[1 July 2003]
Photo credit: John Anderson
One of the greatest assets/curses of living in the Live Music Capital of the World (it’s Texas—you can just assert something and enforce it through ass whooping) is the unintended consequence of having live music piping from every nook and cranny. Coffee shops, restaurants, furniture stores, sidewalk sales and even the friggin’ airport all shill for your money by tacking on live music in lieu of free calendars or hot dogs. Most of the time, you’d be far better off with the hot dog. Every once in awhile, some enterprising business owner will actually “get” Austin and provide not just free painful background, but a genuinely worthwhile experience.
Big Red Sun is one of those homey kinds of businesses that seems like the realized dream of a couple of friends with good taste, shucking off their 9 to 5 gigs to create a quirky little shop in an old house, nestled in some overlooked scratch of neighborhood. As a place to hang out, Big Red Sun is an aesthetic marvel, like sitting in the garden of some Mexican Generalissimo’s compound. Whereas chain plant stores tend to look like fauna slaughterhouses with kicked over plants and potting soil clotting the aisles, Big Red Sun is almost compulsively sculpted. I’m glad I’m poor or I would have left with trunk loads of beautiful green hostages. Plants die in my care; and I resent their accusing co-dependence. I tell you this, not because the owners plied me with money and pharmaceuticals (they haughtily refused), but because it was a decadently intimate space in which to get drunk, sit in chi-chi lawn chairs and listen to top shelf musicians.
Milton Mapes are a crew of alt-country rockers who share the same taste in epic balladry as artists like My Morning Jacket and Neko Case. Greg Vanderpool, their lead singer, has a sorrowful vice grip of a voice, every syllable wrestled with and let go with an almost exhaustive weight. Pared down to a duo, the boys sat on the steps of the stage and proceeded to belt out one of the most introspective and haunted performances I’ve heard since my first Beth Orton show. Like a twang-skewed Pedro the Lion, Milton Mapes build slow burning songs from the scaffolding of carefully drawn images, slow escalations of mood, and an inner intensity that almost has to be turned away from to be absorbed. “Lubbock” stood out for me, with an almost missionary seriousness, sketching out a transfixing narrative as down-to-earth and engrossing as a campfire yarn. I have yet to see the full band perform, but if the unplugged set is any indication, these guys must put on a jarringly gorgeous live set with everyone in tow. Vanderpool makes Jeff Tweedy seem like a superficial emotional skimmer, and I can’t wait for their next full length to drop.
Is it rude to mention how hot performers are? I mean, I’m talking about people who are sexy and talented, not tin-foiled pop trash. From what I gather, music critics almost never talk about wanting to fuck people, though undoubtedly that glorious daisy chain of lewd visions must occur to everyone who writes about music. I guess we’re supposed to feign objectivity and ignore such trifling details as bohunk mope poets sitting behind the instruments. Or maybe concert reviews wouldn’t have much to offer if the reviewer stated simply: “I wanted to fuck the band.” God knows it would save me wracking my brain for adjectives. This is just a hypothetical aside, mind you, I’m just trying to provoke a conversation that really needs to happen, people.
Michael Fracasso is your basic singer-songwriter legend, laboring in inexplicable obscurity with a lifetime’s worth of accomplished craft. He’s the kind of heartfelt, genuinely gifted person who makes you feel guilty for buying that last Pete Yorn record. By now, the sun had set, the mercy of a breeze came through, and the stage was lit by two lazy strands of bare bulbs. In a word, perfect. Fracasso’s voice is angelically reedy, almost surreal coming from a man. The sound was a bit lousy through a few of the tracks, though no fault of the performer, it was a bit grating to have the speakers pop in and out. But Fracasso, no amateur, simply sang louder, adjusted a few shorting out cords, and pulled it out of the shitter. Fracasso’s lyrics and singing worked their mojo in finest form during the higher octane tracks like the Harley-ride, swamp stomper, “Elizabeth Lee”. He even belted out my favorite song of his, “Back to Oklahoma”, an eerie, blues-riffed lament with the ballsy chorus “Jesus is not ready for me now.” He’s a folkie badass.
Although I’m not yet too old to still enjoy low-rent smoky clubs with rusted piss troughs in the bathrooms, I have to admit that I find the coziness of an alternate setting to be comforting. Four Tecates down and sated on the picnic foodstuffs generously provided by my friend Laura, I was fortified for the remainder of my dreary, Dickensian work week. This is proof enough for me that sometimes the best in live music is found on the overgrown, less traversed venues featuring all those talented people with integrity not likely to be found on your radio. But don’t move here; my rent is high enough as it is.