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All over the map with United Sounds of Austin

Peter Blackstock

Editor’s note: This article was originally published January 12, 2014

Prefacing Saturday night’s marathon United Sounds of Austin show at ACL live, Alejandro Escovedo admitted that the show might not be “the history of Austin as you know it.” Indeed, such an endeavor could never be definitive, given the endless musical permutations that have sprouted from the city’s varied communities across generations.

Allowing that the show’s contents inherently would be subjective, then, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting curator than Escovedo. Probably no local songwriter since Doug Sahm has pulled as many elements of Austin’s culture mix into their music than Escovedo; his repertoire draws from country, folk, punk, glam, psychedelia, Latin, soul, blues, jazz and more.

United Sounds of Austin brought together a cast of dozens to weave a loosely connected musical narrative through more than 30 songs. Escovedo explained at the outset that a Chicago Symphony series called United Songs of America that he took part in a couple of years ago helped lead to this project.

Performers ranged from the gospel group Bells of Joy, who opened with their 1951 hit “Let’s Talk About Jesus,” to teenage band the Painted Redstarts, whose cover of the True Believers’ “She’s Got” was a raucous next-to-last-song more than three hours later. Escovedo subsequently closed the show with an inspired cover of the Butthole Surfers’ 1996 hit “Pepper.”

In between, the proceedings included everything from mini-sets of jazz (featuring James Polk, Elias Haslanger and Ephraim Owens) and conjunto (from uncle and newphew Max and Josh Baca of the Texmaniacs) to healthy helpings of West Texas songwriter fare (from Butch Hancock, Terry Allen and Joe Ely) to a punk-rock double-shot of the Skunks and the Hickoids (the latter covering Raul’s-era heroes the Dicks). A pairing of Lucinda Williams with Roky Erickson on Roky’s “Starry Eyes” might have been magic but turned into a sonic trainwreck; even so, just seeing the two onstage together was a moment to remember.

With a half-dozen guest speakers sprinkled amid the songs, the show sometimes felt a bit like trying to cram a semester-long music history course into a single evening. That said, many of those spoken passages were fascinating, particularly Harold McMillan’s account of music that rose from East Austin in the early 20th century, and Joe Nick Patoski and Jody Denberg’s conversational overview of print and radio resources that have enriched the city’s music landscape over the decades.

Tributes to departed artists abounded as well. Williams paid respects to two ill-fated Texas legends, Janis Joplin and Blaze Foley, with her songs “Port Arthur” and “Drunken Angel.” Blues guitarist Denny Freeman played a Pee Wee Crayton tune in memory of Antone’s founder Clifford Antone. The house band (with David Pulkingham featured on guitar) gave a nod to country-blues guitar pioneer Bill Neely in rendering his instrumental “Pflugerville Boogie.”

No moment was more poignant, though, than the delivery of Townes Van Zandt’s mournful “Tower Song” by the late songwriter’s son, J.T. Van Zandt. Though his performances around town remain few and far between, J.T. has an innate ability to connect with audiences; he’s hushed crowds at the Cactus singing his father’s material before, but it was eye-opening to see him do so in the far larger ACL Live hall.

When it was all over and the entire cast and crew took a bow, Escovedo told the crowd, “See you next year.” If this is becoming an annual event, there’s certainly no shortage of Austin sounds that could be united in future iterations.