American Deep South Vol. 2 – New Orleans, Louisiana

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

New Orleans is a city of stark juxtaposition. Home to the bawdy and loose French Quarter, where good-time bad behaviour is merely a part of the make up, step outside the European styled buildings aligning narrow streets, and you find neighbourhoods the complete antithesis.

Wide, flat roads and tired looking houses, run down cars and shops with boarded windows. It’s confronting in many respects, and seems like a different city from a different time, compared to the more gentrified areas scattered about the Big Easy, one of America’s most famous towns.

New Orleans has a pride in itself though, and not the big and loud pride you’ll find in Texas, but an understated pride. It’s a feeling in the air, unmistakable – the city has suffered its fair share of injustices, and yet its people soldier on, determined to keep living in a city known for living like no other.

We’re there for four nights, the first two spent in a room in a small house in the Faubourg Marigny district, slightly east of the Quarter, just over the Mississippi River from Algiers Point. It’s an ‘up and coming area’, home to a growing population of bohemians and artists and amongst the auto shops and fast food joints, we find organic supermarkets, yoga studios and the booming St. Roch Market, a small building boasting a myriad artisan food stalls and bars. We’re there for lunch one day, I have the BBQ’d pork belly Po’ Boy, an upscale version of a Louisiana classic.

We’re only a five minute walk from the top of Frenchmen Street, and this is where New Orleans comes into its own. Just outside the Quarter, Frenchmen’s, in comparison to Bourbon Street, is a strip lined with bar upon bar where the focus is squarely on the music, as opposed to the drink. Sure, in any bar on Frenchmen you can tip your beer into a plastic go-cup and wander down to the next joint as you can on Bourbon, but the crowd here is a music crowd and so while loud and loose, it’s fun and friendly, conducive to good times, good music, good people.

We stop in at The Spotted Cat and watch Andy Forest blow some harp in between sips from a large cup of Maker’s Mark. We stroll south and sit outside Bamboulaswhere Chance Bushman’s Rhythm Stompers have everyone in thrall as they knock back five dollar margaritas. The band play a heady mix of rag-time blues and trad jazz, a fine way to ease into a Friday evening.

We wander further down Frenchmen onto Decatur Street, which leads into the Quarter proper, and find ourselves in the divey Aunt Tiki’s, a black hole of a bar open 24 hours a day, a clutch of regulars sitting down the front, dank and dark, a truly beautiful place where I feel completely at home, joking with the two bartenders (one of whom has had more to drink than I), sipping on Jack Daniels with Budweiser chasers, just soaking up a New Orleans Friday night.

We head back to Frenchmen’s at some point and end up at Café Negriland dig on the funk and soul of Higher Heights before calling it a night and heading home, marveling at a scene as alien as any we’d ever seen. It’s a street where you can spend a lot of time, and so we’re here the night after too, taking in as much music as possible, hopping from joint to joint, not a bad one among the lot – Frenchmen Street has a lot going for it, truly one of the best parts of New Orleans.

The French Quarter itself is indeed something to see. One of the most highly trafficked tourist spots in the world, it’s a place that never seems to stop. We wander through at around lunchtime and the place is heaving, people everywhere, most carrying a drink of some variety (whether merely a beer in a plastic cup, or a literal fishbowl of some questionable looking fluro liquid), the party atmosphere almost a physical being.

Bourbon in particular is happening, the smell of vomit and urine from the night before still very much on the nose, hawkers from the myriad bars on the pavement out the front, bands playing loud inside. We hurry through, not really our scene, and find refuge in Jackson Square in Louis Armstrong Park, just north of the action, where we can sit on the grass, read the plaques on the dozens of statues around the place, take it easy in a city where you get the feeling things don’t slow down, ever.

The second two nights in town, we stay at the Maison Dupuy on the northern edge of the Quarter. Built on the site of America’s first cotton press, it’s now a grand old dame of a hotel, a collection of five buildings grouped around a pool and courtyard, an old time opulence about it that makes it more endearing than high-end. We base ourselves there as we explore the rest of the Quarter, including the historic Voodoo MuseumCafé du Monde and the Hotel Monteleonewhich has a revolving carousel bar and serves up audacious cocktails and turns out to be a good spot to watch the more upscale Quarter clientele and watch the LSU game on the televisions about the wood-paneled room.

We spend our final day in town walking from the Quarter to the Garden district, over Canal Street and through the CBD, through the arty Warehouse district which opens up into one of the most genteel places in town, an area of big, old houses sitting on verdant grounds, ancient oak trees lining the pavement, their big old roots jutting through the concrete creating steps you have to navigate with care.

