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Last Night: Mike Stinson at Under the Volcano

Mike Stinson Under the Volcano April 3, 2013

The motivations people have for going into music are many, and most of them are mundane. People want to be famous, see the world, or prove something to a parent or a lover, so they pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano.

Going unappreciated, too often, are the musicians who do it (and excel at it) because it's their job.

To watch Mike Stinson put his four-piece band through almost 30 songs at an average gig -- say, his monthly Wednesday at Under the Volcano last night -- is no different than observing a fine watchmaker or a mechanic who works on high-performance engines. He's a tradesman, and anyone who doesn't see the art in it is either myopic or just stupid.

It seems to me Stinson has two great gifts as a songwriter. He can cascade a few chords together in just the right sequence so that a once-familiar pattern becomes something entirely unique.

It's a technique he shares with other working-man bards, men of both grit and sensitivity but rockers to the core: Petty, Springsteen, Fogerty. Thicken it with a little Keith Richards insouciance, and Stinson leads one of the better bar bands in the state at the moment.

But his lyrical talent is even greater. Across an evening, sad songs become triumphant and small victories are celebrated. "Live to Drink Again," for one. To keep things from getting too comfortable, he embraces "The Kind of Trouble I Need," reels off tangy character sketches like "Take Out the Trash" and Dion's "King of the New York Streets," and digs in his heels on "May Have to Do It." He even shoved a potential radio hit way toward the end of the set, "This Year."

Stinson's songs resonate because their tiny details reveal universal truths. It's the world in a drop of water, a concept also advanced by British novelist Ian McEwen in 2005's Saturday and Texas songwriter Michael Fraccasso on his 1998 album of the same phrase. Stinson excels. A few examples:

"She'll tap you on the shoulder, and you know you've won a prize"

"Got a bunch of replacement parts every time I come unwound"

"It took a lot of digging to get in this deep"

"Can't keep it from starting, and I can't make it stop"

"The lights are as dim as my future"

There were probably 50 others.

Stinson also has the good sense to hire a band that plays to his strengths. Lance Smith, his lead-guitar foil, teased and coaxed single-note runs out of his axe that both accented and argued with Stinson's lyrics, while his thickly larded chords lathered up growlers like "Thing For You." The running dialogue between what Stinson sings and what Smith plays almost acts like a fifth member of the band. Meanwhile, bassist Mark Riddell and drummer Matt Johnson (a relatively recent addition) supplied necessary muscle and drive, tempered with the proper restraint a midweek gig suggests.

Stinson is a surefire Saturday-night full house at Ginny's Little Longhorn in Austin -- one of the state capital's last remaining true beer joints -- and surfaces in his adopted hometown about twice a month.

Last night might not have been a marquee gig, where the band would have pushed the pedal all the way to the floor and the crowd would have been two or three times larger and more lubricated than it was, but the relatively relaxed atmosphere at the Volcano provided an even better vantage point to appreciate this most underrated musician.

As Stinson said himself, "What else are you going to do on a Wednesday?"

Personal Bias: This was not my first Mike Stinson show.

The Crowd: Stinson loyalists and Volcano regulars, most of whom were barely paying attention, especially the large party in the corridor toward the bathroom.

Overheard In the Crowd: Nothing.

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Random Notebook Dump: Stinson should play Johnny Lee in the inevitable remake of Urban Cowboy. Why hasn't this happened already?


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