Austin, Texas takes pride in having the title of The Live Music Capital of the World. Antone’s Nightclub has been in business for 34 years, hosting bands and launching careers of many musical talents such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Los Lonely Boys, and it’s a monumental reason for earning that title. The club, dark and dirty, with its peeling wallpaper and posters of Muddy Waters and B.B. King hanging proudly, is a place you know has its regulars, people of Austin who are passionate for live music and look forward to going to Antone’s two to three times a week, for what they know will be an amazing show. Last night, the Friday after Thanksgiving, was no exception.
I arrived eager to watch Gary Clark, Jr. and paid my $15 for general admission. Clark Jr., an Austin gem—born and raised—has gained his reputation throughout the years playing around the city and has graced the stage of Antone’s several times already. He was scheduled to play at 11:30, and at 10 o’clock the place was half-full. Looking around the crowd, it was strange to notice I was, hands down, the youngest person at the bar. Mostly caucasian, there were people in their mid-20’s, but the clear majority were in their 40’s and 50’s. Many were sitting down at their tables, beer in hand, ready to hear some music. Some were standing, with their spouses or group of friends. Others were gazing up at old Antone’s advertisements or lingering at the front table, which showcased t-shirts, stickers, and assorted CD’s. Everybody was waiting.
The thing about live music is that the unexpected nearly always happens. I arrived last night with the sole purpose of watching Gary Clark, Jr., so when at 10:15, I heard a female voice yelling out, “How’s everybody doin’ tonight?” I turned to the stage, surprised. The opening act was Blues Mafia, a group of kids that looked even younger than I am. Four guys, two at guitar, one bass player, a drummer…and a girl.
The girl, by the name of Sasha Ortiz, was the lead singer. As soon as they began, murmurs and whispers took over the crowd, positive comments all around me, people pleasantly surprised. By the middle of the first song there was an energy about the place, as if everybody knew they were witnessing something great. The girl, whose raspy yet soulful voice resembles that of Amy Winehouse, had such a spunk that when looking around the place, I saw all sets of eyes on her: attentive, willing, completely hooked. She was young and relaxed, wearing a Jimi Hendrix shirt and a yellow scarf she used as a prop, playing around with it as she swayed and jumped and danced around the stage; the girl gave a whole new meaning to “singing your heart out”. Their music, blues-based rock with a touch of deep soul, turned the crowd on, getting people who were sitting down to stand up and dance or just gape at the talented singer. Between songs, Ortiz happily talked to the crowd, about the Thanksgiving holiday and the Texas-A&M game, clearly knowing her audience. They played a 9-song set, including an amazing cover of Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”, in honor of his 67th birthday.
Never had an opening act caused such great reaction. The band had talented musicians; one of the guitarists and backup singer by the name of Max Frost had a voice so sweet and smooth that definitely acted as a powerful force to their sound, but Ortiz was undoubtedly the star. When they were done, the crowd roared and applauded. I’m sure many, like me, were left wanting more.
The main act, however, was Gary Clark, Jr. He began playing at 11:30 on the dot, and the crowd welcomed him with cheers. He began the show with two songs, fast-paced, that shone and leaked of influences such as Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding and James Brown, deeply rooted rock and roll with a hint of soul and reggae. The audience danced, much more than to Blues Mafia. Many people, you could tell had heard Clark, Jr. play before. After the first two songs, which were played back-to-back, the singer stopped to thank us for the warm welcome. There was a sense of familiarity in the club, comfortable enough for the singer to say, “Sorry to be a bother, but there’s a need for adult beverages up here on stage,” which the audience chuckled to in response. The band followed with more mellow songs, all original Gary Clark, Jr. If there’s a way to describe his sound, I would call it comfort food for the ears. Bluesy, folksy, very sensual.
