The Steve Power Sessions (2): Blue sounds in the “Live Music Capital of the World”
by JOSEP PEDRO
Based in Austin since 2003, Steve Power is a widely experienced musician whose extensive trajectory spans over more than forty years, including intense periods in different states and countries both in the U.S. and in Europe. A thoughtful observer and meticulous storyteller, Steve continues to prove that he is a restless singer-songwriter, harmonica player and band coordinator, capable of moving coherently within roots and blues music. His dedication and attentive character has led to the project Matthew Robinson & The Jelly Kings, where he joins forces with one of the most unique bluesmen in Austin and a select group of backing musicians looking to extend the legacy of Texas blues. Together, while keeping in synch at their residency at Opals Divine’s Penn Field restaurant (South Congress), Steve and Matthew have been working hard on their upcoming album Work that Jelly!, whose advance samples showcase impressive performances within convincing, groovy frameworks.
A member of the Austin Music Foundation and the Austin Blues Society, and an endorser of well-known harmonica equipment brands (Seydel Harmonicas, Sonny Jr. Harp Amps, Blows Me Away Harp Mics, 16:23 Custom Harmonicas), Steve Power’s career includes several awards and albums both as sideman and leader –his last solo project was The Austin Chronicles (2013), as well as significant accomplishments like playing harmonica with John Lee Hooker, singing with Joe Cocker and standing as onstage bodyguard to Little Richard. In the second of three interview-sessions Steve discusses the increasingly appealing and changing shape of Austin’s live music scene, with particular emphasis on blues music.
How would you describe Austin’s live music scene, and its representation of different music genres?
Austin is genuinely weird, and in more ways than a slogan on the back of a t-shirt. There is the myth of Austin and then there is the reality of Austin. Starting with the City Marketing Department idea of Austin as the “Live Music Capital of the World”, it rather depends on the context. On the one hand, yes there are quite a number of venues that have live music, over 200 I believe but that includes restaurant and coffee house gigs as well as clubs and bars.
There are also major venues like the ACL Moody Theater which was voted one of the best concert venues in America in its first year of opening. I heard they just upgraded the sound system for the third time since then. There’s the UT sports arena -the Erwin Center-, the brand new sports arena in Cedar Park in the far north of the Austin area and very nice it is too, and now the new Circuit of the Americas concert facility out at the F1 track. Then of course there are the mega events, ACL Festival, now over two three day weekends, and them the madness that is SXSW. But you can hear genuinely world class music seven nights a week in small clubs and bars all over town, often without a cover.
There are many national and international touring artists based out of Austin and a lot of local players in their bands. They are often in town mid-week and pick up gigs where they can. Some have regular spots. For example there’s a regular Monday night at a bar on the east side of Austin featuring the Little Elmore Reed Band. The lineup is ever changing but the core band are the Keller brothers, whose main gig is with Kim Wilson, and Dale Spalding, many years now the harmonica player with Canned Heat. Then there’s Derek O’Brien’s “Blue Monday at Antone’s.” Again a core band of A list players but every week Derek invites friends along like Jimmie Vaughan, Carolyn Wonderland, Marcia Ball, Cindy Cashdollar…. On top of that there is no cover and there’s even free pizza for as long as it lasts. So yeah the blues is out there and there’s some really good stuff. There’s some good stuff in other genres as well. Huge number of singer/songwriters, a lot of indie bands cropping up, and of course more country players than you can shake a Telecaster at.
The fly in the ointment is you have to sift through a lot of dregs to find the gold. Everybody in this town seems to play guitar or be in a band or want to be in a band or used to be in a band. There is nothing at all wrong with that except if has fostered a situation where there are so many hobby bands or even guys trying to break through at all costs who are willing to play for nothing, or as near as makes no difference to nothing. The vast majority of venues have no interest in music of musicians other than how many beer-buying customers can they bring through the door. And they exercise no quality control because they’re basically throwing bands against the wall and seeing what sticks. The bands don’t care because they get to brag that they have a gig on 6th St. or wherever. Their friends and family come along and it’s cool….until the next gig. By then the friends and family have other friends and family who have a gig and they’re off to see them. Pretty soon there’s like six people in the room at best. The foot traffic crowd drops in, hears a bad band in an empty bar and walks on. With notable exceptions, the venues simply don’t understand the concept of value for money and look at something for nothing has to be a good thing. Right? Wrong.
