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RIP Roscoe: Death of a True Believer

Posted by mcorcoran on April 21, 2017

It’s fashionable to bitch about newcomers in Austin, even though we all came from somewhere else. But some transplants are more like reinforcements, letting us know through their unbridled enthusiasm that we live in a special place.

Ross Shoemaker, who everyone here called Roscoe, came down with the great Oklahoma migration of the ‘80s. At first he was known as “the guy who recorded The Shit Hits the Fans,” the legendarily awful/perfect, drunken Replacements set at the Bowery, where he worked in Oklahoma City. God, how Roscoe loved the ‘Mats! But after you ran into him a few times and hung out at a couple 3 a.m. living room parties, you knew him as the guy who loved ALL his music deeply and sincerely. He was the pure fan, not a snob. I would tell him the Replacements were way overrated and he would laugh and rattle off 26 song titles that told me it didn’t matter what I thought.

Roscoe, who got jobs at Waterloo Records and Liberty Lunch so he could be around music fulltime, died last night in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He’d moved back to his home state at least 20 years ago. Got married, had a daughter, stayed in touch. At about 9 p.m. Wednesday, Ross was driving his Ford Focus when a Cadillac Escalade crossed into his lane and hit him head on. Cause of the accident is being investigated.

The word spread through Facebook Thursday morning like a Roscoe whoop at a True Believers show. The first things folks who knew him mentioned was that he was a great friend of music and a devoted father to teenaged daughter Sadie. To me he represented Austin in the ‘80s, when you toyed with excesses daily because that party was too good to end. All the bands we were getting tired of- Doctors’ Mob, Wild Seeds, True Believers, Poison 13, etc.- almost became new again in Roscoe’s pure and devout worship. “His love of music was contagious,” Max Crawford of Poi Dog Pondering posted on Facebook. Words that should be engraved somewhere meaningful.

Following Ross on Facebook was a human roller coaster ride. His bad days were painful, especially after he lost his job a couple years ago, but then he’d see a great band or run into an old friend and it would be the Roscoe of old. “Awesome” was his favorite word and it meant something when he said it.

I enjoyed a perfect day with Roscoe in June 2014 when I was sent to Tulsa for a story about the lawyer who represented the wife in a divorce that was settled for $1 billion. I couldn’t wait for the interview to be over because I was meeting Ross for lunch at Goldie’s, a hamburger joint recommended by former Tulsa musician Ron Flynt. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly about the highs and lows of being a single parent. We both married dumb, but conceived wisely. Roscoe’s ex was a newlywed or about to be, so she was always calling him to modify the custody situation, he said. “I always say ‘sure,’” Roscoe told me. “I’ll take every minute I can get with my daughter.” We had a lot in common, but not all of it good. I think Roscoe was 9 months sober at the time and went to meetings.

The best part of the day was when Roscoe proudly showed me around Tulsa, with its rich musical history. We went inside the famous Cain’s Ballroom, which would probably be a CVS right now if it was located in Austin, then drove to Leon Russell’s old church studio where so much great Leon, Tom Petty, Freddie King and J.J. Cale stuff was recorded. He took me to the Woody Guthrie Museum, which is worth a long drive in itself, then showed me Guthrie Green, a fantastic free live music venue bankrolled by a billionaire music lover. He showed me the small club where Alejandro Escovedo had played just a few days earlier and where Roscoe got to catch up with his old friend. He moved away, but never really left. Last stop was the intersection of Greenwood, Archer and Pine Streets, from where Tulsa’s GAP Band got their name. It was a great day to talk about the music we love, where some of it was made.

About two weeks ago, Roscoe proudly posted the list of Rolling Stone magazine’s “50 Greatest Live Records of All Time,” which ranked The Shit at No. 50. M’man produced one of the 50 greatest live records of all time! Then gave the tape to the band because that’s the kind of fan, the kind of man, he was.

If you can live a life like Ross Shoemaker did, so full of love and enthusiasm, you will have a great one. It will be a real life of ups and downs, deep sorrows and bursts of euphoria. A life that touches many.