Many of the houses carry historic value, and it seems like we’re in another world, one that boasts an easy wealth, a long history and a casual attitude, tucked away from the grotesque action of the French Quarter, a quiet solitude. We wander through Lafayette Cemetery Number 1 too, soaking up the history and enjoying the serenity.

Our final night sees us at the rather impressive Royal Sonesta hotel on Bourbon, sitting in on The Tuxedo Jazz Band’s set at the Irvine Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse. These cats know their way around everything jazz, and despite the fact it’s a Monday night, they put their all into it, infusing it with a carefree and fun vibe that has the growing crowd getting into it, call and response, high-octane and velvet smooth. This is some real N’Awlins jazz, buy some real N’Awlins players, truly a solid set and a fantastic end to proceedings in The Big Easy, The Crescent City, N’Awlins, where the faint of heart fear to tread, and the rest of us stagger out, sated and full.

Speaking of full, it’d be remiss of me not to mention Gene’s Po’ Boys, where we stop on the way out of town. These are the real deal, giant sandwiches on French bread full to overflowing with roast beef, cheese and gravy. It’s a giant, sloppy mess and as I write this, around a month later, it’s still one of the best things I ate, hands down.

 

Samuel J. Fell stayed at the Maison Dupuy courtesy of the New Orleans Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and the Maison Dupuy. He was hosted at Irvine Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse by the New Orleans C&VB and the Royal Sonesta. Thanks to all organisations for their help and hospitality.

American Deep South Vol. 1 – Austin, Texas

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

By way of explanation – until now, I’d never been to the States. I’ve grown up listening to the music that was born here, I’ve grown up listening to music inspired by same. But I’ve never actually been able to get over here to sample it for myself.

Of course, thanks to the strong festival scene at home, I’ve seen a myriad acts from the US who themselves grew up listening to, and playing, the music of America – blues, jazz, bluegrass and country – but getting to the source has been uppermost on my mind ever since I started working at Rhythms, back in the early 2000s, doing things behind the scenes for Brian Wise.

He’d come back from New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, Austin’s ACL festival, a host of others, with stories I could only dream of. I almost got it together enough to head over in 2006, but Hurricane Katrina happened, and so that opportunity passed on. Until now, when my wife Claire and I made it a priority, and so headed over for five weeks to get amongst it, so to speak.

As such, what follows in four installments, are my thoughts and experiences on the four major music cities in the American south, beginning with the Live Music Capital of the World, Austin, Texas.

***

Austin is a hell of a town. Hot and flat, it sprawls over a vast area towards the eastern border of the state, an hours flight west of Houston. For a long time, it’s been known as a place where you can find live music any night of the week, a place overflowing with country talent, dark and dingy honky tonks, Tex Mex food by the truckload, dusty cowboy boots Texas Two-Stepping around polished concrete dance floors.

Salt Lick BBQ

It’s also known for its BBQ, and of course, we’re not talking the kind of BBQ we know here at home – throw a steak and a few snags on the barbie – but the slow smoked kind of BBQ… ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken; add in some ‘slaw, potato salad and beans, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a meal.

Staying with family, who have been living in Austin for a year or so and who know where to look, we head to the Salt Lick BBQ, about half an hour out of town. It’s on a big property which also has a tired looking vineyard on it, has a huge outdoor area where one can sit and indulge while listening to some music, set up over in the corner. You get out of the car in the dusty parking lot and you get hit by the smell straight up.

We get a mixed platter – brisket done three ways, pork ribs, sausage. The potato salad and ‘slaw are expected and just added onto the side, along with huge chunks of soft, white bread. You sit down and they plonk big styrofoam cups of ice water down on the table, which you need, and big tubs of house BBQ sauce. It’s an experience.

The lean brisket I don’t really care for – you need the fat on there to really get the flavour. The ribs are great though, the beer is cold, and despite the fact the guy in the corner with the guitar is playing pop covers, it’s a place I’d definitely recommend.

A few days later, we head a bit further south to stay with some friends in Lockhart. To be honest, Lockhart isn’t a place I’d recommend visiting, there’s not a lot going on, but it’s a town that has two things going for it – Black’s BBQ, and Mario’s Tacos. Blacks is a non-descript building in the downtown area that smokes the best brisket you’ll ever have. I get around the brisket sandwich, and as I write this, four weeks later, it is indeed the best BBQ I’ve had all trip. Cheap too.

