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How much does Austin miss George Reiff? Two dozen acts testify in 5-hour show

Peter Blackstock

From chart-toppers and Grammy winners to club-level touring acts to local standbys who rarely play outside of Austin, the performers who took the stage on Sunday evening at Emo’s had one thing in common: George Reiff had worked with all of them, and he made their music better.

Reiff, who died of cancer earlier this year at age 56, was one of the city’s finest bass players and producers for three decades. That Sunday’s marathon five-hour show involved more than two dozen acts and a couple of different house bands testified to just how much-loved Reiff was in the local community: Everyone wanted to take part, to pay their respects.

The video above compiles highlights from about half of the evening’s performers, with most of the songs having a direct connection to Reiff: He played on it, produced it or wrote it. Michael Hall the show opened with “Merry Christmas From Mars”; Beaver Nelson’s “Don’t Bend Just Break” was first recorded a quarter-century ago with Reiff; Giulia Millanta dedicated a new song to Reiff; Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis sang Reiff’s song “Unsteady State”; Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Wanna Rock and Roll” featured saxophone guest Johnny Reno, with whom Reiff had toured; Michael Fracasso’s “World in a Drop of Water” featured Charlie Sexton, who first got to know Reiff well through working with him on a Fracasso record; Sexton joined the Dixie Chicks’ Emily Strayer on a Court Yard Hounds tune Reiff played on; drummer Conrad Choucroun stepped out to play Reiff’s bass with Patty Griffin on “Let It Be the Sun”; Shinyribs put a raucous calypso twist on “Twisted,” a song Reiff co-wrote with his early-1980s new wave band the Haskells; Cotton Mather played a song the band recorded with Reiff that leader Robert Harrison endearinly described as “ragged” (and it was, joyously so); Ian Moore, who toured and recorded often with Reiff, played his inspirational tune “Today”; Sexton and Sally Allen dueted on a heartfelt number requested by Reiff’s brother Michael; and Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson closed out the night with three songs including the grand finale of Ronnie Lane’s “Ooh La La.”

The video covers only about half of those who took part. Also performing were Band of Heathens, Jon Dee Graham & William Harries Graham, Fastball, Charlie Mars, Billy Harvey, Johnny Goudie, Betty Soo, Bonnie Whitmore, Jeremy Nail and Lisa Morales. And the house bands themselves were something to behold. The first-half acoustic lineup, led by guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb, included drummer Stephen Belans and bassist Cornbread plus guests Rich Brotherton on guitar, Don Harvey on drums, and Michael Ramos on keyboards and accordion. Ramos returned with the second-half house band that included dual drummers Choucroun and J.J. Johnson, bassist John Michael Schoepf and keyboardist Bukka Allen.

Most performers did two songs, and several offered brief but telling remarks before they played. Jon Dee Graham revealed that Reiff introduced him to his wife Gretchen Harries Graham, nodding toward their son William (playing guitar at his side) to acknowledge there would be no William without George. Strayer got a bit choked up as she noted that when she and her sister Martie Seidel started their Court Yard Hounds side project, “George was always involved from the very beginning. I don’t know how we’re ever going to do  it again.” Kevin Russell of Shinyribs credited Reiff for helping him reinvent himself as an artist after his former band the Gourds split up: “He basically helped me create Shinyribs. I didn’t know what the hell to do.” And after Sexton recommended Reiff to Robinson for gigs with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood band, he said the singer later told him: “I asked you for a bass player and you gave me a brother.”

One of the most illustrative comments in the crowd came from a musician who recently moved to Austin and never had a chance to know Reiff. As Ben Jones of the band Beat Root Revival explained, “You see the reflection of someone in all of the people they affected.”

At one point in the middle of it all, emcee Jody Denberg paused to smile and ask, “Is George in the house or what?” Indeed he was, all night long. Ray Wylie Hubbard probably spoke for everyone in attendance when he said, “I’m saddened by the occasion of why we are here, but I’m deeply grateful to be a part of it.”