“Alex Chilton” is a song about being a fan. I’m playing it for Roscoe now and it’s never sounded sadder. This is gonna take some time.

 

Posted in Austin, Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

Pulling Out All the Stops: Mike Flanigin’s B3 Shot

Posted by mcorcoran on April 8, 2017

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin was a guitar player, a real good one. In 1992, the Denton native toured the country with the Red Devils, the L.A.-based blues band whose debut King King was produced by Rick Rubin. After the Devils broke up in ’94, he moved to Austin because this is where guitar players go to chase work and tail and, maybe in the process, get a real education.

And then one night at Antone’s, in the corner of his eye, he saw the Hammond B3. Flanigin was playing an organ song- Big John Patton’s “Let ‘Em Roll”- on a steel guitar and he asked himself why wasn’t he playing it on that B3? Which was all it took. The first time Flanigin pressed his fingers down on the B3, he was no longer a guitar player. “Even when I didn’t know how to play, I knew this was the instrument I was meant for,” he said from the 1960’s house he rents in Rollingwood. “The B3 required all my attention, so I didn’t have time for the guitar anymore.” You don’t dabble with that four-legged cabinet that holds an empire of sound- it takes over your life.

Flanigin’s debut solo LP The Drifter, which comes out August 21 with special guests Gary Clark Jr., Billy Gibbons, Kat Edmonson, Jimmie Vaughan, Rev. Gean West and Alejandro Escovedo, is the culmination of two decades of learning how to lock it down on the B3. But it also tells the story of his life in lyrics that this son of an Air Force pilot has been accumulating through his travels in the wild blues yonder. The title track of The Drifter is a Gatemouth Brown cover sang by Gibbons, but the other nine songs are Flanigin originals.

When he was still quite green, with his only organ experience in Doyle Bramhall Sr.’s band for a few months, Flanigin opened for B3 kingpin Jimmy Smith at the Mercury. Considering that Smith had recorded nearly 40 classic soul-jazz records for the Blue Note and Verve labels beginning in 1956, this would be like opening for Richard Pryor with knock-knock jokes. But Flanigin, then 32, got the gig because the club needed to provide a B3 and Flanigin had one. Luckily, this was the ground-floor version of the Mercury, not the one upstairs that’s now called the Parish, because hauling a 425-lb B3 and a Leslie speaker almost as heavy up a flight of stairs has caused many a roadie to consider another line of work.

mike_flanigin

Mike Flanigin in Marfa. Photo by Ashley McCue.

“I hoped and prayed that Jimmy Smith would show up right before he went on and miss my set,” said Flanigin, feeling insecure about his pairing with the absolute genius of grit n’ soul. “At one point I looked over and there he was. JIMMY SMITH WAS WATCHING ME PLAY THE ORGAN! I just froze up, man. I stopped playing,” Flanigin was able to compose himself after a long minute and finished the set.

The B3 actually belonged to Mike Judge, who Flanigin knew from Dallas, when the Silicon Valley creator played bass for Anson Funderburgh. Since Hammond stopped producing B3s in 1975, the organ had to be over 20 years old, but it had never been played in public when Judge bought it. Smith, who’d been playing every beat-up piece of shit organ the clubs provided on his tour, loved the pristine instrument.

After the crowd had cleared out, Smith went back onstage and sat at the organ. Flanigin was up there to get the B3 ready to move, but Smith motioned for him to sit next to him on the bench. And for the next 30 minutes, the master showed the novice a few things on the B3.

“I had heard that Jimmy Smith could be difficult and moody- that was his reputation,” said Flanigin, “but he was nothing but nice to me that night.” Flanigin would, a few years later, see the temperamental side of Smith, when the icon refused to go back onstage at Antone’s after the club’s B3 temporarily died on him. But that night at the Mercury was a magical experience that will stay with Flanigin forever.

“It’s all the blues, man,” Smith told the kid after one adventurous run. “I was thinking ‘that’s not like any blues I’ve ever heard,’” Flanigin said with a chuckle. The legend’s impromptu tutorial showed Flanigin just how much he had to learn.

Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith

James Oscar Smith of Philadelphia started off as a piano player, but switched in 1953 when he heard Wild Bill Davis play the Hammond organ in Milt Larkin’s Houston-based big band. A key selling point for music school graduate Smith was that the organ never went out of tune. The first great electric organ player of note was piano legend Fats Waller, who grew up playing church organ at his father’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Waller taught Count Basie, who made the organ swing in the ‘30s. Chicago’s Les Strand earned the nickname “the Art Tatum of the organ” in the ‘40s and recorded with Coleman Hawkins, and there was also Smith’s Philadelphia neighbor Bill Doggett, who played a Hammond in Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five before forming his own band and having a smash with sax man Clifford Scott on “Honky Tonk (Pts. 1 and 2)” in 1956. But improvisational virtuoso Smith created much of the language of the Hammond B3 organ and anybody who’s played it after, even the rock and R&B players like Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, Brian Auger, Keith Emerson, Jon Lord of Deep Purple, Greg Rolie of Santana, Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals and Booker T. Jones and Billy Preston, have got some Jimmy Smith in their heads. He is the Source, like T-Bone Walker on the electric blues guitar.

The B3 came out in 1954, just when Smith was starting out, and he pioneered the walking bass lines with his left hand and fleet-fingered single note runs on his right that emulated Charlie Parker. Smith’s hands clasped the relationship between the upper and lower keyboards, while his feet on the pedals colored the undertones like a mournful string bass. The 1956 LP, The Incredible Jimmy Smith, changed everything.

The Philadelphia area was as fertile for B3 players as Chicago was for electric blues guitarists, with Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Earland, Don Patterson and more coming from Philly and New Jersey. The Garden State is where Flanigin tracked down one of his favorite organists Big John Patton, in 1999. “As a blues guitarist coming up, almost all your heroes had passed away,” Flanigin said. “But when I really started getting into the B3, I found out that most of the greats who played on my favorite records were still alive.” He knew that if he was going to get better he had to apprentice with a total pro.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Flanigin relocated to Boston at the turn of the 21st century when his wife at the time had a job there. Checking the New York City papers one day he saw an upcoming gig by Big John Patton at the Jazz Standard, so he took the train from Boston for the show. “He was a pretty dark cat, not really very approachable,” said Flanigin, but when it turned out that the older woman he’d struck up a conversation with was Patton’s wife Thelma, she introduced Flanigin to his hero. “I said, ‘I’d sure like to come to your house some day and learn a few things,'” Flanigin recalled, “and he said ‘sure, how ’bout tomorrow?'” Flanigin took the bus to Montclair, NJ, expecting to knock on the door of a mansion. After all, Patton, guitarist Grant Green and drummer Ben Dixon made some of the greatest jazz organ trio records ever at Blue Note in the ’60s. This man was musical royalty, so Flanigin was surprised to see the Pattons living in a one-bedroom apartment. Flanigin slept on the couch and every morning for a week, he woke up to Big John’s B3 sounds while Thelma cooked breakfast. “All John ever wanted to do was play,” said Flanigin. For ten hours every day, the jazz great would show the student some things, then watch him try them on his own. You can’t get training like that at music school.

Flanigin visited the Pattons regularly over the next two years, usually staying over for about a week at a time, before heading back to Boston. Some nights Patton took Flanigin to organ-centric jazz clubs in Harlem. “He’d say, ‘This is my man, Mike. He’s a great organ player,'” and I’d feel like a million bucks.”

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Patton died in 2002 at age 66 from complications due to diabetes. His Hammond B3, which he bought in 1963 at Macy’s, sits in Flanigin’s living room. “We tried to get the Smithsonian to take it, but they wouldn’t, so Thelma gave it to me,” said Flanigin, who paid about $1,000 to have it shipped to him in Austin.

On a recent afternoon, Flanigin sat at Big John’s “desk,” which is what a lot of players call their B3s, and showed its features. Besides two 61-note keyboards, the organ has 24 foot bars, a volume pedal and 38 drawbars, also called “stops,” which a player can customize for his own sound. The term “pulling out all the stops” refers to an organ player who’s opened all the drawbars for crescendos. “It looks really complicated,” Flanigin said of the setup before him, “but it’s like driving a car. There are all those knobs and pedals, but after a while it becomes second nature.”