Stubbs Gospel Brunch

As for Mario’s, Mario is a tiny Mexican guy with silver teeth who operates out of a clapped out old truck parked in the lot next to the local servo. He doesn’t speak any English, doesn’t follow any hygiene rules, but what he does do is make the best breakfast taco you’ve ever had in your life, for a dollar twenty-five. They’re pretty small and I could have eaten three, but I had one and I can still remember the taste. The green spicy sauce as an accompaniment is a must – great stuff.

A couple of nights before this, we’d hit La Caribe, a genuine Tex Mex joint on the northern edge of Austin. It looks like a bunker from the outside, and the ambience inside leaves a bit to be desired (fluro lighting, neon beer signs adorning every available inch of wall space), but their food is top notch. They also have margaritas which have a reputation for being the strongest in Austin – their slogan is that you can’t send them back. The waitress even warns you of this as you order. We order anyway, a good time is had by all.

In Austin on a Sunday? Get yourself down to the StubbsGospel Breakfast. Stubbs is an institution in Austin, a legendary music venue, and on Sunday mornings (you need to book), they host a massive buffet breakfast, while a top shelf gospel band hits top gear on the stage downstairs. I fill my plate with bacon, catfish, brisket and beans and tap my feet to the tunes channeling up the stairs. Unlimited coffee refills wash it all down – this is a must do.

As far as the music itself goes, we sample the gamut. I head down to Zilker Park for the second weekend of the Austin City Limits Festival (which you can read about here), three days I barely survive, mainly because of the heat – autumn hasn’t yet arrived in Texas. The absolute highlight for me however, came on our second night in town, courtesy of the world famous Broken Spoke.

The Spoke is a genuine tonk. It used to stand on its own on the outer edge of town, but as Austin has grown, at the whim of developers, it’s now sandwiched between two giant apartment blocks on South Lamar Boulevard, which is a shame, but which hasn’t done a damn thing to dilute its ethos, its appeal, its downright authenticity. It looks like it’ll fall down at any second, it smells odd and it’s grotty as hell, but it is one of the best music venues I’ve ever been to in my life.

We head in early to take advantage of the Texas Two-Step lesson, which runs for an hour and is hosted by a rough-as-guts Texan woman who ain’t taking no shit, but who guides us novices through our paces, and after an hour, we’re steppin’ around like we’ve been doing it for years (slight exaggeration). That done, Austin legend James Hand gets up with his band and the dancefloor is swamped. They play real country music, yee-haw, and the packed house loves it. This is just a downhome, red-dirt kinda place, an institution, the ‘last true dance hall in Texas’, a must for anyone with even a passing love of anything remotely linked to the Lone Star State.

Also recommended is the Continental Club on South Congress (a great little strip with a stack of restaurants, cafes, vintage stores and clubs), which plays anything from country to rock ‘n’ roll and everything in between. We catch a young band as we wander through one night, their name escapes me, but I’m reliably told by the guy on the door, that the old guy sitting in with them is a Grammy-winning pedal steel guitarist, who’s name I don’t catch. He’s good. The young guys, not so much.

Over at ABGBs (Austin Beer Garden Brewery), we sip on a myriad of their homemade brews and catch a set from a local band called Girl Pilot, who infuse a good dose of well-written pop music into the country mold, a trio who I imagine would slay it on Triple J. Good stuff, something a little different.

A mate of mine, CR Humphrey of Old Gray Mule fame, who lives down in Lockhart, takes us out one night (including to La Caribe), and we end up at King Bees on the rough east side of town (best not to walk around there by yourself after dark…), where we catch about half of The Little Jimmy Reed Band, who take a few songs to warm up but then settle in to a blistering set of Chicago-influenced blues. It’s good and loud, the Lone Star beer is two dollars and all is well. Austin is a fine town, you certainly need more than a week or so to fully explore…

Crowded Solitude No Place For New Year’s Resolve

[Published in the NEWS REVIEW section of The Sydney Morning Herald, January 09/2016]

Around a year ago, I took up running. Most mornings, around seven o’clock, I’d rise and don the appropriate footwear, shorts and a t-shirt, and I’d head out, do a few stretches then jog my way down the road, do a few laps of the local oval, jog back. Nothing too intense, just some early morning cardio to justify the smoking and drinking that accompanies my profession like the smell of damp undergrowth does a tropical summer storm.

