Thursday, December 31, 2009

Concert Odyssey Day Three: Slobberbone at the Granada Theater

The first time I saw Slobberbone was on a lark.  On the way back from my quail lease outside Seymour, Texas, I stopped at Dan's Silverleaf in Denton.  It was on the way home (sorta) and I was thirsty, and had always heard stories about the place.  I figured no one would care that I was still wearing my brush britches and bird hunting shirt.

A beer or two later, Slobberbone hit the stage, and tore into a frantic version of Placemat Blues.  It whipped the crowd (including me) into a frenzy, so I moved up closer to the stage.  A couple songs later, they stopped for the obligatory banter with the audience.  Lead singer Brent Best looked me up and down, and asked, "what the hell are you wearing, assless chaps?"

I left that show early.

Last night, I had the chance to see the 'Bone again, reunited after an amicable breakup.  Word has it that they'll cut a new album in the coming months, and from what I heard, this alt-country darling is still relevant.  They blew through all of their standards, and they sounded every bit as good as they did back at Dan's, albeit a bit more grown up.

It was a fun show -- a damn fine throwback.  Even so, I was exhausted after three late nights, and wanted to save some juice for New Year's Eve.  So I left early -- and I wasn't even wearing assless chaps.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Concert Odyssey Day Two: Joe Ely at the Granada Theater

The lights dimmed, the curtain came up, and there he was, smiling from ear to ear.  "Hello, folks.  I'm Joe Ely.  We're really excited to be playing for you tonight."  It was a bit odd, I thought, since we were the ones who should be happy to see the man.

But then they started playing, and for the next two-plus hours, I understood why he was so excited.

Accompanying Ely on stage were guitar virtuoso David Grissom, rhythm section Davis McLarty and Jimmy Pettit, and legendary saxophonist Bobby Keys.  Don't know Bobby Keys?  Yes you do.  If you've ever listened to the Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar, then you know his stock and trade well.  Keys is a man who's sat in with virtually everyone in rock and roll, and on this night, we were fortunate to be along for the ride.

Keys and Grissom traded chops on classics like Cool Rockin' Loretta, Lord of the Highway, The Road Goes on Forever, All Just To Get To You, Oh Boy, Not Fade Away, and Dallas (of course).  But the show stealer was the band's gorgeous rendition of Letter to L.A., which was at once soothing and poignant.

Thankfully, the crowd of 50- and 60-somethings eventually got into the swing of it, politely swaying to the music, and even moving up to the front.  It seemed a bit of an older crowd to us, but then again, Joe Ely is no spring chicken, either (nor am I, alas).  But on this evening, this panhandle prince and his band played like testosterone-fueled 20-year-olds with nothing to prove.  They made it look easy -- effortless even.

That cheshire cat smile on Ely's face stayed there the entire night -- it was obvious the guy was enjoying himself.  And by the end of the evening, shit-eating grins had spread to everyone in the theater.  And I've still got mine today.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Concert Odyssey Day One: Old 97s at Sons of Hermann Hall

There are few things that I love more than live music, and there's no better place to see it than in Texas, where we're spending some time over the Christmas break.  As luck would have it, the stars really aligned, and I'm seeing four shows in as many days.

Last night brought the Old 97s at the storied Sons of Hermann Hall.  Dallas' native sons are in town for four nights, and we caught them on night two.  They were in classic form -- they still have the chops that they had when we last saw them, probably a dozen years ago.  We were a bit surprised that they didn't play more of their "hits," but I guess that when you play four nights, they're entitled to play whatever they damn well want to play.  The setlist wasn't without highlights -- including Murder or a Heart Attack, Nineteen, Time Bomb, and Big Brown Eyes.

It was a late but fun way to kick off the week.  Now I'm headed to Snuffer's for the hangover elixir that is a greasy cheeseburger and cheese fries.  More later.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Gumbo: A Primer

It's become tradition at Casa Scampwalker to brew up a gumbo for Christmas Day.  And why not?  The cajun/creole stew is a rich and flavorful concoction, yet low on the pretense meter -- something that fits the way we celebrate Christmas (in our jammies, enjoying one another's company).