****

The electric organ was invented by Laurens Hammond of Evanston, IL in 1934 and advertised as an economical alternative to the massive pipe organs of churches, theaters and baseball stadiums. In that way, it was the first synthesizer. A non-musician, Hammond held 110 patents and had earlier invented an electric clock, which gave him his fortune, plus 3D movies and a card-shuffling contraption. Needing a new money-maker after the Hammond Electric Bridge Table ran its course, selling 14,000 units in two years, Hammond based the organ on the synchronized motor he used for his clock. He realized that it could produce tones that would never go out of tune. That was the gimmick, but Hammond’s accountant, a church organist, persuaded Hammond to go further and invent a new kind of electric organ. The sound on a Hammond is produced by 91 tone wheels, which revolve around a magnetic coil. Much of the appeal was that the keyboard action could be fast, like a piano, but it had the ability to sustain notes.

The B3's AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

The B3’s AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

In 1935, the first year of production, Hammond sold 1,750 organs to churches, but also drew the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which looked into a complaint by pipe organ manufacturers that Hammond was using deceptive advertising when it claimed that the $2,600 Model A could duplicate the sounds of a $75,000 pipe organ. A blind listening test was held and about 1/3 of the participants guessed that the Hammond was the pipe organ, which ended up being great publicity for Hammond.

Chicago-based Hammond introduced the BC model in 1936, the C model in ’39, the B-2 and C-2 in ’49 and the B-3 and C-3 in 1954. Besides churches, radio soap operas were early Hammond organ customers. Then, when Ethel Smith of Pittsburgh had a huge hit with “Tico Tico,” from the 1944 Red Skelton film Bathing Beauty, the home market exploded for Hammond, which produced the spinet organ in 1949.

Bobbie Nelson, who plays with her brother Willie’s band, got a job demonstrating Hammond organs in Fort Worth and paid the bills for years that way. Also up in Fort Worth in the late ’60s was Austin B3 favorite Red Young, “the Organizer,” who played organ on Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976, toured with Sonny & Cher, Dolly Parton and Joan Armatrading, recorded on sessions with Nelson Riddle and now plays all those great organ parts for Eric Burdon and the Animals. And we can’t forget Austin’s first great B3 player Dr. James Polk, who plays most Monday nights at the Continental Gallery with sax player Elias Haslanger.

During the ’70’s, jazz moved into a rock fusion sound that ditched the B3 in favor of clavinets, synthesizers and electric pianos. And the home market was taken over by cheaper digital keyboards. Hammond discontinued the B3 in 1975 and filed for bankruptcy 10 years later. But the B3 has gotten even hipper, especially after such acts as Medeski, Martin and Wood and Galactic introduced organ jams to festival crowds.

Hammond was bought by Suzuki Music of Japan, which produced a new B3 in 2009, but no self-respecting soul-jazz player would go for that digital model. Everybody wants to play what Jimmy Smith played. You’ve gotta have that attitude if you’re going to give your life to the B3. And this is the many-faceted instrument which is known to inspire such desire.

 

ORGAN PORN

Ethel Smith becomes a thing with “Tico, Tico”

Jimmy Smith delivers “The Sermon”

Unsung: the Billy Preston Story

“Let ‘Em Roll” by Big John Patton

 

 

Posted in Austin, Austin-Zeitgeist, Featured, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Shinyribs: Dancing with the Scars

Posted by mcorcoran on April 10, 2015

shinyribssheep

Tuesday’s long-awaited release of Okra Candy, the third album by Austin band Shinyribs, comes without much fanfare. Singer-songwriter-choreographer Kevin Russell and his band aren’t playing a record release party this week and there’s not an autograph session at Waterloo. “We just wanted to get this thing out,” Russell said of the album, co-produced by Russell and George Reiff like the two previous. “We finished this thing a year and a half ago.” Before they plan any hoopla, they just want to hold the damn CD in their hands.

