Written by James Killen
I was looking forward to getting a first look at the new Heights Theatre venue Sunday night for Ray Wylie Hubbard’s seventieth birthday bash. Unfortunately, construction delays forced the event to change venues and wind up in Houston’s historic Rockefeller’s, which seemed appropriate for a show that honors such a historic Texas troubadour. (The Heights Theatre will now present Hayes Carll on November 23 for its opening night). Rockefeller’s is a smaller room, hence many attendees were given standing room wristbands instead of the seats that they were expecting. The venue changes didn’t seem to bring any negative vibes to the celebration night.
The evening started out with the husband wife duo of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams bringing their brand of country blues to the stage. Larry Campbell (along with Jorma Kaukonen, Roy Bookbinder and David Bromberg) is a disciple of Reverend Gary Davis’ style of fingerpicking blues. Teresa Williams brings her Tennessee country vocals to round out the sound in a show sprinkled with friendly patter, reminiscent of a Sonny and Cher show.
The set began with some original compositions from the duet’s latest album (Surrender to Love, Ain’t Nobody for Me….) and a Louvin Brothers bluegrass standard, “Running Wild”. Campbell stretched out an acoustic blues solo on “Everybody Loves You” that was pretty tasty. They also performed “You’ll Never Again be Mine” from the Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams CD on which Campbell along with Levon Helm put music to some lyrics that Hank Williams (the first one) had left behind. Campbell and Williams ended their set with original composition, “Did You Love Me at All?” sandwiched between two Reverend Gary standards, “Sampson and Delilah” and “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”.
Ray Wylie Hubbard took the stage with an abbreviated line up of himself, a drummer, and his son Lucas on lead guitar (notably, without a bass player). They warmed up, initially, on “Rabbit”, and RWH, satisfied with the sound, let us all know that we were headed “Out of the rut and into the groove”. The set continued with standard “Snake Farm” which turned into the first of several sing-alongs of the night and featured a very nice solo by Lucas. Hayes Carll collaboration, “Drunken Poet’s Dream” followed, accompanied by a very Ray Wylie comment about getting more attention by “burning down the barn than by taking out the trash”. It is clear that this show will be more often punctuated by side comments than the average RWH show and that is a welcome distraction here in Texas.
Ray displayed some awesome finger picking on “Down Home Country Blues” and put his slide to work on “Name Dropping” and “Mississippi Flush”. He sang “Mother Blues” which is his story about being a young man and achieving his goals of having a stripper girlfriend and a gold top Les Paul. Hubbard’s harmonica blazed on “Charlie Musselwhite’s Blues” and he took the high road on the spiritual “Stone Blind Horses”.
The subject moved to ’68 Camaros amidst heavy blues chords on “Cooler than Hell”, followed by “Dust of the Chase”. “Dust of the Chase” is about a gambler with a pistol in his boot and was the favorite of some veterans in Afghanistan that played it before every patrol. The last line of that song goes “So when the time’s at hand and I kill a man, I say a little prayer”.
We could feel the end of the show approaching when the band broke into the rousing sing along, “Screw You We’re From Texas” followed by a seemingly reluctant performance of “Redneck Mother”. RWH commented on the audience’s performance on the sing along, suggesting that we all invest in pitch pipes and metronomes.
Ray’s (and Lucas’s) most enthusiastic fan, Judy Hubbard sat in the front row sporting a fringed suede jacket. After all of these years Judy still mouths the words with Ray and follows his every chord.
The set came to a rocking close with a rocking medley that started off with “Wanna Rock and Roll”, into “John the Revelator”, through “Barefoot in Heaven” and back into “Wanna Rock and Roll”. Even from our spot, thirty feet from the stage, I could see that Lucas’ thumb was bright red from playing that “thumb over the neck” bass line. I was surprised when Ray Wylie and crew took the stage to play James McMutrey’s “Choctaw Bingo”. RWH seemed ready to play all night and, at seventy, for years to come.
Let me toss in a little plug for Ray Wylie Hubbard’s autobiography “A Life…Well, Lived”. The book is formatted a little differently than most in that it alternates chronologically ordered life events with song lyrics and old road stories. It covers the evening that inspired “Redneck Mother” (Yes, there really was a mother and a bumper sticker). There are stories about other musicians, like Willie Nelson, BW Stevenson, Tony Joe White and Stevie Ray Vaughn (who inspired RWH to seek sobriety).
It is the story of a musician that halfway through life chose to take control of a directionless existence playing in a Dallas bar between lingerie shows to being a major contributor to the Texas Americana scene. Hubbard’s down home since of humor and his genuine love of life make this book a joy to read.