I didn't have my first gumbo until visiting New Orleans many years ago in college, but the dish stuck with me (literally and gastronomically).  From the proletariat version served at Mother's to the decadent Commander's Palace version, I was hooked.

It took me awhile to perfect my own version at home (I'm a flatlander, not a coonass), but I think I've got it down.  I won't give you the precise recipe (what fun is that?) but there are a few things I've learned over the years that turn a good gumbo into a great one.

Stock.  Cans of broth will do the trick, but a homemade stock is SO much better.  And it's not hard to do.  I strip the carcass of my smoked Thanksgiving and simmer it down with celery, carrots, onion, and garlic with bouquet garni for several hours.  The result is a thick and complex base to gumbo or soup of any sort.  Freeze it and use it at any time.

Roux.  It's the base of any classic French cuisine, and although it's two simple ingredients (flour and an oil of some type), it's deceptively difficult to do one right.  For my gumbo, I do two parts flour and one part canola oil, although I've also been known to substitute a little bacon grease for canola.  I call mine the Two Beer Roux, because it takes me two beers to turn it from white to a deep chocolate color.  Don't use too much heat, or you'll burn it and have a mess on your hands.  There's no set time, although 30 minutes more or less does the trick.  Another word of advice: have everything else prepared ahead of time, because you won't have time to chop anything once your roux is ready.

Meat.  You can put any combination of critter into a gumbo, and it's especially good for those particularly dark, strong-tasting birds like woodcock.  You can also salvage the more shot-up birds, since you're dicing everything up.  For this year's gumbo, I combined duck, woodcock, dove (which I mistakenly thought were more ducks), sausage, and a few frozen shrimp left over in the freezer.

We always make plenty more than we can eat at Christmas, but it freezes well and the flavors meld even better over time.  It's the Christmas gift that keeps on giving!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Obligatory Best Music of 2009 List

I grapple a lot with so-called "top ten lists."  For me, they're usually a self-indulgent snapshot of a moment in time, and I'm never entirely comfortable with judging artists of any stripe anyhow.  But what the hell -- everyone else is doing it, right?  Here's my top ten list of 2009 -- listed in no particular order.

Plain and simple, Levon makes me happy.  You can't listen to this guy without wanting to shake it just a little bit.  Very few musicians have managed to remain as timely and as talented as this guy over the span of nearly half a century.  The guy's managed to score two Grammies, too (but don't hold that against him).

Band of Heathens - One Foot in the Ether
To me, these guys are the heir apparent to Levon Helm's old group, The Band.  They're an ensemble group of skilled musicians whose talented playing is matched only by their incisive songwriting.  I've yet to see these cats live, but they're at the top of my list.

Miranda Lambert - Revolution
Ok, let's get it out of the way upfront.  She's terribly hot and more than a little dangerous looking.  But if she's got the musical chops to back it up, then so much the better.  Despite getting her foot in the door through some insipid reality TV show, and in spite of living deep behind enemy lines in Na$hville, she puts out smart music.  And the girl isn't afraid to rock, either.  Her interpretation of John Prine's That's the Way that the World Goes 'Round stuns me every time I hear it.

Charlie Robison - Beautiful Day
This effort sticks with me, since writing about it some months back.  It feels deeply personal, yet almost anyone can relate to what he's communicating.  Beauty, forged through agony.

Patterson Hood - Murdering Oscar
The DBT frontman cut this album during the time that his daughter Ava was born, and to me, his songs showa lot of emotional maturity -- as well as frustration -- that fatherhood tends to invoke.  It's also the first album that he cuts a few tracks with his dad, including my personal favorite, I Understand Now, a nice admission that maybe dad's advice wasn't all bad.