Eighteen months in the can must feel like a jail sentence to the prolific Russell, who recorded the first two Shinyribs LPs Well After Awhile (2010) and Gulf Coast Museum (2013) while a lead member of roots powerhouse the Gourds. The holdup came when respected Nashville label/ distributor 30 Tigers became interested in putting out Okra, which has a bigger sound, with more horns and violins, than the first two Shinyribs LPs. Russell and company were shooting for a summer release, but 30 Tigers wanted to push it back to January 2015, to get a full marketing campaign in place.

In November 2014, however, Russell had a change of heart. He decided that he didn’t want his band to be on a label. He didn’t want to be a national act, trying to break into new markets through constant touring. He knew there’d be expectations and demands and he’s played that game and it wore him down. With three kids in school – Guthrie 17, Lily 14, Harlan 9- Russell doesn’t want to get too far away for too long. Ain’t worth it.

So Shinyribs took their record back and is putting it out themselves. “If I was really career conscious I would’ve moved to L.A. or Nashville years ago,” said Russell, 48. “But I like where I’m at, being a regional act.” Shinyribs is big in New Orleans and that’s enough for Russell. But even more importantly, Shinyribs has gotten big in Russell’s hometown of Beaumont. He was raised in the Golden Triangle, where his dad was in the oil equipment business, but grew up in Shreveport. That’s where music became his obsession, his life.

Okra Candy, named after a sign Russell imagined next to a freeze-dried snack at Whole Foods, sounds rooted in East Texas, with a lyrical soul yearning for Austin and the beat in love with the Bigger Easy. It’s a small town/ big dreams record, vibing off Little Feat and Flannery OC. If Okra Candy was a racehorse, it would run too wide to win the race, but, wow, wasn’t that a nice run.

Shinyribs 2015

Shinyribs 2015: L-R Winfield Cheeks (keyboards), Tiger Anaya (trumpet), Mark Wilson (sax), roadie Trey Worth, Jeff Brown (bass), Russell, Keith Langford (drums).

Okra lacks a song like “Who Built the Moon” and “Sweeter Than the Scars,” the first two LPs’ leadoff tracks, that you’ll play over again after the first time. It’s a little more of a groove record; a little less KGSR candy. But Russell’s lyrics raise all boats, as you can see on “Walt Disney,” which is about a couple living in different emotional states: “No don’t try to kiss me with that alcohol on your breath/ You actin’ so sweet and so fresh/ It’s the final act of MacBeth/ You actin’ like it’s Walt Disney.”

It’s a song that could’ve been inspired, in part, by Russell’s time with the Gourds, which might be the first successful band that broke up because of dancing. Russell’s hoofin,’ not the audience’s. You see, in the past few years, Kev has become as much Twyla Tharpe as Sister Rosetta, with his interpretive dancing becoming a focal point of the performance. Sometimes it’s goofy, but sometimes, as when Russell seems to lift himself from his knees to the sky on “Sweet Potato,” the movements are downright inspirational.

When the Gourds started in Austin in 1994, Russell used to stand there and play guitar and mandolin and sing. Then in the band’s last few years, he started hamming it up and his expressive romps (“my main man was Rerun from What’s Happening”) became a crowd-pleasing distraction. Which didn’t help an already-tense situation of having two frontmen who didn’t really get along.

The Gourds were the Texas version of Uncle Tupelo- good sex/ bad marriage- and after they split, Shinyribs became the Wilco. Which would make the Hard Pans of Jimmy Smith and Claude Bernard, the Son Volt.

Russell says he now dances the way he does, often affecting an effeminate pantomime like Daffy Duck in drag, because he feels completely free onstage. And because the crowds, which have doubled for the ‘ribs in the past two years, seem to enjoy all that movement. Many of them even stop talking.