The upshot of all of this is there is a very small percentage of musicians who can actually make a proper living without going on the road and it takes the better part of a day just to cross the state line. So it’s tough and the cream doesn’t necessarily rise to the top. But I tell you what. Austin is a tremendous place to find inspiration and knowledge, of yourself as much as the music.
Just this weekend I had a visit from Paddy Well, really excellent harp player and frontman for British blues band the Poorboys. On Friday he came out and sat in with us at Giddy Ups. On Saturday Paddy went to see Greg Izor and the BoxCutters who include the Keller brothers in the line up. The Kellers tour regularly with Kim Wilson. On Sunday we went to see the John Garr band at the Saxon Pub for Happy Hour. Demon Zydeco accordion player Professor Zog sat in later followed by the fabulous Miss Lavelle White. We then went over to 6th St where we caught the tail end of J.T. Coldfire’s set who was then followed by Erin James and the open blues jam. We finished off the night at the Continental Club with Haybale, a dyed in the wool honky tonk outfit with ex-Johnny Cash piano player and CMA award winner Earl Poole Ball. Normally Redd Volkaert, one of the best Telecaster players in the world, is with them but he was in Australia with somebody so some other crazy good guitar player was subbing. And that was just a random weekend in the winter.
What do you think about the “Live Music Capital of the World” tag?
There are a lot of conflicting views as to this “Live Music Capital of the World” title, mostly to do with the way the city often fails to support the music community at a roots level. I’ve lived in L.A., London, and just outside Amsterdam. I can’t think of a place like Austin where there is so much world class music in several different genres available continuously. There have been many nights where the music performed and the artists who combined their talents brought out an oft heard comment of: “Only in Austin”. And truer words were never spoken. I mean look, Paul Oscher is moving into a house in far south Austin when James Cotton drives by, sees him and says, “Paul, what are you doing here?” Cotton lives in the same neighborhood. So you’ve got the two best harmonica players from the great Muddy Waters’ band of the late 60s and 70s move to this town and end up living within a few streets of each other. I’d say there something in the water but we’ve just about run out of water.
How has your relation with the media (music and general press, radio stations…) been since your arrival?
This will be answered with a short question and a short answer. What relations? I really don’t know why. There is a bit of what I call a “Star Wars” mentality where you’ll get all the ink you could want if you’re already established or are a trendy indie band. For the rest, you can just go fish. One exception might be Michael Corcoran. Mike used to be a regular music critic with the major paper in town [Austin Chronicle] but went independent not long ago. He now is freelance and has a blog. He seems to be covering a wider range of stuff now and has great respect for the history of Austin music and the pioneers of popular music in general.
[Recently] we had the sad passing of radio personality Larry Monroe. Larry had a regular Monday night blues program that was a great influence on more than a few players in town. He also supported a lot of singer-songwriters and was one of an exceedingly rare breed of radio people that deeply cared about the music and the people who create it. I fear there will now be a gap that is not likely to be filled.
What role does the Austin Blues Society play in the scene?
That’s kind of a tough one because I have a very subjective opinion as to its structure and methods of operation, but I’m sure others would disagree. On the positive side, that there is a Blues Society at all is an accomplishment. The two things that one could point to would be the Monday night blues jams and Heart of Texas Blues Challenge, which selects representatives from Austin to compete in the IBC in Memphis.
The Blues Society’s home, Antone’s, was recently sold yet again and the physical venue shut down. The new owners of the brand announced they will be opening a new location downtown in the spring but so far no one seems to know where. The Blues Society is completely out of the loop. They have moved the Monday jam to a very small bar in East Austin [The Skylark Lounge]. I’m not sure how successful that will be as much of the attraction, especially for foreign tourists, was to play the Antone’s stage. There have also been a few of the top officers leave for personal reasons and a new batch come in. The structure has been somewhat of a closed shop. Having said that, Matt went to a board meeting [recently] and Paul Oscher was there as well. Matt seemed to think things might be changing for the good so I’m going down to the next meeting as well with the hope that maybe new voices will be heard.
