It was nearing midnight on Monday at the Continental Club, and a friend whose evening itinerary had coincidentally overlapped a bit with mine shared a thought: “It’s a great night to be in Austin.” That’s exactly what was on my mind, too.
For music fans across town, Monday felt like one of those days when we totally lived up to our Live Music Capital of the World reputation. For me, it started well before sundown, when Patty Griffin packed the house at Waterloo Records for a 5 p.m. in-store performance benefiting the American Red Cross and its Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.
Performing with guitarist David Pulkingham plus Michael Ramos on accordion, Griffin played an emotional 45-minute set that included a couple of especially poignant numbers: her own 2002 song “Rain,” and a cover of Bessie Smith’s 1927 song “Backwater Blues” about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
Waterloo presents another fundraiser on Tuesday, this one benefiting the Austin Food Bank and featuring Israel Nash, Matthew Logan Vasquez and Folk Uke (5 p.m., $20 suggested donation). They’ll get back to their regular in-store schedule on Wednesday with an appearance by Dallas band Texas Gentlemen, whose auspicious debut is out this week on New West Records.
For Folk Uke, Tuesday’s show will be their second hurricane benefit in as many days. They played on Monday evening at Threadgill’s, a last-minute-announced event that was among fundraisers seemingly popping up like mushrooms over the weekend. Singer-songwriter Jaimee Harris, who attended Griffin’s show at Waterloo, was on her way to to play another benefit Monday evening at Lemon Lounge.
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Beyond the benefits, plenty of previously scheduled shows dotted the downtown landscape. At Antone’s, Derek O’Brien and his Blue Monday crew were backing up legendary Nashville songwriter Gary Nicholson, who’s lately been donning an all-white suit for alter-ego “Whitey Johnson” gigs that lean more toward his blues interests than the chart-toppers he’s written for countless country stars over the decades.
A healthy crowd that included Austin treasure Marcia Ball heard Nicholson tell a few tall tales, including one about going camping with George Strait that may have just been a long setup for a punchline. On the other hand, Nicholson certainly travels in circles close to the likes of Strait and Willie Nelson, whose new album includes Nicholson’s beautiful tribute to Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.”
A little later, on the indoor stage at Stubb’s a few blocks away, the new 60 percent Texan lineup of North Carolina band American Aquarium made its Austin debut to a sold-out crowd. Opener Matthew Ryan’s excellent 45-minute set reminded why he’s been one of the best rock singer-songwriters of the past two decades.
He’s a tough act to follow, but American Aquarium leader BJ Barham was up to it, playing tunes from a decade’s worth of albums with a solid new ensemble that includes Austinites Joey Bybee on drums and Shane Boeker on guitar. This was just the fifth show for the new lineup; they’d played a pickup gig in San Angelo on Sunday after a planned Houston concert was canceled amid hurricane recovery efforts. They’ll wrap up their string of Texas shows at Gruene Hall on Saturday.
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Making a final stop at the Continental Club is almost always worth it. Some in the crowd arrived there from other previous stops: Local musician/soundman Paul Minor shared impressive scenes from the sold-out Thee Oh Sees show on the patio at Hotel Vegas. But the Continental provided a perfect finale, as local hero Charlie Sexton was holding forth with a killer band featuring drummer JJ Johnson, keyboardist Bukka Allen and bassist John Michael.
When he’s not on tour playing guitar with Bob Dylan, Sexton occasionally pops up around town sitting in with other artists, and he’s often called upon to act as musical director for special shows. (Coming up on his docket: tributes to journalist Margaret Moser and bassist George Reiff, details TBA.)
But this night served as a much-needed reminder that it’s worth hearing Sexton play his own music whenever the opportunity arises. “Charlie’s voice sounds great,” affirmed no less an authority than Bay Area rocker Chuck Prophet, chiming in via Facebook after viewing a posted video.
Mostly it was the spirit Sexton and his band conjured onstage that made this nightcap special. By the end, when Sexton had switched to a second keyboard alongside Allen for the final two songs, the legs were literally coming off — two members of the crowd jumped onstage to hold Sexton’s keyboard stand together when it started to collapse beneath him. Charlie didn’t miss a beat, smiling and singing and thanking his helpers profusely when it was done. It was a great night to be in Austin.