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Beyond the BluesAustin rocker Doug Sahm joins forces with blues impresario Clifford Antone to rejuvenate a venerable raunchy sound.
by Jody Denberg
Thirty years before Patrick Swayze pranced across the silver screen, kids along the Gulf Coast and in South Texas were dirty-dancing to the sound of pounding pianos, descending horn riffs, and sentimental lyrics. The dominant musical motif was the triplet-a cluster of three notes performed in the time it takes to play two-and couples were belly-rubbing to the beat on dance floors from the Tiffany Lounge in San Antonio to the Big Oaks Club across the Sabine in Vinton, Louisiana. Today triplet classics like Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" still seduce those who remember their lilt and swagger.
Two who remember them well are Austin musician Doug Sahm, a walking history book of Texas musical styles, and Clifford Antone, Texas' blues impresario. Together they have paid tribute to this overlooked regional style with Juke Box Music, a soulful album of the rhythm and blues persuasion that Sahm recorded on the Antone's label. The new LP represents a comeback for the singer, who hasn't put out a record in the U.S. for six years. As a tribute to the beat both he and Antone love, Sahm's working nickname for the album was 'Triplets for a Dying World."
Though today Antone, 39, is known all over the country as the man who helped deliver the blues from obscurity, fifteen years ago he was a lonely urban pioneer with one consuming passion. His infatuation with the blues started when he discovered that the Fleetwood Mac and Cream songs he loved were actually written by Chicago blues masters. As an outlet for his love, in 1975 he opened a nightclub under his own name on Austin's then-unfashionable Sixth Street, featuring nothing but the then-unfashionable blues. Try as he might, though, he just couldn't get other people on the blues wavelength. Local heroes like Willie, Jerry Jeff, and, yes, Doug Sahm crooned their cosmic cowboy songs to overflow crowds in honky-tonks while Antone shook his head in disgust-as often as not, blues pioneers couldn't fill the seats in his own club.
"I don't listen to jazz and I don't listen to rock and roll and I don't listen to conjunto very much," he says. "I'm a blues man. Period. There's no play in me." Antone kept importing the blues masters to his club so that young upstarts like the Fabulous Thunderbirds (Antone's original house band) and Stevie Ray Vaughan could absorb their influential styles. By putting the two generations together, Antone catapulted the T-Birds and Stevie Ray to stardom and indirectly sparked a nationwide blues revival. After two moves, his club now seems permanently ensconced in its current location close to the University of Texas campus. Through it all, Antone has never given up on the blues.
With a taste for oversized suits and gangster fedoras, the burly Antone fits his chosen role of blues godfather. Add to his calculated look the less-celebrated fact that he spent about a year in prison in 1986 following a conviction for felony possession of marijuana, and there's no doubting his blues credentials. In 1987 the Blues Foundation in Memphis gave Antone's club one of its Keeping the Blues Alive awards. Further recognition in the form of a Grammy nomination came this year for harmonica master James Cotton's Live From Antone's, issued on the two-year-old Antone's label.
Years before Antone began paying his blues dues, Sahm was a confirmed musical dabbler. At twelve, he was a steel-guitar prodigy in San Antonio. Two years later he refused an offer to join the Grand Old Opry and went on to explore the rhythm and blues sounds popular in his hometown. In 1965 he became an international pop sensation as the leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet, adopting the sartorial look of the Beatles-led British Invasion and doing his own take with a slicked-up Tex-Mex polka called "She's About a Mover." Then he went west to ply his trade in San Francisco's psychedelic community.
Since then, Sahm, 47, has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone two times, recorded with Bob Dylan, and cranked out more than a dozen albums, interspersing rootsy songs with amusing attempts to regain his standing as a pop star. He spent much of the eighties in Scandinavia and Canada, recording sporadically for several small labels and leaving the impression that save for a few songs on 1980's Hell of a Spell and 1983's underproduced The West Side Sound Rolls Again, he preferred kowtowing to someone else's vision rather than following his own.
