Return of the rock ‘n’ roll king
A year ago, Sactown music legend Grub Dog moved to Austin, Texas. This week he returns, having learned a thing or two.
In the end, there was really nothing it could be compared to, at least not on the local scene. Three guitars onstage with bass and drums, all played at levels so loud that they didn’t just split the ear, but also actually seemed to cause lingering damage for days afterward. A hard-drinking bunch, too, with shows often blurring into the wee hours where the early evening’s whiskey buzz starts to fade into a slurred, stumbling daze. And the singer shouting—no, screaming—at the audience: “God damn! Rock ’n’ roll! All night!” And the audience raising its collective glass in the air, shouting back enthusiastically.
On a good night (hell, on any night), that’s what Greg “Grub Dog” Mitchell and his band the Amazing Sweethearts brought to Sacramento stages. There was a certain incendiary quality to the band, a no-holds-barred, in-your-face, bring-us-another-round, let’s-stay-up-all-night roots-rock aesthetic that many bands just didn’t—and in fact still don’t—have. It’s the kind of feeling that you get from watching a good punk show: that anything is possible if only the band will continue to play.
But then, suddenly, it was all over. Grub and his wife, poet and activist Mo Stoycoff, packed up their belongings and moved to the town that is, for many, the thriving center of the national music scene: Austin, Texas.
You can hardly blame Grub for the decision. At the time, he said that the breakup of Magnolia Thunderfinger was the straw that broke the camel’s band, sounding a final death knell for the brand of loud, rootsy rock that he himself was famous for. It was, for Grub, the end of an era. “I had pretty much spent myself in Sacramento,” Grub explained via telephone. “I was playing all the best clubs and had pretty much done everything I could do there. Mo and I both needed to be in a place that was more creative so we could meet a different crowd.” For Grub and Stoycoff, Austin seemed just the place to do that.
Later this week, though, Grub Dog is returning to Sacramento, to play some shows; visit some friends; and, as I learned when we spoke on the phone, give some hard, firm advice on how the Sacramento music scene can become stronger, more vibrant and, ultimately, more like Austin.
Like any ongoing cultural event, it’s difficult to determine exactly when the music scene in Austin became what it is today. One might trace it to a period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, when big technology came to the area, creating something of a population boom and increasing University of Texas enrollment by 50 percent. Certainly, music became a more vibrant part of Austin’s arts culture during that period, but by and large it was still based on what writer-academic Barry Shank once called the “honky-tonk economy.” The musical force was enmeshed strongly in Texas traditions, and that meant country music and its various spinoffs.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the music scene began to codify itself around another musical genre: rock ’n’ roll. It certainly helped matters that 1987 saw the birth of the king of music-industry and live-music showcases, Austin’s annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (“SXSW” for those in the know). SXSW has become the premier rock-music event in the country and has spawned countless imitators, the closest geographically being Chico’s annual “Nowhere by Nowhere” festival. The event has proven to be particularly successful in that SXSW focused, at least at first, on unsigned or new talent, making for the kind of event that industry moguls, ever ready to sign the next big thing, drool over.
To this day, the word “Austin” carries a particular weight among music fans, the same type of credibility that another word, “Woodstock,” once carried: a type of legendary significance. But unlike its upstate-New York counterpart, Austin’s scene is ongoing and continuous, with new bands springing up (and dissolving) and new venues opening (and closing) each month.
By Grub’s reckoning, there is good live music every night of the week in Austin. “It’s a huge scene,” he noted. “Not only the folk and rock and singer-songwriter and honky-tonk scene and the rockabilly scene and the heavy-metal scene and the punk-rock scene. … It’s almost overwhelming how much there is to do on any given weeknight here.” Ultimately, then, what Austin has that Sacramento doesn’t is a whole culture built around the idea of going out and doing something—be it a movie (the theaters in Austin serve patrons dinner and beer), a live music event or whatever else.
Grub, for one, long has been critical of the Sacramento scene, even as he has simultaneously acted as one of the city’s main music boosters. His perspective as a new Austin resident has given him a new vantage point from which to view our local scene, warts and all—and some of his comments on both scenes have appeared as posts on Sactolist, a Sacramento-music Internet list located at http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/sactolist.
The gap between a town virtually obsessed with its music scene and a town like Sacramento is, needless to say, a rather large one. Not that Sacramento’s scene isn’t terrific in its own way, but it’s certainly not as vibrant as Austin or Portland or Boston. For Grub, Sacramento’s fundamental problem is resistance to change. “I think the only issue with Sacramento is that it’s so set in its ways,” he said. “The clubs have their kind of standard audiences, and they don’t really try to expand and try new things in order to build on that audience.”
As far as what to actually change, the argument is twofold. First, a central change of attitude is required. “In Sacramento, and California in general, bands seem to be focused on themselves,” Grub said. “Here, bands provide an atmosphere where people go to enjoy themselves. I’m not saying that there aren’t bands here who are obsessed with getting signed or whatever, but on the whole it’s just a different thing. You learn pretty quickly here that it’s not about you.” (Incidentally, that’s something that Grub’s friend Skid Jones, the former Magnolia Thunderfinger frontman, has been saying for years.)
Indeed it’s true that “obsessed with getting signed” seems an accurate description of the average Sacramento band, particularly in the early stages. It doesn’t help much that venues are equally obsessed with a band’s audience draw, so much so that even weeknight shows tend to need to draw in a good-sized audience.
Simply not being worried about your career in music leads to interesting opportunities to build an audience, a point made by Grub’s favorite Saturday-afternoon pastime: listening to Merle Haggard’s guitarist, Red Volkaert, play his weekly free gig at south Austin’s Continental Club. In fact, you can catch many of the Texas legends at various weekly longstanding (and free to the public) residency gigs around town. Furthermore, those gigs have built up sizable audiences quite willing to pay money to see the same band on a weekend night. It’s a lesson not lost on Grub.
“I think what’s lacking [in Sacramento] is a sense of longevity,” he said. “Here, there are residencies. James McMurtry is every Wednesday night at the Continental. Red plays on Saturdays. Toni Price on Tuesdays. There’s this long-established thing, and you know you can walk down on a given night and see Toni.” Grub believes that this same booking process could work in Sacramento. “It’s Saturday at 4, and it’s hot outside. Let’s go down to Old Ironsides and get a beer and see so-and-so. It’s not loud. It’s not a rock show. It’s just something to see while you drink beer and cool off.”
Forming such residencies here might very well break Sacramento’s somewhat icy music scene open to a wider public. Furthermore, this gig model has worked for such local artists as Kevin Seconds, David Houston and Caron Vikre, all of whom had at least monthly gigs at Luna’s Café. But perhaps the most readily apparent example of really developing an audience is the success of Jackie Greene. Greene’s early career was spent playing repeatedly at the same club, usually Marilyn’s at 12th and K. At times, you could catch Greene seemingly every night of the week. “The guy played three nights a week at these clubs and was packing them in every time,” Grub noted enthusiastically. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as overexposure as long as you’re giving people comfort.”
Grub Dog, who has weirdly received more local exposure now that he’s gone than when he lived in Sacramento, will be bringing his opinions, criticisms and insights back to town this weekend as he performs a duo of shows at two of his old stamping grounds: True Love Coffeehouse and Old Ironsides. For newcomers to the scene, it will offer a rare chance to see a truly fine once-local musician and a legendary drunk philosopher. For old-timers, it will be a nice visit with an old friend. Either way, it’s time to welcome back the Dog.