The Bottle Rockets - Lean Forward
I've said it once and I'll say it again: the boys from Festus, Missouri don't get the credit that they're due.  You mean a consortium of 30 top alt-country/americana blogs doesn't even mention them on their best-of Bird List?  Shame on them!  To call them America's Best Bar Band is doing them a disservice.  These guys can do it all, and they show it once again on Lean Forward.

Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses - Roadhouse Sun
Another disc that only gets better with time.  This kid has a bright, bright future.  Bingham's also really got me looking forward to watching "Crazy Heart" on the big screen -- for which he penned the theme song, The Weary Kind.  Could we be looking at a Kris Kristofferson starter kit here??

Uncle Lucius - Pick Your Head Up
I've only been listening to Uncle Lucius for a couple of weeks, but this Austin quartet feels like the heir apparent to the Black Crowes.  Straightforward rock, liberally seasoned with blues and soul.  Whiskey-stained vocals, a horns section, and moog organs... what's not to like?

Cross Canadian Ragweed - Happiness and All the Other Things
Seriously, am I the only one to put this on a list?  And what does that mean?  It either means it's not that great of an album, or that the alt-twang politburo has decided they're no longer a part of the club.  It's not their greatest effort by any stretch, but with songs like 51 Pieces, To Find My Love, and Pretty Lady, it's far from a clunker.

Todd Snider - The Excitement Plan
By his own admission, Snider sings that, "I'm broke as the Ten Commandments, and sometimes I'm harder to follow," and I'd have to agree.  The guy is brilliant, but sometimes, for some reason, I find him hard to listen to.  Maybe it's because there's complexity in nearly everything he writes.  This one is vintage Snider, with thoughtful, yet quirky lyrics.  Who else could pull off putting a song about uh, recycling ("Doll Face") on the same album as "America's Favorite Pastime," a song about the no-hitter pitched by Doc Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1970 while he was on acid?

So that's my year in review.  And I'll be honest, it was a lot more difficult to put together a top ten list than I had anticipated. 

Artist to watch in 2010: Pinto Bennett.  That's because Reckless Kelly is working up a tribute to this famous Motel Cowboy.  It's not easy to find his stuff, but it's worth the effort.  I can't wait to see how RK interprets one of their godfathers.  It's going to be a great 2010, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Of Purple Fenceposts and Passing Lanes

When you leave the familiar
And cross the line to everywhere else
Your soul leaps to a higher plane and gives your body
A free ride without so much as a ticket or a hand stamp
-Joe Ely, Bonfire of Roadmaps

Half of the fun of being an itinerant bird hunter is in the getting there -- seeing the places, meeting the people, and sampling the ways of the locals.  In fact, for me at least, it's a sure-fire antidote from the homogenous Wal-Mart culture of 21st-Century America.

Purple fenceposts, for example.  I don't remember when I saw my first one, but it was shortly after moving to Kansas after stints in Texas, Georgia, and Nebraska -- and never once do I recall seeing one prior to that day.  I assumed -- and I've since learned that I'm not the only one -- that a purple fencepost indicated allegiance to the Kansas State University Wildcats, whose color is the somewhat off-putting purple.

Somewhere along the way, I came to learn that these purple splashes mean "No Trespassing."  Kind of a unique way to express sovereignty -- and much easier to erect than a barbed wire fence and harder to remove than a plastic sign.  I was surprised though that growing up just one state to the north, I had never heard of such a practice.  The always-reliable internet research indicates that "purple laws" are on the books in Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas -- though I've never actually seen purple postings anywhere but the Sunflower State.

Anyhow, it's one of those customs you'd never learn about by traveling I-70 at 80 miles an hour.

And speaking of roadways, here's another custom that I think ought to be emulated nationwide.  Down in the Lone Star State, Texans driving at highway speeds on a two-lane road readily pull over on the shoulder to let faster-moving vehicles pass (with a friendly wave as thanks, mind you). 

And why the hell not?  The shoulders are wide, smooth, and often extensions of the road themselves.  I've always thought it was courteous and (in most cases) the safest way to keep traffic moving and not stacked up.  No Texan that I've asked can tell me whether or not it's entirely legal, but no one really seems to care.