The timing for this burst of exercise was purely coincidental. The fact it was early January had little to do with it, far less so than my rapidly expanding mid-section, far too used to the relatively small amount of exercise I’d been doing previously; as was gently pointed out to me by my better half, I needed to step it up somewhat, and so I started running. I hate it and am not a natural runner, but I began none the less.

I kept at it too, which is something of which I’m reasonably proud, and so this protuberance I’d been carrying around gradually shrank. Or at least, for the most part, didn’t get any bigger.

So here I am now, a year or so later, and I rise early and head out for the first run of the year, looking to get the heart-rate up and begin to shed some of the excess that has accumulated over the festive season. It’s a cool morning, rain on the horizon, but light and brisk, birdsong etc. It’s a lovely time of day, solitary and still, which is what I need in order to keep this momentum going – it won’t work if there are multiple spectators.

But here’s something I’d forgotten from when I first began last January. It’s January. People are fresh off boozy New Year celebrations, weeks (perhaps months) of eating and drinking and making merry. They’re bloated and fat, over-ripe and ready to pop. And so they think to themselves, ‘I need to get some exercise happening, my New Year resolution, I will get slim, I will exercise daily’.

And so, as I set out on my first run of the year, a hoary old veteran of such sweat-stained dealings, I have an audience. Multiple walkers and runners, around every bend, every turn in the path, as I emerge from the bush track into the wide open spaces afforded by the cricket oval, there are people everywhere, undertaking some form of January-induced exercise, sweating and wheezing in my previously quiet and solitary morn.

‘What fresh hell is this?’, I mutter to myself in a fit of self-righteous pique, albeit a slightly out of breath one. ‘Where have these people come from and how dare they encroach upon my carefully choreographed morning custom’. I carry on however, side-stepping middle-aged men with fat and droopy dogs in tow, finish my course and head, dripping with outraged sweat, for the shower.

Of course, I have no right to be grumpy; these roads and paths are as much anyone else’s as they are mine. As well, the early hour, before the world properly wakes up, belongs as much to a well-intentioned first-time dog walker as it does to anyone who’s risen early these 12 months past. Or longer, for that matter.

I have no ill will toward anyone wanting to better themselves, and I certainly don’t hold myself in higher esteem merely because I stuck with something (to be honest, the main reason I didn’t stop running, is because of how much I do like to drink and smoke…). I do like my solitude and space however, particularly when engaging in an exercise I utterly abhor and so don’t want anyone to witness.

Oh my quiet paths, my empty oval, the birdsong sung just for me. How I yearn for you, even after only a day. Go to the gym you lot, leave me to my hobbled jogging, my fractured running, my uneven-gaited perambulations. I admire your intentions, I doff my cap to your will power and I salute your resolve. Just do it somewhere else and leave me to stagger around in peace, trying to keep my gut in check, lifting the heart-rate and shedding the excess in my own, solitary way.

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Jordie Lane

[Published in Rolling Stone, October 2016]

Jordie Lane & The Sleepers

Glassellland

Blood Thinner Records / MGM

It’s been a while between drinks for Jordie Lane, but as his new studio effort attests, he’s not lost anything in the interim. GLASSELLLAND is Lane in vintage form, his strong and warm voice framing a set of songs astounding in their intricate telling of everyday tales in such a way as to make them relatable to most anyone.

Teaming up with now long-time collaborator Clare Reynolds, the pair play all instruments on this one, Lane’s trademark Americana/folk still very much the focus but now with a pop nous (think Beatles, circa Rubber Soul) that adds a new dimension to a sound already brimming with diversity and sonic flavour. This album is strong and assured, yet another stellar release.

4/5

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Matt Malone

[Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, July 08/2016]

Matt Malone

S.I.X

Heart Of The Rat Records 

A “unique fusion of the traditional and avant-garde” is how Matt Malone’s debut album is described, and for once it’s not merely publicity hot air. Stripped and bare in the outlaw country tradition but with the menace and slow stabbing guitar of a Rowland S Howard special, S.I.X is all doom and gloom, sometimes whispered sometimes bursting from Malone’s throat all spittle and bile. He’s not afraid of space, of shimmer, of spotlighting his wavering, slightly grotesque wail.

The Beast, an eleven minute epic, chugs along slowly courtesy of the acoustic guitar riff while electric shimmers paint the background black as Malone intones over the top, his voice the instrument bringing the song to its couple of climaxes. Haunting backing vocals. The song seems to stop a couple of times in the middle but then rebirths and carries on. Maldoror begins with the crackling of a low fire, builds slowly, Malone’s vocal ragged as old cloth, building to an electric fuzz. Revelation Law is perhaps the most country song on the record, but it’s fractured and broken, somehow rebuilt into something which makes an eerie sense. Which is an apt way to describe the entire record – dissonant, cracked, haunted. Fantastic.