The main difference between Clark Jr.’s live performance and recorded music is the actual experience of watching him play the guitar. In every song, he inserted 4- to 5-minute guitar solos so insane and vibrant you couldn’t help but stare with the fear that his hand might melt off. The artist went through three guitars throughout the 15-song set; each time he needed to switch the instrument, the audience laughed and cheered, appreciative of his mad energy. His talent appears effortless, his eyes closed as his hands managed the electric guitar so perfectly.
His fifth song was a beautiful cover of Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”, which clearly shows his love and respect for the folk, blues and roots genres. When listing his influences, you can’t help but notice it’s made up mostly of African American icons and artists, ranging from the Jackson 5 to Marvin Gaye, Jay-Z to Notorious B.I.G (Clark Jr. May 2007: MySpace.) He also includes rock and roll influences like The Beatles and jazzmen like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. His style is multifaceted, yet intricately cohesive.
The artist already has well-established recognition, especially in Texas. Having begun at age thirteen, he could easily be considered a veteran performer by now. May 3rd, 2001 was declared Gary Clark, Jr. Day in Austin, and he was honored by the mayor for helping the city maintain its claim to fame as the “live music capital of the world” (Xiola Sept. 2, 2009: current.com). Clark, Jr. was also recognized for Austin’s Best Blues Musician in the Austin Music Awards in 2004, 2006, and 2007. He’s worked for years now as a songwriter, having written all the lyrics for his albums Worry No More and 110, and the score for Jason Wiles’ movie Full Count (Xiola). The artist has even segued into acting, seen in the 2007 John Sayles movie “Honey Dripper” (Xiola). He’s a well-rounded artist; in addition to playing the guitar, he plays the harmonica, bass and drums.
After 12 songs, the band left the stage only to return after loud requests for an encore. Three more songs followed, the last a cover of B.B. King’s “Three O’Clock Blues”, which was received enthusiastically by the crowd. Gary smiled, knowing that at Antone’s, there was no better way to close his set than with a B.B. King song.
Clark, Jr.’s performance was polished yet appeared completely natural and spontaneous; one could tell he felt at complete ease with what he was doing. Near the end of the show, he pointed out his family in the crowd; his mother and sister sitting at a table to his right, his father at the back, who waved when everybody turned to see him. The artist was at home.
While I was at Antone’s I vividly remembered something Lester Bangs said in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous: “Music, you know, true music, not just rock ‘n’ roll, it chooses you. It lives in your car, or alone, listening to your headphones…” I thought about that, and looking around the bar, the bar filled with young twenty-somethings and middle-aged men dancing with their wives, and homeless men huddled at the door hoping to score a free concert for a night, I thought about the difference between the music that lives in your car or in your bedroom… and live music. Live music is a whole different experience. Live music is something we share with complete strangers for one night, where we learn enough to feel closer to the artist or the band; it’s something we end up loving and enjoying not just because of the music but because of the whole thing- the heavy smell of beer and the swaying of the crowd, the expression on everybody’s faces, hoping that their cheers are loud enough for the band to come back for an encore. Live music is personal.
At the end of the night as I was walking out, I noticed the young band members from Blues Mafia standing in a group with their friends, talking and listening to the playback music that now followed Clark, Jr.’s performance. Clark, Jr. himself had joined his family at their table, enjoying his night after a successful show. When I passed the bar I saw Sasha Ortiz talking to a young man who then asked her to dance. When they’re up at the stage they strike the crowd as simply musicians, artists who put on a show because that’s what they love and that’s what their job is. It doesn’t matter if they’re an up-and-coming band like Blues Mafia, or a well-known performer like Clark, Jr; you forget that when they walk off the stage, they have a life, they have friends, they like to dance and drink and be with their family.It is Austin’s pride to have the title of the Live Music Capital of the World, and at Antone’s last night I understood why. Like in the city of Austin itself, the bar buzzed with a close and familiar atmosphere, where live music isn’t just watching a show, but a way of life that brings strangers together, at least for one night.