Man Oh Man: It’s A Big Sweet Life

Hey, look who’s inserting himself to the narrative! One of these guys is a douchebag, and it’s not the guy on the left.

Well, that’s embarrassing.
Sorry, Jon Dee.
Normally, I am much too cool to succumb to this sort of idol-worshiping tomfoolery.
But when you’ve had a few drinks and experienced musical transcendence, you don’t pass on the opportunity to pose with a goddamned legend – at least if you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that most people have never heard him.
It is, of course, their loss.
My words, alas, are too poor to match the occasion.
On they’ll go nonetheless. And on.
Thursday night was Day 2 of a Seattle music doubleheader for Blind Charlie and me. We had met at Ballard’s Sunset Tavern on Wednesday to check out the Deadstring Brother and James Apollo. Is was one hell of a show, and an utter steal at $7.
The Deadstring Brother, aka Kurtis Brothers, aka Kurt Marschke, has put his everyday band on hiatus and is tearing up the country as a one-man Mississippi wrecking ball. He’s taken the Deadstring Brothers oeuvre and reduced it to its essence. Bottleneck guitar, bass drum, mouth harp, hi-hat and balls-out rock and blues.
First James Apollo and His Sweet Unknown (and his Lyle Lovett haircut) rocked the tiny crowd with soul-stirring originals. Apologies are due Mr. Apollo, by the way. There’s just not enough space in my brain to give him his due here. But he’s good. Really. Check out this charming bio from his Website, written by drummer Jack Chandelier.
Then came the Deadstring Brother. After tuning up, he ripped into the Band’s “Get Up Jake.” Then it was on to “Sacred Heart,” and he kept howling and churning till he wrapped up with a tour de force takedown of the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.”
It was such a damn good show that Charlie and I had second thoughts about subjecting ourselves to another Seattle excursion on Thursday. Even though it was Jon Dee Graham and again, only $7.
It’s a funny thing about music. You might see someone, get utterly turned on and amazed, buy a few CD’s and say “Damn, that was fucking great!”  Then as the years unravel you fall prey to forgetfulness. And laziness. You find yourself unable to recall the visceral wonder of it all. And when you’re faced with the prospect of an arduous round trip to the big city and back to the little peninsula, you get seduced by indolence.
Coincidentally, we got turned on to both Jon Dee Graham and the Deadstring Brothers during our first SXSW sojourn in 2006. We discovered the Deadstrings at the annual Bloodshot Records party back of the Yard Dog Gallery.
Then on Saturday we experienced the revelation that is Jon Dee Graham at the Continental Club. He played with his crackerjack band, and he left us shaking our heads in awe. We later agreed that this was the singular moment of our SXSW experience.
Anyway, back to Thursday. As the day wore on, I found myself hoping Charlie would back out so I could stay home and do nothing.
To his everlasting credit, he didn’t.

Becky and Max dropped me off at the Bremerton ferry terminal in plenty of time to meet up with Charlie on the 6:40 boat to Seattle. We sipped some Becky Juice on the trek across the Sound, and made it up to Columbia City Theatre well in advance of the show.
What a terrific venue, tucked into a two-block section of gentrification in the middle of the Rainier district. I knew it was going to be a good night when we walked in to the one-of-a-kind strains of the Rev. Gary Davis.  The Reverend Gary Fucking Davis.
You don’t hear that every day. That’s what you call a solid omen.
The Columbia City Theatre itself is a prime player in this narrative. What a room. A historic stage oozing old-time atmosphere. The oldest vaudeville room in Washington, the Website says. Narrow, cozy confines framed by brick walls and burgundy curtain. You sit in the folding chairs on the floor, and the stage is roughly at eye level. Close your eyes and you can imagine Duke Ellington and Fats Waller making magic. They did that, once upon a time.
And now comes Jon Dee Graham. The truth in three minutes.
But first up is a guy named Mike June. Who the fuck is Mike June?
Mike June: Sounds like a two-syllable impediment to the main event.
Then a guy in glasses ambles down the stairs with an acoustic guitar, walked behind the stage, parted the curtain, sat down and proceeded to knock us on our asses.
Without so much as a word, he jumps into “The Prisoner,” the opening track from his 2011 release “Exile on Wilson Street.”

I was burned out and jaded

I got old before my time
I was barely breathing
with barely a dime.