4/5

Samuel J. Fell

Shooting Stars

[Published in The Saturday PaperNovember 19/2016]

Amateur astrophotographers are more than just hobbyists, writes Samuel J. Fell. Their backyard observations and images are welcomed by the likes of NASA as important contributions to astronomy.

 

It’s a balmy, late spring Saturday evening in Byron Bay. Dusk is steadily descending and across the way, in town proper, people are gearing up for another big night in one of the country’s most noted party spots. Here in Belongil though, a satellite suburb off to the side of the Arts & Industrial Estate, just out of the CBD, things are quieter. It’s a peaceful part of Byron, where the locals live, where young families have set up. There are kids riding bikes on the street, people are lounging on verandahs in surrounding backyards, talking and laughing in the soft, gathering gloom.

In Dylan O’Donnell’s backyard though, there’s no laughing or lounging, and there’s certainly no party. There’s not enough room, for a start. A good portion of the small area behind his little townhouse is taken up by a large, homemade observatory. Large relative to the space, anyway.

Its plastic domed roof is half open, and from the cavity within protrudes a large black and white telescope, pointed skyward. O’Donnell himself is in there too, contorted somewhat due to the space restrictions, attaching plugs and adapters, running cables to a large computer monitor set up to the side, which projects an image of the waxing half moon, via the telescope, easily visible to the naked eye in the darkening sky.

O’Donnell, 37, is an IT professional by day, but over the past couple of years, come nightfall, he leaves that behind him and dons his hobby hat – that of an Astro photographer, and a noted one at that. His images of various parts of the night sky have twice been featured on US space agency NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day site (which, incidentally, is one of the oldest websites on the internet); as the European Space Agency’s Image of the Week; on the websites of Time and National Geographic magazines; and a couple of days prior to our chat, he’d found out another image of his was to be used on the ESA’s annual Christmas card. For an amateur Astro photographer, O’Donnell is no minnow.

“When you look up at the stars, really, it’s darkness, you’ll just see points of light in the sky,” he says on what the appeal of this hobby is to him. “And when you get a telescope, you don’t see much more; you look through the eye-piece, you might see a smudge of a nebula. But when you stick a camera on it, and do an exposure for five minutes, and then do thirty of those and stack them all together and [then] tweak the dials in the software, suddenly what was just a black patch of space, becomes this magnificent cloud of dust and gas and glowing emissions that you couldn’t see before.”

“I get the photos back and I can’t believe this is just hovering above my house,” he adds with a laugh. “And I can’t see it with my own eyes, but I can reveal it with these cameras and this technology.”

O’Donnell is one of many ‘backyarders’ dotted all over the globe. Amateur astronomy, along with amateur Astro photography, while a relative niche, is a growing area of astronomy as a whole, particularly in America. As he explains, in Australia at a star party (a gathering of like-minded hobbyists), you might mingle with a hundred or so people, but one in Florida for example, would draw thousands. “It’s like being at a rock concert,” he laughs. “There are ovals of people, and there are telescopes everywhere.”

O’Donnell came into this hobby initially as a way to quit smoking. A number of years ago, when his rent was raised and he didn’t want to pay the extra, he lived instead for six months in the back of his 4WD, working as a Unix Systems Administrator by day, and camping by night. “My strategy for [quitting smoking] was, I’ll buy myself an expensive digital camera… and every time I feel like a cigarette, I’m just gonna take photos,” he explains.

“So I had this thing in my hands to distract me from the reflex of smoking. And in that six months, I was waking up with waterfalls, I was outside under the stars, I was in these amazing locations with rocks and forests and wildlife, I was doing a lot of wildlife photography. I really cut my teeth there.”

The marriage between photography and astronomy came a few years ago, when O’Donnell bought his first telescope, inspired by a US trip. “That was a really spur of the moment thing,” he explains. “I’d gotten back from NASA, I’d gone over there for a visit, it was a lifelong dream to go and visit NASA and see the space shuttle. I came back really energised, and it’s such a wonderful part of modern human history, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna buy a telescope.’

“So I paid a thousand dollars and got myself what I thought, back then, [was] the bee’s knees, this is gonna take me ages to figure out… but a month later, I was telling [my wife], I need to buy a new telescope. I need this other one, and this other mount… I think I’m about 30k in the hole now, all up, with the observatory, structure, telescopes, cameras, the computers. So it’s not a cheap hobby.”