The career turning-point show was probably the twice-postponed KGSR “Blues On the Green” event with Tameca Jones in August. Shinyribs, which has added the Tijuana Trainwreck Horns to the core of Langford, bassist Jeff Brown and keyboardist Winfield Cheek, drew 10,000 fans to Zilker Park. Making full use of the big stage, the band proved to be large enough for the crowd, which hailed them as rock stars. “We haven’t really played many small clubs in town since then,” said Russell, who led 5,000 fans in a conga line when Shinyribs headlined the Statesman’s “Rock the Lot” concert in March.shinyribssky1_7032575399721819320_n

Shiny’s draw will be similarly heavy at the Old Settler’s Music Festival (April 16-19), when they take over the Gourds’ old Saturday night closing slot at the Bluebonnet Stage, then play the loose campgrounds jam on Sunday.

The band has come quite a ways since 2007, when Russell started Shinyribs as a Gourds side project, earmarking the $500 a month he got from a gig at Houston bar Under the Volcano for a new family car. Boy, did he love that freedom. Just jump in the car with a guitar and ukulele and plenty of time to think about songs. New ones, old ones, mine and your’n. Nobody bickering about band bullshit. Democracy may be an OK way to run a country, but it will fuck up a setlist like you wouldn’t believe.

At around the time Russell was closing in on the first Shinyribs LP in 2010, the Gourds were going gangbusters. The adventurous five-piece recorded the album Old Mad Joy at Levon Helms’ studio in Woodstock, NY, toured to a growing cult audience across the country and became the subject of the terrific documentary All the Labor. But Russell wasn’t as happy in the Gourds as he was in Shinyribs, who were lucky to draw 50 people to the Saxon Pub. He describes his time with the more popular band, founded on a deal that he and Smith would split lead vocal and songwriting duties 50/50, as “a constant tug of war.”

Russell let go of the rope in 2013 and took his brother-in-law, Gourds drummer Langford, with him. The Gourds played their last show in October 2013 in Austin and Russell said he very seriously doubts that the band will ever play together again. “Jimmy still hasn’t talked to me,” Russell said of the post- breakup situation. “I’ve tried to talk to him, but he wants nothing to do with me.”

Russell and Smith go back 25 years, having first played together in Shreveport-to-Dallas band Picket Line Coyotes.  When the original Coyotes bassist got married and settled down, Smith, a kid from Plano, auditioned for the job and got it. “It was actually George Reiff who sent him our way,” said Russell. Smith tried out as guitarist for Reiff’s band Big Loud Dog, but when he admitted he was really a bass player, but desperately wanted to be in a band on the Deep Ellum scene, Reiff told him the Coyotes were looking for a bassist. “Jimmie was the fresh blood we needed,” Russell said. “He was this really great bass player with tons of enthusiasm. We would’ve broken up if it wasn’t for him.”

The band moved down to Austin in 1991 and did, eventually, break up. But Russell and Smith kept writing and regrouped first as the Grackles and then the Gourds. Regardless of what they were called, there was a stark new direction in the songs that Russell was writing. He became infatuated with “the Bristol Sessions” of 1927, as well as with the work of John Lomax, the Austin-based musicologist who hunted indigenous music all over the world with his son Alan. Lomax discovery Leadbelly was from Shreveport. And the interest in “old-timey” music had been branching out from there for years.

In concert, Shinyribs almost never plays Gourds songs, and when they do it’ll be a number which started with Shinyribs, but then  the Gourds liked it and recorded it. Many more of the tunes are songs Russell pitched to the rest of the Gourds, who went “meh.” Okra Candy’s strangest tune, the psychedelic ska number “Upsetter” is a Gourds reject (“It’s a tip of the hat to our sax player Mark Wilson, who played with Burning Spear for years”), as is “Dead Batteries,” which sounds inspired by Russell’s favorite Elvis Costello album King of America.artworks-000111474593-wqoenm-t500x500

“Some Shinyribs songs, like ‘Country Love,’ became Gourds songs, but most of them I’d just keep on the side,” Russell said. “They were for something else.”

