Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jon Dee Graham & Friend; March 18, 2012; Continental Club Gallery

The first year I went to SXSW I booked my return ticket for Monday simply because it was a lot cheaper than going back on Sunday. Though there is never much music on the Sunday of SXSW weekend, 2009 just happened to be the year that Jon Dee Graham started his Sunday night “and friend” residency at the Continental Club Gallery. Located upstairs from the legendary Austin club, the Gallery only holds 49 people and it feels like the musicians are playing in your living room. Since it was the first year and everyone was in town, friend became plural very quickly as a parade of who’s who of musicians sat in with Jon Dee for a song or two, sometimes playing one of his tunes, but more often playing one of their own.

In the years since I have stayed that extra day just for this show. The second year his friend was Matt the Electrician whose lighthearted earnestness paired well with Jon Dee’s skepticism. The third year Kelly Willis took the hot seat, and though she wasn’t exactly prepared for Jon Dee’s challenges (“play the most recent thing you wrote” or “play something that will break my heart”), she was adorable and effervescent. An interesting thing has happened along the way. Sunday night has always been the night for Alejandro Escovedo’s big gig, a thirteen hour show downstairs at the CC with a waiting line that increases proportionately to the hours it has been going on. That first year I walked into the gallery just as the show started, this year if you weren’t in line by 7:30 (a half hour before doors, an hour before the show), you weren’t getting in. Meanwhile the line for Al’s show was short or nonexistent. The one perk of waiting in line was that we were standing right in front of the venue’s open front doors and caught nearly all of Jesse Malin’s set.

Tonight the friend was again plural with several guests joining in until no more would fit. The night started with recent New West signees The Mastersons, a duo consisting of ubiquitous sideman and guitar hero Chris Masterson and his wife Eleanor. We had kinda sorta heard them during the chaos and ultimate disappointment of the Bloody Mary Morning Thursday at the Moody Theater, but I didn’t appreciate them at all. Tonight was better. The pair played songs from their new record, Chris on guitar, Ellie on guitar or violin. And it was quite enchanting. After thirty minutes or so sparring with Jon Dee, they scooted their chairs back to make room for Mike June, who is also a booking agent. Though he said he wished Jon Dee hadn’t mentioned that in a room full of musicians. I’ve exchanged many an e-mail with June booking last summer’s Jon Dee show and the upcoming Hobart Brothers show and I never knew he played till recently. The cautionary tale “Don’t Go Down to Newark” was a blast.

Chuck Prophet had been sitting up front, quite obviously enjoying the show, when it was his turn to join in. Jon Dee suggested he play “the Halloween song” (“Halloween in Castro”), but Prophet had other plans. He started with “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” about a famous pair of gangster brothers, which he dedicated to all brothers, naming off a few pair “Dave and Ray,” “Phil and Dave” and those guys from Oasis. His terrific new record Temple Beautiful is a love letter to his home city of San Francisco and a frontrunner for my record of the year.

For his next track he called his wife Stephanie Finch up for the catchy duet “Little Boy, Little Girl.” The Mastersons had been joining in quietly up until this point, but Ellie saw her moment when Finch sang the line “Little boy, little boy, can you tune a violin?” She stepped in with a gorgeous violin line that brought a giant smile to Prophet’s face. Finch returned to her seat but Prophet stuck around to play with the evening’s next guest, Garland Jeffries. I’d never heard of him before Thursday and here he was again. Jeffries played two very pretty songs, much mellower than his high energy set at the Gingerman, before giving up his seat to Alejandro Escovedo, who snuck upstairs to play a few songs while his own show continued downstairs. Prophet and Escovedo have worked together frequently, so Prophet was right at home adding fiery guitar licks to Escovedo’s songs.

The time goes quickly up in the Gallery and despite the fact that there were still more musicians Jon Dee could have called on, he wrapped up the night with the always charming Matt the Electrician. After he finished, the thunderous applause for a terrific evening worth of music dictated that there be at least one more song. And that song was, of course, “Dreaming of Muhammad Ali,” a song of hope that Jon Dee likes to send audiences off with. Since there was a shortage of guitar cables at this point he played his acoustic up by the mike. When it came time for the solos, he assigned them, “Chuck your solo is hope, Matt yours is faith, and Mastersons, you have teamwork.” I never stopped smiling. It was a terrific night of friends, and a great night of music.

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