While not a cheap hobby, it’s becoming an incredibly important one. Backyarders like O’Donnell, citizen scientists, are these days playing a large part in astronomy as a whole. Indeed, astronomy is the only remaining science where an individual, and an amateur one at that, can meaningfully contribute in a way that enhances the overall body of knowledge in a specific field. So much so, that serious backyarders are now relied upon by the world’s largest space agencies like the ESA and NASA.

“The exploration of the solar system and beyond is a wondrous journey that’s meant to be shared by all, and NASA values and encourages the contributions of students, citizen scientists and stargazers,” concurs Dr. Jim Green, the Director of Planetary Science at NASA, via email. “Whether it’s searching for asteroids, processing photos from our Juno mission to Jupiter, or capturing the beauty of the night sky, all contribute to our understanding of the universe and help inspire future generations.”

Pic by Dylan O’Donnell (T: @erfmufn)

“Astronomy in general is buoyed by the amateurs because no one can look everywhere in the sky all at once, particularly at high magnification,” O’Donnell expands. “At any given time there are people like me with their telescopes trained on certain parts of the sky… there might be groups of people doing supernova surveys, where they swing over and shoot fifty galaxies every night, then they compare those photos to a control set of photos of those galaxies.

“They’ll literally blink them on and off and do a subtraction, subtract one from the other, and see if anything has changed. Sometimes they’ll notice stars have exploded, so suddenly there’s a big, bright patch in this galaxy, and then they report that back to scientific groups, and those scientific groups confirm it with their own telescopes, and then if it’s big enough, NASA will say, ‘We need to point Hubble there, it’s time-critical, stop whatever you’re doing, swing over, take a photo, confirm the discovery’. And that happens on a very regular basis.”

Night has properly descended on Byron and so the two of us are huddled in O’Donnell’s small observatory as he tries to zero his telescope onto a particular spot, high above us. It’s not going well however – there’s some high cloud about, and the wind has picked up, playing havoc with the sensitive equipment. He’d hoped to take shots of the Triangulum Galaxy, but it looks like tonight won’t be the night.

He shows me instead a number of images he’s taken recently. It near boggles the mind to think that what he’s produced, thanks to his arsenal of modern technology, is a picture of what is directly above us, and yet can’t be seen with the naked eye. The colours are astounding, the detail incredible. He’s helped immeasurably by the fact there is very little light pollution in this part of the world, but you can easily see how well he’s married art and technology to create images of great beauty.

There is, of course, a lot going on above our heads. And it’s thanks to citizen scientists like O’Donnell, that large parts of this are available for us to see, no matter how dark it is.

Samuel J. Fell

The Broken Spoke

[Published in The Saturday Paper, February 20/2016]

Two-Step Program

Everything is bigger in Texas, from the hats and trucks, to the stories and steaks. But nothing is bigger than the legend of The Broken Spoke, the last of the true Texas dance halls, writes Samuel J. Fell.

She’s only about five foot tall, but Terri White isn’t one to be trifled with. She stands in the middle of the polished concrete dancefloor, in the large back room of legendary Austin honky tonk The Broken Spoke, hands on her hips and through narrowed eyes, looks at us all.

The men, around twenty of us, are lined up down one side, female partners opposite on the other. White is barking orders, tells the women to step right. My wife, Claire, accidentally steps left, the only one to do so, like in a Three Stooges film. White’s eyes narrow further. “You’re going to be my troublemaker, aren’t you,” she says to Claire, who turns bright red and tries not to laugh.

White has been teaching novices like us the Texas Two-Step for years. It’s a southern tradition, and people travel from miles around to learn from the little master, who four nights a week bullies and cajoles, snaps at and occasionally encourages any and all willing to slide their two left feet across the floor.

The lesson runs for an hour or so, the house band providing the music, the dancers themselves the entertainment – for a seasoned Two-Stepper, it can’t be a pretty sight.

After an hour or so however, White has us more or less Two-Stepping under our own steam; her job is done, and so the billed band – Austin mainstay James Hand – step up and start their set, and from the low-lit areas surrounding the floor, the regular crowd materialise, the locals who know the Step, who specifically come out to the Spoke on a Friday night to dance. A lot of them are good, really good.