They were for Shinyribs, a band every bit as satisfying as the Gourds if singing and songwriting are your things. The arrangements are more direct, the lyrics more linear. Songs such as “Poor People’s Store” and “Country Cool” from Well After Awhile have become tiny anthems for understanding that we see the same Texas from the windows of our moving vehicles. We see “Donut Taco Palace” on the way to Oak Hill and it becomes a funny chant in our minds. Another song from the new LP, “Feels Like Rain,” hopes to similarly connect. It seems to be about Austin nostalgia, but it’s also about forging ahead in the midst of great changes. “You might lose your mind, but you can’t lose your soul” he sings, like a modern touch on Doug Sahm. The “you” he’s referring to is Austin.

With acts like Shinyribs and the Hard Pans and the Gourds before them, Austin won’t completely lose what has made it such a special place. There’s extra beauty in the holding on.

 

Feels Like Rain

Words and music by Kevin Russell

Austin is the only place

I ever seen an angels face

Austin is the only town

I ever seen an angel drown

In a sea of pain and regret

I just now remembered

I swore I’d never forget

But ain’t that the way it goes when we get old

You might lose yer mind but you can’t lose yer soul

It don’t matter where the memory was gone

It’s still like lighting yerself on fire in yer Own home

I can’t recall a face or a name

Like even when you can’t see it

You can still feel the rain

Oh lord I can feel it

And it feels like rain

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Weirdest Austin songster ever? Check out this ’80s guitar evangelist

Posted by mcorcoran on December 15, 2014

bishmcdonaldThe Butthole Surfers were the kings of drug-fried musical insanity in Austin in the ‘80s, but an even more off-the-wall act was playing twice a week in East Austin at the time, to fanfare barely contained inside the walls of a dingy storefront church.

Bishop Ray McDonald Jr. strapped on an electric guitar at the Guiding Angel Church of God In Christ at 1916 E. 10th St. and raged his hardcore gospel blues to the beat of a drum machine and at the urging of a clump of Pentecostal parishioners. Luckily, some of those frenzied services are preserved on McDonald’s Big Tex label, which put out a couple albums in the 1980s.

All that crazy tongue-people music would be forgotten today if “Rock Daniels,” McDonald’s almost unidentifiable cover of a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, wasn’t included on the collection Fire In My Bones: Rare + Raw + Otherworldly African-American Gospel, which came out on Tompkins Square in 2011. Curator Mike McGonigal was hipped to McDonald by Friends of Sound Records in South Austin, where he searched for obscure gospel sides whenever he was in Austin from Portland, Ore.

Listen to McDonald’s 1985 recording of “Rock Daniels”

httpa://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGRQqGIRQYc

 

McDonald sold his albums Electrifying Gospel and The Rain Done Fell On Me (a double LP), as well as those of other regional and national gospel acts, at his Big Tex record shop on E. 12th St. A traveling COGIC evangelist based in Houston, McDonald settled in Austin in the early ’80s to help take care of his aging parents and founded the Guiding Angel church. The McDonald family came from Bellville, about an hour west of Houston, then moved to Brenham before the kids grew up and scattered.

McDonald’s primitive music sounds like he’s been dead for years, like it was recorded in the ‘50s, but the good Reverend is still living in Austin’s far eastern “Hogpen” neighborhood, named so because many residents raised livestock on their large lots until fairly recently. He says his age is 68, but he seems to be at least 10 years older. (His older brother Norris died in 2012 at age 84.) But even frail and near-blind, Ray Jr. still has the musical set-up in his collage-wrapped living room: a cheap Roland synth for drums, an electric Epiphone guitar and a little Fender amp. “I mess around with my music every now and then,” he says. “But I don’t got it like I useta.”

McDonald says he started making collages, most with an African-American history theme, in the ’60s to commemorate his travels as a “fire-rock” preacher. “I took a little bit from every place I been, every magazine or newspaper.” McDonald put all his collected words and images together in the pamphlet The USA Montage Treasure of Black Song Legends Plus!, which, like all McDonald’s works is right with intention and passion, but short on a professional polish.

