If someone asked you to prove the breadth and depth of talent in Austin’s music community, Wednesday night’s All ATX concert at ACL Live would be a pretty good Exhibit A.
Titled “All Along the Moontower: Austin Gets Psychedelic,” the show, which benefited Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and the future All ATX Music Factory, featured a baker’s dozen of local acts performing in remarkably swift succession. From the opening blast of Bubble Puppy’s late-’60s psych hit “Hot Smoke and Sassafras” to the not-really-psychedelic but quite beautiful acoustic rendition of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” by Ian Moore, Jane Ellen Bryant and Max Frost, this was an auspicious evening of Austin musicians putting fresh spins on a wide range of classics drawn mostly from rock’s flower-power era.
It’s not easy to shepherd 13 acts on and off the stage without the pace dragging, but the crew from ACL Live and All ATX, a local musicians’ advocacy organization, kept things running so smoothly that more than two hours passed with little obvious down time. Between-song banter from KUTX’s Jody Denberg helped, as did a few video montages that set the scene of ’60s culture. But the biggest boost came from the Austin musicians themselves, who consistently delivered performances well worth hearing.
In the interest of expediency, most acts performed just one song — from Water & Rust’s “To Love Somebody” (Bee Gees) to Gina Chavez & Jon Sanchez’s “Nights in White Satin” (Moody Blues”) to Hayes Carll’s brilliant banjo-driven take on “Whiter Shade of Pale” (Procol Harum). Israel Nash, playing early, and Max Frost, near the end, each added an original song to their cover (the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” respectively), and in both cases, the fresh material was engaging and well-received.
An early highlight came when Bright Light Social Hour followed its rendition of the Beach Boys’ “All I Wanna Do” by inviting Ray Wylie Hubbard out for a raucous version of Hubbard’s anthemic “Screw You, We’re From Texas.” In the spoken-word rambling verses, Hubbard tied the tune to the evening’s theme: “The first psychedelic band in the world was the 13th Floor Elevators!”
Indeed, Roky Erickson and his crew were the towering local psych band conspicuously absent form the lineup, though All ATX organizers said they’d tried to make that happen. The audience did, however, get a thoroughly enchanting performance of an Elevators song — complete with electric jug — from the Black Angels, who also covered Status Quo’s 1967 hidden gem “Pictures of Matchstick Men” and essentially capped the Austin-centric segment of the night with a perfect blast of utterly masterful psychedelia.
Backing many of the acts across the evening — from prodigal son Ian Moore to Sister 7’s Patrice Pike to guitar great David Grissom with singer Mike Cross — was a first-class house band led by musical director Dave Sebree on guitar with bassist Roscoe Beck, drummer Les Fisher and keyboardist Stefano Intelisano. When they were joined for a hot take on Sly Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher” by soulful singer Malford Milligan, it marked the live debut of the new quintet Big Cat, who’ll play their first set of original material for fans on Saturday at Threadgill’s South.
The evening might have ended just fine with that gorgeous Moore/Bryant/Frost CSN cover, or perhaps with an extended set of original material from the Black Angels. Instead, the closing honors went to visiting headliner Todd Rundgren, whose performance ultimately felt out-of-step with the evening.
Rundgren’s heart was in the right place — “It’s a special night in a special town, and I’m so proud to be a part of it,” he said — but his performances mostly fell flat, whether due to technical difficulties he bemoaned early on or his own melodramatic vocal antics. His classic “Hello It’s Me,” set to a rhythm markedly different from the radio hit, was a disappointment, and one that he seemed to include only out of obligation. (“There’s not a single psychedelic thing about this next song,” he confessed in introducing it.)
But another Rundgren staple, “Love Is the Answer,” did serve as a fitting all-hands-on-deck finale just past the three-hour mark. First recorded in 1977 by his band Utopia — some of whose members flew in specifically to back Rundgren for this show — the song didn’t become a smash hit until England Dan & John Ford Coley recorded it in 1979. On this night, with all of the All ATX cast joining in, it rang true, reclaiming the heart and spirit of this third annual event. As Denberg said of his role as the show’s emcee: “I hope to do this for another 30 years.”