By the time the girl in his second song, “Newark,” was dead, you understood this guy belongs on tour with Jon Dee Graham. And that’s a lofty compliment.
The soulful, cigarettes-and-bourbon growl of his voice, the fierce honesty of the lyrics. It’s all there. He can write a song like a motherfucker.
Check out “The Death of New York,” for starters. “And all the pimps in Times Square are now working for corporate whores,” indeed.
He’s better than good. He’s Mike June.
How does this happen? How does Mike June get all the way from Newark to Austin and then Seattle, with (virtually) nobody taking notice?
Well, the answer is too depressing. It was all-too obvious by the time Jon Dee Graham made his way to the stage.
But before that, the crowd doubled for an hour as local favorite Simon Kornelis showed off his considerable fingerpicking skills and abundant musical talent. I mean, the fucker can whistle like a meadowlark.
As soon as Kornelis finished, though, the young crowd filtered out, leaving Jon Dee to play, sadly enough, to the smallest crowd of the evening.

Jon Dee Graham plays with Susan Cowsill and Freedy Johnston (aka The Hobart Brothers and Lil’ Sis Hobart) at the Continental Club as South by Southwest wound to a close on Saturday, March 17.

Yeah, Blind Charlie and I had a brief Jon Dee sighting at SXSW in March, when he played with one of his hundred bands, The Hobart Brothers and Lil’ Sis Hobart. Good as it was, it wasn’t the full Jon Dee experience, or anything close.
But, the thing is, who the fuck am I to talk about Jon Dee Graham? I can’t pretend to possess anything approaching comprehensive knowledge of his artistry. I probably was one of the few people left in the audience by the time he started ignorant enough to even consider blowing it off.
Until the the middle of this long-and-winding post, I’d never even lifted a finger to listen to the Skunks or True Believers.
Both are Austin legends and have been for a long time. Jon Dee was just a punk himself when he joined the Skunks, Austin’s fabled punk band, as lead guitarist in 1979.  In the mid-80s he joined up with Alejandro and Javier Escovedo in True Believers.
The guy’s been inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame three times. He’s experienced about everything life has to offer except death. He came perilously close to that in 2008 when he rolled his car on I-35  on the way back from a show in Dallas. He lost his spleen, for Christsakes. He’s been to rehab, an experience he acknowledges in “Beautifully Broken,” the rocking opener on 2010’s “It’s Not As Bad As It Looks,” which reportedly derives from the ironic greeting Graham offered a cop who arrived on the accident scene.
What else can you say about Jon Dee Graham? How do you proselytize the uninitiated? In recklessly wandering the googleverse, I came across a brief notes blog from 2004 which reported that David Bowie had shown up at the Continental Club to see several of his bandmates play. Earl Slick, his longtime guitarist, apparently stayed long enough to check out Jon Dee’s regular Wednesday night show. Then he left with Graham’s entire catalog and one good question: “Why haven’t I heard of you before?”
Strangely, the audience is the beneficiary of the shameful obscurity of folks such as Jon Dee Graham. If he hadn’t been high up there on the stage, we might’ve been sitting in his living room. It was that intimate. He played like a defiant giant, sang like tattered saint and delivered a performance to be thankful for. And he carried on a running conversation between songs.
He opened with $100 Bill, from his 2003 album, “Escape from Monster Island.” It tells the poignant story of a man who takes his little boy on a bus into the Hill Country to check out Christmas lights. An old man with a 4-year-old boy myself, it hit me like a sledgehammer. The fathomless fear and unbridled love of parenthood roil deep in the wordless moan that precedes the chorus:

All my angels have gone home.

Now let’s use yours.
Can we use yours?
Now let’s use yours.

That’s the thing with Jon Dee. Everywhere you turn, there’s pain, searing and unavoidable. There’s heartbreak, depression and devastation. But there’s also resilience, perseverance and relentless determination. And most of all, there’s a fierce and defiant hope.
It’s there in all of his songs, which taken collectively answer the musical question posed by another great Texas music, Blind Willie Johnson:
What is the soul of a man? A lucky 20 people got to experience it for nearly two hours on Thursday night in Seattle. It was raw, unvarnished and unflinching.
It was human.
He played Dan Stuart’s “The Greatest,” a song he apparently has a long history with, then left the stage before coming out to bless the gathering with a sublime benediction, “Kings,” which includes a refrain that might as well be a Jon Dee Graham mission statement:

It ain’t the winning
It ain’t the losing
It’s the going on
Beyond our choosing
That makes us kings


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2 Responses to Man Oh Man: It’s A Big Sweet Life

  1. Randy Cepuch says:

    Amen, indeed. I also “discovered” JDG at the 2006 SXSW and these days he IS pretty much the reason I go to Austin at least once a year.

  2. Pingback: Ode to 97, or Happy Birthday, Kevin Kozak | Uncle Sam's Backyard

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