What’s your opinion about jam sessions, regular events that proliferate in most blues scenes?
I’m going to sound like a real music snob here, probably because I am. It’s that Rhondda [South Wales] thing I guess. I think open jams have their place but generally I don’t enjoy them much. It’s a great place to make friends and for hobby players to have a knock. Blues jams help keep interest in the blues alive. The thing for me is you have to get down early to sign up early then wait around for the jam to start then wait around some more before you get to play and that can be a long time if you aren’t signing up really early. You have no choice or control over who you are jamming with. I’ve been to a blues jam where I wound up with four kids playing some sort of original indie rock badly and just walked off the stage. It was impossible. All this just to play three songs.
Then you have the little political games going on with those in the know getting preference and jumping up the list. Often the best line ups and the best jams are the last because the real players don’t line up outside before the bar opens. The ironic thing is the house is usually empty by that time. People show up to play, often bring friends and family and as soon as they finish their turn the whole party packs up and goes home. Same thing happens at open mics. I hosted quite a few singer-songwriter open mics and always thought it quite rude and just a bit stupid that idea of leaving as soon as your little spot is over. That makes it all about you which is not how it should be. You have your moment to shine but then you have many more opportunities for moments to discover someone else and to possibly be inspired to better things.
How important was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s contribution to the Austin blues scene?
Stevie was before my time in Austin but there is no question Stevie as well as the Fabulous Thunderbirds put Austin on the blues map. I mean they put a statue up of the dude. I got married in front of it. But never ever forget if it wasn’t for Clifford Antone there would never have been an Austin blues scene and subsequently no SRV or Fab T’s.
And on that, “What is blues?” subject: Stevie sat at the feet of the real deal guys, as did Jimmie. And yes, he absorbed Hendrix as well. And I’ve seen interviews with B.B. King and Buddy Guy where they speak with great respect for Stevie. The guy was a blues man, no doubt, though he does get that rock label put on him and that’s okay. I just feel he deserves his blues cred, for lack of a better phrase, way more than guys who think that Clapton or Page are in the same ball park and have them as their primary influences. By the way, I like a lot of what Clapton and Page have done but not everything by a long shot.
How relevant was the race and age shift (from black-old to white-young) in SRV’s success?
I don’t think either was particularly relevant other than the lessons that were passed on from the guys who Stevie and the rest of the Antone’s crowd pretty much worshipped. I don’t think there was anything conscious in the exchange. The black artists who came to town were pleasantly surprised by the scene they found and grateful for the opportunity to expand their audience.
Clifford commented that he and his merry band would be so stoked that a Muddy Waters or a Freddie King would accept a gig at their club. But, unknown to them, Muddy and the other big blues names would be equally stoked to have been offered the gig. When Antone’s first started booking these acts the word was getting passed down the line: “Hey man, there’s this gig in Austin you really need to get on.”
How would you describe his numerous “unofficial guitar-school followers” and the effect they have had on the scene and the understanding of blues?
This is my own personal opinion, but I think for quite a while there was a general perception amongst younger players that Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble were what the blues was all about. You still get a lot of that if you go out to the clubs and there’s these guys banging out “Pride and Joy” and “Texas Flood.” It might sound strange but there are a lot of these guys who think Stevie’s main influence was Jimi Hendrix. And hell yeah, Hendrix was an influence. “Voodoo Child” was a SRV staple, but Stevie was well aware of who Hendrix was influenced by. He already was well versed in the source and understood how Hendrix adapted that.
I believe that the general population who go out to music bars would see “Blues Band Tonight” on the billboard of their local club, hear these pale imitations, and then be put off of blues thinking what they heard was what a blues band is. Wrong of course but understandable. The thing is Stevie was a genuine bluesman. He respected, studied, and learned directly from the masters. When he played he took all of that, combined it with his own inner soul and heart and that brought the truth. I think that most of these guys don’t get that in the slightest.
Right now I think of the players I hear around town and they are clueless but then there are the unfortunately too rare but nonetheless wonderful exceptions. Willie Pipkin and Mike Keller come immediately to mind. Tone, phrasing, sound are all correct and yet they still bring their own unique signature to the party.