One of McDonald’s 12 x 15-inch collages is titled “Austin Texas History” and it covers such local notables as longtime Ebenezer Baptist Church music director Virgie mcdonaldgapicDeWitty, World War II hero Doris Miller, pioneer gospel announcer Elmer Akins, the Bells of Joy hitmakers and Austin’s 1940s mother and sons gospel act, the Famous Humphries Singers. The upper right hand corner commemorates COGIC pioneer Luvenia Taylor, who established 18 missions in Central Texas before she passed away in 1929. Google is entirely unaware of Ms. Taylor or her assistant Sister Brown, but if there’s anything Rev. McDonald knows, it’s COGIC history. One of his finest works of cut-and-glue-and-type is a 27 x 40 inch sheet filled with cut-out heads of Church of God In Christ leaders. Nascent COGIC musicians included the Austin-educated Arizona Dranes, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blind Willie Johnson, Ernestine Washington, Utah “Two Wings” Smith and the Angelic Gospel Singers. Also coming up in the COGIC tradition are Texas’ two top gospel groups- the Relatives from Dallas and the Jones Family Singers from Houston.

“I was always Church of God In Christ,” says McDonald, who lives alone, but has a nurse check up on him. “That’s all I ever knew.” His father was a laborer, a house-party blues guitarist, who wasn’t religious, McDonald says. But his mother Elizabeth (maiden name: Bynum) was a true believer and took her nine children to church with her.

Pentecostals, derided as “holy rollers,” were the first to play instruments in church and their belief in unbridled spiritual release is the foundation of rock n’ roll. “I would say my music resembles everyone’s music that came before, like boogie woogie and blues,” McDonald says. “But I still have my own style.”

bish3uitarMcDonald said he tried concentrating on music as a career when he moved to Dallas in the ’70s, but “everybody kept telling me ‘that’s rock n’ roll. That’s not gospel.’ But I make it about the Lord.”

Usually starting off with a sermon, in McDonald’s calm, descriptive style of  overwrought vocabularizing, he kicks into drive when he starts flailing on his electric guitar and screaming barely intelligible lyrics, while the congregation sings them back to him tenfold. It’s all so raw, going back to the birth of “Holy Ghost baptism” at the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906. Sanctified churches had been around before then, but when  Houston preacher William Seymour added a third act of grace- the speaking of tongues- as the purest connection to God, he created a sensation that inspired Azusa participant Charles H. Mason to form the Church of God In Christ in Memphis. Rather than assimilate to the staid, white style of church services, which is what mainstream black Baptist and Methodist churches were doing in the years after the end of slavery, COGIC’s philosophy was to celebrate blackness in all its emotive glory. That attitude instantly found followers and 100 years after Azusa, COGIC can count a flock of nearly 8 million worldwide.

McGonigal says “Rock Daniels,” which begins with a Bible recitation from McDonald’s then-wife Lucinda (who did taxes for hire at the record shop), was a favorite of many listeners of Fire In My Bones. “I love how his guitar playing was just the same riff over and over again, but you still want to listen to it multiple times in a row,” says McGonigal, who has plans to one day release a full album of Bishop Ray McDonald’s rudimentary, yet passionate, gospel music. “I love how you can see the process in his work- in the pasteups for his cover art, and in the tape splices on his recordings.” McDonald is the pure outsider artist, the visionary with limited means and education.

The former bishop, whose legal blindness and lack of a ride keeps him away from church most Sundays, said he found out that his version of “Rock Daniels” was on the Fire In My Bones compilation when his neighbor across the street informed him. McDonald had been telling the hipster kid he was a gospel singer, but even the old man was shocked when he heard his record from 1985 on an international release.

When I visited him at his rundown mobile home on Friday afternoon, I played the track from my iPhone and McDonald had an incredulous look, like he’d just seen a magic trick. He’s a humble man, a lone wolf, a living link to the Pentecostal pioneers who found the best way to praise the Lord through music is to lose themselves in the spirit. He can’t do it like he useta, but Ray McDonald Jr. is mighty tickled to see that newer generations are discovering his “electrifying, but not shocking” Wednesday night and Sunday morning wailing sessions from 30 years ago.

bigtexshop                                                                      Photo by Alan Govenar 1985

 

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