Texas has a reputation around the world as being a rough, gruff, outdoorsy kind of place, where men are men and don’t mess with us. Which makes it all the more fascinating watching these rough, gruff types gliding expertly around the dancefloor – it quickly becomes apparent that this is a normal Friday night out for them, time spent in a true dance hall where the gents ask the ladies to dance, a few beers are put away and a damn fine time is had by all. It’s enchanting in a way, a glimpse of that fabled southern hospitality, where being a gentleman is key, and dancing isn’t a dirty word.

This year, the Spoke celebrates its fifty-first anniversary. Opened in 1964 by James White, Terri’s father, it’s now an institution, the “last of the true Texas dance halls”. From the outside it looks to be on its last legs, leaning slightly to the left, a relic from a bygone era. Inside, holes in the low ceiling have been patched with bits of wood or tin, nailed on, a quick patch job. It smells a little odd too, a mixture of stale beer, fried meat and Texas sweat.

But it’s the real thing, a genuine tonk toward the outer edge of Austin on Sth Lamar Boulevard, the big through road that runs straight and true down to the river and across to downtown. Virtually nothing has changed since the early days when Willie Nelson would perform, prior to becoming famous, when Bob Wills would drop in for chicken-fried steak, when Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff and George Strait would turn up to either play or just listen – such is the lure of the Spoke.

It used to be outside the city limits, but as Austin’s population has swelled, the developers have swooped in and so it’s now sandwiched between two high-rise apartment blocks, its low-set build and dusty parking lot in stark contrast to its surrounds. Which is part of its appeal – no matter how steady the march of progress, the Spoke has remained as it began, a getaway from the pressures and realities of life, a little shack where you can dance, drink and have a good ol’ time.

Having spent an hour sliding around the polished concrete, I’m in need of some respite and so head out the front where I find a quiet spot in the carpark amongst the dusty pick-up trucks to roll a smoke and generally soak in the old country ambience. It’s around this time that Tom the Texan walks up to me, tells me he’s lost his smokes and can he bot one of mine. Fine with me, I tell him. He rolls a skinny one quickly, no filter, sticks it between his lips and pulls a box of matches from his pocket.

Tom the Texan is at least six and a half feet tall, bull neck, big hat and a hanging gut. He leans back against the hood of the closest truck and gets to talking. Tells me he works for the Texas something-or-other, I don’t quite catch it, but he emphasises his narrative by pulling out from under his shirt a large gold badge on black leather, hanging from his neck like some sort of ominous good luck charm.

Turns out Tom the Texan is a bodyguard of some sort, in town in this instance looking after one of the bigger acts playing the Austin City Limits music festival, down by the river at Zilker Park. He tells me it’s his night off, hence the visit to the Spoke, somewhere he comes whenever he’s in town, but he won’t tell me which artist he’s charged with. Later on I look at the festival program and figure it’s either Deadmau5 or Drake, The Weekend or Florence & The Machine.

He tells me he worked for eight years for an Iranian businessman who owned a couple of clubs up in Dallas, and that he looked after one of the cast of Jersey Shore when he came to Texas. “I thought, don’t bring that Yankee down here,” Tom says, “but he was all right. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

He finishes his smoke and shakes my hand, tells me to call him Tom and that his close friends call him TFT. “Trick Fuckin’ Tom,” he elaborates with a big laugh. I’m not sure if that’s because he’s a tricky fella, or because he’s partial to ladies of the evening, but he’s off into the bar before I can ask, leaving me by myself to wonder in silence.

Back inside, owner James White has jumped up on stage and is singing with the band. He’s decked out in cowboy bling – ten-gallon hat, shining belt buckle, outrageous red western shirt, what look like snake-skin boots. White used to be in the army, but is now living the honky tonk dream. Word is he writes a mean country song to boot, loves to get up with the band to sing.

I shake his hand as we leave, a little later on, tell him we came a long way to be here. His hands are surprisingly soft for one who looks like they’ve done it all. He has a twinkle in his eye, you can tell he likes hearing how far people have come to see his place.

We walk out the front into the carpark and order an Uber, which seems far more in step with the towering, gleaming apartment blocks on either side of us than where we’ve just come from. Testament to its history and derelict elegance though, that the Spoke is still standing. Albeit with a slight lean.

Trumped

[UNPUBLISHED]

The rain has stopped. It’s cooler now, the aroma of wet earth rising and mingling with the cigarette stench and the smell of fish off the barbeque, long since eaten, digested; we’re on to bourbon now, beer chasers, rolling new smokes and lighting them with the stubbs of the old.