Two examples of practical necessity, conceived by real people in the real world.  In this day and age, we need more of that, don't we?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Permian Basin Blues: A Photo Essay

Yours truly recently got back from a trip to Midland, Texas -- North America's bastion of dust, petroleum, high school football, and blessedly, scaled (AKA blue) quail.  Here are a few sights from the trip.

This is the third year I've hunted as a guest of Steve Snell.  His lease, a rugged 30-some thousand acres, is within eyesight of downtown Midland. 

My first year hunting with Steve yielded a bumper crop of quail.  We'd simply step out of the truck, and within a couple hundred yards, the dogs would find birds.  That process would repeat itself indefinitely.  This year was a more typical experience.  While we managed our fair share of birds, we had to work for them.  And that typically means covering a ton of ground to flush these little birds that would much rather sprint than set sail.

This year, though, we had a secret weapon. We borrowed a custom-built quail buggy from the ranch boss, and it definitely proved to be the ant's pants.  Fashioned from an ancient VW Bug, the vehicle looked like it would be equally at home in Kandahar or on the set of Mad Max. 

The buggy allowed us to rotate six dogs (three platoons of two each) and really cover some ground, while still keeping the pooches fresh. 
Choosing which dogs to put on the ground was simply a matter of heads...

...or tails.

Our two veteran dogs -- Dottie and Em -- shone brightly, in what we affectionately dubbed the "senior tour."

Don't worry, purists -- there was still plenty of old-fashioned ground pounding once the dogs went on point.  And the buggy allowed us to put up spent dogs at the first sign of fatigue -- keeping them fresh meant we were treated to some fine dog work.

While the dog work was exceptional, our shooting was only passable.  Even so, we managed to knock down a few.  It's easy to see why these critters are named "blues" or "scalies," isn't it?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Running Quail

Tom wheeled around, shouldered his gun, and dropped the singleton hen just as she crossed over the thick native grass and into the fringe of the hayed field behind me.  It was a nice 30-yard shot... but I cracked the action on my gun and hustled to her landing spot, since the little bob didn't look like she would be DOA.

We were hunting singles from the fourth covey we had flushed that morning -- a hell of a tally in two hours on public WIHA in western Kansas.  I had Dottie, my senior pointer on the ground, and Tom was running his young shorthair Sadie.  Dottie has never been much of a dead hunter -- a fault that I might have corrected, but never did -- but she'll often point dead or wounded birds, which is good enough for me.

This bird was proving elusive.  After tossing my hat on the ground to mark the spot, we broadened our search.  At about that time, Dot went on point again, 15 or so yards from the last point we saw the bird.  Bingo.  Or not.  After repeated kicks and sweeps of the thick native grass, we failed to recover the little bobwhite hen.

This process repeated itself a half dozen times over the next fifteen minutes, more or less backtracking over our original trail.  We began assuming that this wasn't our wounded bird, but other singles that we had walked over.  But again, no flushes.  About that time, Tom said that he heard something rustling through the grass (being half-deaf, I had to take his word for it, but I had my doubts).

About one minute and 10 yards later, a wounded hen quail emerged from the thick grass, and Sadie quickly apprehended her.  I marked the spot and measured it from where she went down -- 105 yards away (as the crow flies).  The tracklog above shows my tracks (in yellow) and Dottie's tracks (in red), along with the downed and recovered locations.

That's pretty amazing to me.  Pheasants will run your ass to the next county if they're wounded.  And in the open country of West Texas, I've recovered bobs that were 40-50 yards from where they went down.  And a wounded scalie can be a ticket to a track meet.  But this was a bobwhite quail and this was thick, brushy grass along a creek in western Kansas.  And in virtually any country, it's my experience that quail are more likely to find the nearest thick clump of grass or hole and hunker down.

Either way, it's an amazing testament to that little bird's will to live.  So, question for the group: how uncommon is a 100-yard bobwhite quail find?  Any amazing tales?