Cranes and Bats

The former clutter up the Austin skyline, circling as the condos rise. The latter roost with their pups under the Congress Avenue Bridge, coming out at twilight to feed. There's music in the air, too. It spills out of bars like The Continental Club. We happened to be walking past it last week. A sign in the window read, "James McMurtry." A guy in the doorway said, "Seven bucks." The Austin City Limits Festival was still more than a day away, but the town was already starting to earn its reputation as the live music capital of the world.

The sound guy took the stage first, stomach and cigarette hanging out, and started messing around on a guitar. The sound hit like grease on a griddle. He fiddled with the amp a bit, played some more, then wandered off. When he returned, he brought a drummer, bassist and another guitar player with him, and proceeded to kick-off a blistering opening set. It was Jon Dee Graham, a familiar name to the locals but a stranger to me. It was a helluva introduction. I'm trying to remember if I ever saw such a happy performer. The guy just beamed the whole time, lighting up over every drum fill and bass lick. "Something very wonderful is gonna happen," Jon promised.

The glow from that set lingered as James McMurtry climbed the steps, his face pale and cool, his songs dark and deep. For the next hour or two, we met characters that wouldn't be out of place in his dad Larry's novels. Ruby and Carlos, for example. Lovers of horses and music and each other, they hobble along for years after a break-up trying to stay off that "slippery slope."

The next night found us at Threadgill's, another local institution and the place where a young singer named Janis Joplin developed her sound. They have a drink named after her: Southern Comfort and Jack Daniels on the rocks. According to the menu it's "as soft as she ever got." Their website has an hour-long NPR program from 2003 documenting the birth of the Austin music scene.

I'll share memories of Day 1 of the ACL fest in the next post. These were the choices...