Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise

Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise mixed elements of soul, R&B, and in-your-face rock to thrill a thick swarm of hippies, preppies, cowboys and students at Stubb’s on Friday. Bradley’s fine-tuned band blended seamlessly with the lead singer’s warm, raspy vocals.

Drawing mostly from their latest release, New Ground, Bradley and Co. offered a tight set that kicked off with the rollicking number about a lost love, “Train” and concluded with the somber “Born in America.” The latter is a tune Bradley penned during the Iran Hostage crisis, but in the wake of Sept. 11, it couldn’t have been more inspiring for the visibly moved crowd.

Bradley is an Alabama-born blind man pushing 50, who, following the split from his wife in the 1970s, he spent 18 years as a traveling street performer. Despite his recent involvement on major record labels (first RCA, now Vanguard), Bradley finds little difference in the two phases of his musical career.

“The only difference is you can’t leave when you want to,” said Bradley while relaxing backstage. “Really it’s the same thing. It’s entertaining people.”

The Flatlanders

The legend of The Flatlanders (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock) began in 1972 when the three artists from Lubbock, Texas, recorded a stunning debut album that blended old-time acoustic country with contemporary, Zen cowboy lyrics. Much like the 1990s alt-country rockers Uncle Tupelo, The Flatlanders didn’t gain legendary status until the three went their separate ways.

In 1998, the trio reunited to contribute a song to The Horse Whisperer soundtrack. The experience prompted them to begin touring together, including a performance on Late Night with David Letterman. With a new album scheduled for release on New West records in May, The Flatlanders’s show Saturday night in Austin was one of the most highly anticipated of the SXSW festival. At midnight, as they were about to take the stage, there was a line two blocks long outside waiting in vain to gain admission to the show.

After a sonic boom of applause, the band positioned themselves on stage. Ely, the outfits more rock-oriented member who once toured with The Clash, stood at the left mike stand. On the right was Hancock, the group’s most accomplished tunesmith. At the center mike stood distinctive, fine-whine vocalist Gilmore. Each performer gazed into the sea of hundreds stuffed into the small room before beginning to strum their acoustic guitars. An electric guitarist, bassist and drummer augmented the singer/songwriters from behind as they broke into a rollicking cut off their upcoming album. The next three songs were all new as well, each one as striking as anything the three have done in the last 20 years and performed with enough wattage to power half of Texas. Smiling, Ely enthused that they had just finished their new album two hours ago and that the evening would be a celebration. After a cacophony of elated shout and hand claps, Gilmore added, “Now we got a bunch of new (songs) but now we’re gonna do an older one.”

The “one” in question was the Hancock penned classic “One Road More,” which originally appeared on the trio’s 1972 debut. They followed with two more new gems that ranged in theme from the apocalypse to an unrequited love song. Upon Ely stating his disbelief – “it just didn’t seem right” – of playing on the Letterman show, they offered a sublime version of “Southwind of Summer,” which first appeared on The Horse Whisperer soundtrack and spawned the reunion.

“Here’s a song by another flatlander,” announced Gilmore prior to the band ripping through Terry Allen’s “Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy” – a hilarious tale of a highway driver picking up a strange hitchhiker named Jesus Christ who shares a beer with the man before stealing his vehicle.

The three legends concluded with a smoking take on “Dallas” – the Gilmore original that appeared on The Flatlanders’ first album and has been a standard at all their separate live shows for the last 30 years. Three weathered legends approaching middle age, grinning like youths, having a blast on stage while playing majestically in front of hundreds of beaming faces … looking around, it was quite apparent that it was truly a special night for everyone in that smoke-filled Texas room.

Norah Jones

Norah Jones is currently one of the most hyped artists in the music industry. She possesses a rich, intoxicating voice, is an accomplished pianist and a strong songwriter who has just begun to hone her craft. With her dark, wavy locks and piercing brown eyes, the 22-year-old Dallas native is also extremely attractive.

The TIME magazine article running this week announced to the world that Jones’ father is sitar master Ravi Shankar. Jones is not secretive about the fact but would rather not talk about it. She is very close to her mother, Sue, who raised her and was in attendance at the show she played last Thursday at the Clay Pit in Austin.

The buzz surrounding Jones permeated the city the entire week of South by South West (SXSW). Jones’s performance caused chairs to be removed in order to accommodate the capacity crowd that included press from around the country, and Europe, as well as the festival’s key-note speaker, Robbie Robertson (original member of The Band).

Prior to the Feb. 26 release of Jones’ long play debut, Come Away With Me, the young lady who just a year ago was waiting tables in New York City, had already been named an artist to watch in 2002 by Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. The day after the record hit stores, Jones performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

“No, it wasn’t so bad, (Leno) was really nice,” said Jones when asked if she was nervous before performing on national television. Jones’ innocent nature is endearing; she smiles often as she speaks.

