“One Night in May” is the second installment in a new Austin360 monthly series in which we visit at least a half-dozen local music hot spots in one night. Though our city has come to be known for festivals, its “Live Music Capital of the World” reputation stems from what happens night-in and night-out in more than 100 venues all across the city.
Last month, we traveled a little farther and wider on a Wednesday night and sprinkled a handful of touring acts among high-quality local mainstays. This time out, we stuck mostly with hometown talent closer to the city center on a Thursday, working in a couple of popular seasonal music series along the way.
5 p.m.: John Evans at Waterloo Records. Combining sharp-edged pop-rock, laid-back country and bluesy grooves, Evans celebrated the release of his new album “Polyester” with a three-piece backing band. These Waterloo in-stores, which tend to happen at least once a week — next week there are four — are one of the iconic Austin record shop’s many treasures, with great sound and sight lines and often free beer courtesy of sponsoring local breweries.
“I was told not to play the whole album,” Evans reminded himself a few songs in, explaining that part of the deal for such in-stores is to whet folks’ appetite so they’ll want to hear the rest. One patron happily replied, “I already bought it!” That brought a smile to Evans’ face as he and the band launched into one more tune from the record.
6:15 p.m.: The Trip Trio with Lissa Hattersley at the Elephant Room. Happy-hour shows at the Elephant are one of downtown Austin’s most dependable early-evening music options, with cool and easy jazz sounds that make for an ideal after-work wind-down. Often folks stop by just for a brief drink and a few tunes; the band rolls on whether the crowd is heavy or light, bringing life to the basement room beneath Swift’s Attic restaurant.
The Trip Trio consists of guitarist Mike Barnes, bassist Brad Taylor and drummer James Fenner. In support of Hattersley, a longtime presence on the Austin scene perhaps best known as the singer for Greezy Wheels, they were on-point whether the songs were sweetly swinging ballads such as “You Want Happy” or reggae-tinged socio-political tunes like “Rumble at the Corner of Church and State.” Admission’s free, but the band slipped in a sly reminder: “Women’s restroom to your left, men’s to your right, tip jar in the middle.”
7:10 p.m.: Slaid Cleaves at All Saints’ Episcopal Church. On the north edge of the University of Texas campus, around 250 guests filled the pews of this stately stone chapel for the finale of the 2015-2016 “Unplugged on the Front Porch” series. As the name suggests, these are acoustic presentations, but they feature a commendable variety of artists: Among those who appeared this season were country-swing great Ray Benson, indie psych-folkie Israel Nash and roots troubadour Sam Baker.
“Yeah, I know, honky-tonk songs in a church,” Cleaves sheepishly owned up after opening with tunes that referenced drinking in Austin haunts the Horseshoe Lounge and the Carousel. But the crowd loved all of it, from those old favorites to some brand-new songs Cleaves said he’d just begun recording this week for a new album. Accompanied on fiddle and mandolin by Chojo Jacques, he offered a sneak peek at a working-class tune called “Take Home Pay” written with his longtime friend and collaborator Rod Picott, and fulfilled an audience request for “Whim of Iron” from his 2013 album “Still Fighting the War.”
Cleaves also gave a shoutout to longtime local DJ Jody Denberg, who was spinning tunes at KUTX just a block away while the show was going on, when he introduced the crowd favorite “Broke Down” by thanking Denberg for championing the song years ago during his past tenure at KGSR. “My career rocketed from total obscurity to relative obscurity” with the airplay, Cleaves quipped, before sincerely thanking the crowd for filling the room: “It really means a lot.”
8:10 p.m.: Charlie Mars at Shady Grove. Speaking of KGSR, the station’s popular “Unplugged at the Grove” series is now in its 23rd season. Mars was the one name on our “One Night in May” itinerary who’s not local, but the Mississippi singer-songwriter has deep ties to Austin, visiting often and making many of his records here. Like Cleaves, he just started working on a new one at a local studio, and he brought up ace local guitarist David Grissom to accompany him after a couple of solo songs.
Mars opened the show by paying homage to the late Guy Clark, with an introduction that spoke to how many of Texas’ finest songwriters helped to inspire him when he was attending college in Dallas many years ago. He saluted them in his first number, an original written with Bonnie Bishop titled “Only in a Country Song,” before bringing Grissom aboard to the delight of the packed Grove patio crowd.
9:15 p.m.: Monte Warden & the Dangerous Few at the Continental Gallery. The sadness of Clark’s death reverberated across town this week, and Warden, who counted Clark among his many songwriting partners over the years, dedicated this set to him. While Warden’s work both solo and with the Wagoneers has leaned heavily toward country, he’s taking a very different turn in the Dangerous Few, playing more toward a classic lounge-crooner vibe.
It’s engaging stuff that’s a perfect fit for the dark and cozy confines of the Gallery, the upstairs cousin to the street-level Continental Club that’s the spiritual anchor of South Congress. Warden has long ties to Dangerous Few rhythm section Mas Palermo and Craig Pettigrew, but the inclusion of trumpeter Eric Telford and pianist T. Jarrod Bonta creates a sound that wraps warmly around the singer’s rich tenor vocal delivery. Afterward, Warden revealed that this was just the band’s sixth gig; as such, it felt like getting in on the ground floor of something that might turn out to be quite special.
10:30 p.m.: Jai Malano at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul. Also run by Continental Club/Gallery owner Steve Wertheimer, C-Boy’s has in two years become a beautiful bookend to the SoCo strip of keep-Austin-creative culture. Like the Gallery, it’s dark, though the dominant color-wheel feel is red rather than blue, a clue that the music tends toward a hotter and comparatively louder streak.
Malano (whose first name is pronounced the same as Jay, despite the unusual spelling) is one of Austin’s most compelling singers, and she’s often heard in other local showcase spots such as Antone’s and Geraldine’s. Backed by a four-piece band including a ringer of a guitarist in Eve Monsees, Malano belted out energetic R&B numbers that, like peers such as Leon Bridges — who had his own big show across town at Stubb’s on this night — put a contemporary twist on a tried-and-true style.
Join us again next month for “One Night in June” — date to be determined. In the meantime, I’ll be on the air to talk about the series and more with Sun Radio’s Kevin Connor between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, May 21.
One Night, By the Numbers: 13.4 miles driven. $2.25 spent on street parking. Total of 1.5 miles walked. Admission charges: Waterloo and Shady Grove, no cover; Elephant Room, no cover (tips accepted); Continental Gallery and C-Boy’s, $5 cover (additional tips accepted); All Saints’ Episcopal Church, $20 requested, but smaller donations accepted, and no one turned away for inability to pay.