A clutch of moths hatched somewhere in the garden earlier today and so the lights out the back are being bombarded. Tiny flying insects chasing their sun. Bumping and buzzing with a ferocious intent, getting stuck in your eyelashes, your ears.

Aside from their buzz though, the croak of the odd frog, the cicadas, it’s quiet. Claire’s gone to bed and I’ve shut down the endless Twitter staccato; the rolling analysis from the New York Times; the ABC; Fox News; all the rest. Shut down the apps on my phone, closed all the windows on my laptop.

A couple of hours ago, Donald J. Trump was named the forty-fifth president of the United States, a notion which, only a few hours before that, was regarded as a long shot, a laugh, a joke, and a bad one at that.

Earlier, we’d sat and followed the results as the storm front came over, lessening the humidity, the grey sky lowering as its moist loins girded and eventually birthed upon the dry and crackling north coast a torrent. We watched as Electoral College votes stacked up, and even though this was happening half a world away, we kept watching, swapping stories we’d heard via various news sources throughout the day.

I was on deadline, not an urgent one, but closing in, three days with the majority of reportage behind me, three days in which to ruminate and write. I let it lie though, gave away half a day, pulled down the rabbit hole by the events unfolding with alarming rapidity across the Pacific.

I, like everyone else, have spent the better part of a year smirking at memes, nodding with faux-educated agreement at analysis, talking with friends and work mates about how this imposter dares set foot upon the hallowed turf that is a presidential race, and yet here we are now. An angry white male, about to take up a post in The Oval Office, in The White House.

Indeed, it’s never been whiter.

At some stage, not long before the heavens opened, we talked with my sister on Skype and the three of us asked each other over and over how this could be happening. My phone, open to some graphic or other, sat on the table next to my laptop and mid-conversation, I’d lean to the right to check results. My sister, two thousand kilometres to the south, would periodically do the same.

Claire’s sister rang at some point. They talked briefly out the back. Incredulity was the tone that floated in through the open screen door.

As we shut it down, maybe an hour ago, the analysis was starting to filter through. What next? What does this mean? Where to from here? I don’t know and don’t pretend to. All I know is this has ceased to be a sick joke and is now a sicker reality. It’s the uncertainty that’s the killer, the feeling that anything at all could happen, and that most (if not all) of it won’t be of the notion that respect, inclusion and diversity is the key to a new world order.

The uncertainty, that’s the killer.

The rain has started again. The moths and frogs and cicadas have gone. There’s another storm brewing.

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Archie Roach

[Published in Rolling Stone, November 2016]

Archie Roach

Let Love Rule

Liberation Music

 

Archie Roach’s tenth record is a gem. At its core is the theme of love, but overall it’s an eleven song-long message of hope, “what I wish for” as Roach himself says. Covering a range of styles, Let Love Rule centres around his deep and rough-edged voice, the mainstay through these songs which paint vivid pictures of a theme which in no way seems clichéd or overused, not in Roach’s hands anyway. 

The addition of the Dhungala Children’s Choir and the Short Black Opera Choir on the title track and No More Bleeding is a masterstroke; Jen Anderson’s violin throughout plays a pivotal role; the songwriting is poignant and as strong as ever, on an album which fair oozes soul and honesty.

4/5

 

Samuel J. Fell

 

Key Tracks: Let Love Rule, Mighty Clarence River, No More Bleeding

ALBUM – Wayne Hancock

[Published in The Sydney Morning Herald / The Age, December 09/2016]

Wayne Hancock
Slingin’ Rhythm
Bloodshot Records

With his eleventh studio album, Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock has proven, once again, that he is indeed the master of juke joint swing. The Austin, Texas-based Hancock, who’s been active since the late ‘70s (although not releasing his debut record until 1995), delivers here a set that embodies the foot-stompin’ American south; a melding of western swing, hillbilly and country, along with elements of jazz, to create a sound that, while a throw-back, comes across as fresh today as it would have been in the day of Bob Wills.

With a crack band behind him, Hancock is at the height of his powers – the humid and slow Dog Day Blues, the rollicking title track, the jazz-inflected instrumental Over Easy, a fine reimagining of Merle Travis’ Divorce Me C.O.D. The man’s laconic delivery, his mastery of the form, all this combines to create a record which just flows – it’s not forced, it’s not pre-meditated, it’s not slick and sharp. Nope, it’s a Friday night in a lean-to tonk somewhere in Texas, sweat running down your back as you shuffle across the dance floor, cold Lone Star beer in hand – a cracking release from the master.
4/5

Samuel J. Fell