“I can’t give a quote because I’m just gonna say something dumb,” said the rising star when first confronted with the tape recorder.

Despite her shyness, when on stage Jones rises to the occasion with the confidence of a veteran diva.

“Pressure is strange, I don’t like people calling me (the big hype) …. but it’s okay,” said Jones as she flashed a warm, school-girl smile. “It makes me happy, but it also makes me say ‘Whoa, I hope we live up to it.'”

Jones’ breathtaking set included songs from her debut album that range from a chilling reading of the Hank Williams classic “Cold, Cold Heart,” to the enticing invitation “Come Away With Me,” a stirring valentine which Jones penned herself. On each song, Jones’s band, bassist Lee Alexander and guitarist Adam Levy, complemented her piano playing and lush vocals perfectly with a steamy fusion of blues, jazz and folk stylings. On the Jesse Harris composition, “I’ve Got to See You Again,” Levy prompted a long wave of applause with a striking solo. Along with providing the rhythm, bassist Alexander is also a songwriter of note himself.

Jones’ performance of his song, “Lonestar” was another in a long line of remarkable numbers included in the set. Jones concluded the evening with a stirring version of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” – a gem that is not included on her album. Jones said that she and the boys from the band also have some Ray Charles and Willie Nelson songs not on the album that they enjoy to perform live as well.

Jones’ bandmates, who are as warm and friendly as Jones, insist that the girl they met in New York waiting tables is unaffected by the recent buzz and her new, hectic schedule.

“Yeah, it has been real busy, but busy is a good thing, busy is fun,” said Jones.

With enough talent to put half the artists on the Billboard Hot 100 to shame, and enough charm to make a strong man swoon, it appears Jones has a long career ahead of her.

“I don’t want to stay this busy for a long time, but for awhile,” said Jones, “and then maybe we’ll settle down a little.”

Wayne “The Train” Hancock

Wayne Hancock and his stellar four piece band entertained folks behind the Texas Café in the late afternoon with a jumping set of country that sounded as if it were emanating straight from a smoky1950s Lonestar State roadhouse. Hancock moaned his way through cuts off his latest release A-Town Blues such as the title track and the amusing public announcement “Miller, Jack and Maddog.” Hancock also performed a yodel-intensive cover of the Jimmie Rodgers’ classic “California Blues.” Hancock was at his finest on “Thunderstorms and Neon Signs” – a lonesome road song he wrote for his mid-’90s debut album that Hank Williams III recorded in 1999. A devout neo-traditionalist, Hancock is a spirited, no-nonsense, no-frills performer who plays with passion and conviction.

Django and Jerry Jeff Walker

Django Walker is quickly establishing himself as one of the hottest singer/songwriters on the talent-intensive Texas music scene. In 2001, his song “Texas On My Mind” was recorded by his legendary father, Jerry Jeff Walker and also by Pat Green, who made it a huge hit on the Texas Music chart. On March 13 Django took the stage at Stubb’s and performed mostly originals from his upcoming debut album, Down the Road, which is due out in April. Following a revved-up version of Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway,” a song Django’s father first popularized, the elder Walker emerged from the audience and joined his son for a show-stopping version of “Texas on My Mind.”

“(I told Django) If I could stay up this late, I would make it out … usually I don’t stay up this late for free,” said Jerry Jeff with a grin. “I’m very proud of him.”

Kelly Hogan

Kelly Hogan wrapped her warm vocals around songs from her last two albums Thursday at The Austin Convention Center. The highlight of the set was “No, Bobby Don’t” – a song the Atlanta native co-wrote for her stellar 2001 collection Because It Feel Good. Primarily regarded as an interpreter, Hogan’s latest release proves her songwriting skills to be on par with her impeccable taste in the work of others.

“(The songs) are in there, they’re rattling around,” said Hogan after the show. “I always say I have shrinking songwriter penis – I’m chicken. I’ll try (to do more originals).”

Junior Brown

Once Austin’s best kept secret, Junior Brown now plays sold-out venues everywhere from New York City to Europe and has opened for artists ranging from Dave Matthews to Dwight Yoakam. After watching one of his inspired live performances it is no wonder why he appeals to fans of both rock and country on both sides of the Atlantic. In concert, the man is truly amazing.

Standing at center stage behind his trademark “Big Red,” or ” guit-steel” – an electric/steel guitar he invented in 1985 – Brown wowed the crowd at Stubb’s with his unique amalgam of honky-tonk two-steppin’ numbers and guitar-god solos.

The highlight of the evening was a 10-minute-plus epic melody that went from Aaron Copeland and Ennio Morricone instrumentals to Hendrix cuts that included vocals. Watching Brown perform is a pleasure – every note is reflected in his facial expression as he unmercifully bends the strings to create a searing blend of guit-steel magic.