Sahm and Antone are unlikely partners. Sahm is impulsive, restless, and energetic at all hours of the day. His rapid-fire patter is peppered with antiquated hippie lingo, and he enjoys an occasional belt of Jack Daniel's. Antone is deliberate, steadfast, and forceful, frequently ending sentences with an emphatic "Period." He says he gave up booze years ago for self-preservation. Sahm's wardrobe is blue jeans and a cowboy hat or gimme cap, which clashes with Antone's Mafia-don garb. Sahm has three children and one grandchild; Antone has never been married.
Yet backstage at Antone's, Antone and Sahm are backslappin' buddies, blues brothers in arms, associates by attrition. They joke about one of their favorite targets, a local music critic who, they claim, champions bands with funny names and funnier haircuts at the expense of "real" music. On the eighties musical battlefield, Sahm and Antone are united in a war against the pop confections of MTV, which they see as threatening the survival of more authentic artists.
Juke Box Music confirms their unlikely alliance, delivering a sound that is more fresh than nostalgic. Sahm's voice, heretofore raspy and in recent years downright hoarse, is full-bodied and forceful, thanks to the inspirational nature of the material and to drummer George Rains's no-nonsense production. From the high-note glide on Johnny Adams' "I Won't Cry" to the wistful snippet of "Goodnight My Love" that closes the longer compact-disc version, Sahm practically romps through this survey of simpler music and simpler times.
There are no hidden politics, no redeeming social messages except to love thy neighbor of the opposite sex. The slow songs on Juke Box Music are sweet and schmaltzy, especially with the swaying support of San Antonio's West Side Horns ("What's Your Name," "My Dearest Darling"). The novelty bops are funny and cute ('Buzz Buzz Buzz" "Chicken and the Bop"). The blustery rave-ups (including the only original, Sahm's rocking "Money Over Love") add balance. Wayne Bennett, Bobby Blue Bland's guitarist, checks in for a forceful solo, and Sahm himself takes a lead turn on a faithful rendition of the late Guitar Slim's "It Hurts to Love Someone." By and large, Juke Box Music is testament to the virtues of restraint. It leaves you wanting more-more music and more slow dances.
In January Sahm went on the road, headlining seven appearances in California of "Antone's Texas Rhythm and Blues Revue." He brought along Tex-Mex accordion ace Flaco Jimenez and Antone's regulars Angela Strehli and Mel Brown and the Silent Partners, and stretched the blues lineup to include a cross section of musical styles. Audiences and the press were thrilled; Antone was not. He says, "The only reason I work with Doug is to do rhythm and blues. Period." Sahm accepts his partner s opinions diplomatically: "If Clifford was sitting here, I'd tell him he's got the blues blinders on. I call it the blues magoos."
How long will the marriage made in triplet heaven last? "Clifford and I have an understanding that I would work this project across Europe through August before I did a Doug Sahm and dove into something else," Sahm says. Meanwhile Antone continues to champion the blues. Celebrities like Los Lobos, U2, Huey Lewis, and Bruce Willis show up to pay homage and to jam with the legends at Antone's. The club's owner even went to Washington, D.C., to hobnob at the Inaugural blues bash hosted by Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater. Antone has a handful of new albums in the works, including one featuring his club's chanteuses Lou Ann Barton, Marcia Ball, and Angela Strehli, and he is already lining up talent for a full week of celebration for the durable club's fourteenth anniversary in July.
No matter what
each may accomplish in the future, it would be difficult to imagine Doug
Sahm or Clifford Antone working together on another project with the spontaneous
emotion of Juke Box Music. After all, how often can you go home
again? How many times can you preserve the music of your youth exactly
the way you remember it and ensure that's how future generations will hear
it? Then again, if the album works its intended magic, a new generation
of couples may start bellyrubbing to triplets across Texas and beyond.
Jody Denberg is an Austin writer and radio host.
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