a song I wrote about Liberty, Texas," "River Done Rose Clear Outta the Banks." It was a nasty, South Texas blues that said to all in hearing range that Dayton is not just a honky-tonker.
He followed with "I'm Home Getting Hammered While She's Out Getting Nailed," "the dumbest song I ever wrote, which of course made me the most mailbox money. As a songwriter, it makes you wonder what your priorities are supposed to be."
The audience turned the song into a singalong.
At this point, Dayton cut the bass player loose for the night and introduced Leigh and Stinson. He and Leigh do a George-and-Tammy (or Ryan Adams/Caitlin Cary) take on "Holdin' Our Own," and the night suddenly shifted into a different gear. Stinson followed with his honky-tonk weeper, "Can't Go Out Anymore" before handing off to Dayton, who changed things completely with a cover of Kinky Friedman's "Sold American."
Dayton has been performing the song in the play Becoming Kinky: The World According To Kinky Friedman, and will be recording an album of Friedman covers in the near future. Again, you could've heard a pin drop in the room, not one person whispering or even moving. Hello, Houston...
With the supposed Day of Rapture drawing to an end without any visible apocalypse, Leigh took it as a sign to do a somewhat religious ditty, "Backslider's Blues," and she absolutely nailed it, moving the bar for the evening higher once again. Stinson followed with his spiritual "Square With the World," a song so deep and soulful it seems like it was written expressly for Merle Haggard or someone with equal gravitas, decency and world-weariness.
Not to be outdone in this Rapture-Fest, Dayton pulled out his old backslider chestnut, "A Creek Between Heaven and Hell." And at this point, one of those things happened that makes us glad we continue to go to acoustic song-swaps, even though three times out of five they make us want to pull out the pistol and end it all.
Leigh announced a new song, "one I wrote recently with John Scott Sherrill." Sherrill makes a living writing hits in Nashville, but he's on the very legit end of that scene, and the song, "I Don't Drink (Except on Special Occasions)," was an absolute stunner, a masterpiece of honky-tonk word play. Dayton winked at Stinson like "we better hook it up" and the battle was on.
Stinson followed with one of his newest compositions, "The Kind of Trouble I Need" and won the crowd back to his corner. It was like a heavyweight championship battle where the fighters are throwing their best shots and no one would go down or throw in the towel. The crowd was absolutely rapt (a word that shares its root with rapture).
Dayton followed with his Stinson co-write "Pretty Girls Make the World Go Round," which Stinson later said was the best performance of the relatively new tune that he's heard. Then Leigh and Dayton wowed the crowd with a stellar take on the classic Jones/Wynette duet, "Take Me."
Referring to Leigh's song "I Don't Drink," Stinson told the crowd "I think I've got the perfect alternative for that" and broke hard into his drinking anthem, "I'll Live To Drink Again." When Stinson sang "Can't believe I spent all of my dough/ To feel this fuckin' low," the crowd erupted with the biggest mid-song cheer of the night, and signaled once again that they were listening hard.
Not to be outdone, Dayton followed with his stoner classic, "Let's Go Get Stoned (And Listen to George Jones)." By now this train was rolling full speed and the throttle was stuck. Leigh broke out another killer new one called "I'm Gonna Paint Myself Blue," thus forcing Stinson to drop his best tear-jerker, "Slip My Mind," the slowest and quietest, yet one of the emotionally deadliest songs of the night.
Dayton followed with his "Loretta" which called out the ever-near ghost of Townes van Zandt. Not to be outdone by the men, Leigh then dropped a "Jolene"-style tune called "Amy," and once again the room literally held its breath as she worked through the sad but beautiful melody.
Revving up for the finale, Stinson then blasted his way through his new outsider's anthem "I May Have To Do It (But I Don't Have To Like It)," leaving Dayton to follow with Greg Wood's classic piece of Texas stoner outlaw braggadocio, "Tall Walkin' Texas Trash." The trio then all joined voices for a rousing take on Willie Nelson's classic "I Gotta Get Drunk."
The crowd knew an encore was pointless. Anyway, it had been two hours since anyone had talked or even moved much.
Like the sign says, "The Old Quarter Acoustic Café: Where Lyrics Still Count."
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.