How has the city and its live music scene (particularly blues) changed since you arrived?
The city has changed quite a lot even in just the ten years that I’ve been here. Its growth has been phenomenal. It is inevitable that those that have come here have changed the vibe of Austin. It’s nosier, more crowded, more congestion. And with the drought and the very serious depletion of the water supplies I can’t figure out why there continues to be this obsession with growth from the powers that be. The infrastructure and the resources simply can’t sustain it. Do the damn math.
As far as the music scene it’s a ying and yang thing. Remember the vast majority of people coming in and buying property have nothing to do with the music business. Some may like music and even be fans but then you have the folks who couldn’t care less, or maybe they just like the idea of a music city and the hipness that comes with that. So they move into an area that maybe has an outdoor stage and has had performances long before they got here and then they complain about the “noise”, the venue gets action from the authorities and the general hassle and decides it’s just not worth it. And then another one bites the dust. Musicians are not completely innocent in this either. Some have a sense of entitlement. Just this week there was a story told to me by one of the owners of the Brass House of having to actually ask a guitar player to leave because he wouldn’t turn down and got argumentative with it. Not something that I heard for the first time.
On the other hand because there are more numbers you’re always going to get a certain percentage that get it, music fans that come to down and haven’t fallen into that trap of getting jaded because there is a tremendous amount of talent to be heard. So there are new potential fans arriving every day. You also have new talent arriving every day. Across the spectrum from Robert Plant to a Paul Oscher or Greg Izor to some kid you never heard of before who is just great. Austin is, was, and I hope always will be a place where you can be inspired.
What balance can you make of the present and future?
As far as Austin’s blues scene, when I first got here it was hard to find but now I think it’s growing on the quiet and across quite a broad range. Gary Clark Jr. is conquering the world. Carolyn Wonderland is one of the hardest working players around and her career is going to be a great and long lasting one. Kim Wilson is still carrying the flag high. Kim is absolutely the best of the traditional style harp players around in my opinion. And then there are all the sidemen, the Keller brothers and the like. I’m seeing more local gigging opportunities and at the same time I think there is a trend away from every kid band trying to be SRV.
I think maybe the opportunity to hear more of the real deal like Matt[hew Robinson], Paul Oscher and some of the other heavyweights has tuned some ears to what blues really should be. And I’m not talking that purist view point where you have to be playing the correct guitar and wear the right sort of hat. I’m pretty optimistic about the future of blues in Austin and happily so are a lot of my weird friends around town.
If you are not taking that purist view point, how would you explain your view point?
I’d hate to think I have a “purist” point of view. It seems like that would be very pretentious of me. There is simply what I like and what I don’t like and by definition that is a subjective opinion. What I like is authenticity and truth coming from the artist.
Take for example Carolyn Wonderland. You listen to her music and there are elements of soul and gospel and maybe even a little jazz, but I would still call her a blues singer to the bone. She has only one way of performing and that is with everything she’s got, heart and soul, every time. I’ve seen her play in a backwater honky tonk where the crowd were much more interested in their Bud Light and the game on the TV. I’ve seen her play sick. I’ve seen her just sitting in. I’ve seen her headline Antone’s. She always puts out the same effort, pedal to the metal and devil take the hindmost. I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for that lady.
What do you think blues should really be?
The truth. And as the judge said about porn, “I may not be able to describe is but when I see it I know what it is.” I mean I don’t know. A lot of people get their panties all in a twist about blues/rock, preferring to not have the “rock” attached to “blues” by even a forward slash. Too damn close. Might get cooties. But what do you call Buddy Guy? Freddy King? Albert King?
On the other hand you’ve got for example Blues Traveler who personally I have a hard time calling blues. “Why not?”, I hear you protest. Because I fail to hear the emotional content. [John] Popper plays harp like he’s getting paid by the note and has alimony to pay. Listen to Blues Traveler then listen to Jerry Portnoy, just to keep it to white guys, and then tell me which one is blues. But then all art is subjective. One person’s Bach is another person’s Peruvian nose flute.