Friday, December 27, 2013

The Gourds take a Hiatus

The Gourds, Lola's Fort Worth, February 2012

Last night, I finally heard the news--I'm a bit behind; it only took me a couple months--that the Austin-based band The Gourds were taking a break from performing and recording together. The band called it a "Hiatus."

This wrecked my night. The Gourds, to me, were one of only a few local bands (I use local to mean Texas-based or Texas-based at one time) that truly mean something in my world.  I've seen them probably a dozen, fifteen times since I first watched them tear up Stubb's in Austin on New Years Eve, 1999. The only other band that comes close would be Old 97s.

Kevin Russell

The Gourds apparently haven't given an official reason for cooling it. They've been a band since the mid-1990s and their current lineup has been intact since 1999. They've attained cult status in Austin, and can tour as much as they want, making yearly swings across the country as well as a fairly intensive Houston-Austin-DFW touring schedule. They've got a big following in The Netherlands. The band's co-leaders, Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith, are talented song writers of wildly different styles--but that melding of influences, the different lyrical and musical presentations. . .well, that's what makes the Gourds what they are.

Jimmy Smith

And what are they? I get that question a lot from friends I talk the band up to. . but I really don't have a definitive answer. Take a little Lynrd Skinner. Add some Staple Family. Toss in some swampy Zydeco, Snoop Dog, a bit of Waylon Jennings. A lot of folks define them by their unintentional viral hit, a cover of the rap standard "Gin n'Juice." But they're more than that, of course. Hell--I'm leaving out a couple dozen influences here. There is no one "way" to define the Gourds: they just are. It's Gourds music. You either get it or you don't.

Claude Bernard

And I like to think I "get it." And if I don't, I've certainly wasted far too many days and nights trying to. I've seen 'em a ton of places, and their shows have been woven into the narrative of my life: a cold night in Denton in December 2000, where my 8-month pregnant wife Mary braved thick cigarette smoke to see them for the first time; on a downtown stage on a windy spring night in Fort Worth as I cradled my three-month-old son; a blistering hot summer evening in a park in Sherman where the kids threw a crying tantrum when we had to leave early for me to get home for work; sharing a stage six-times the size they're used to playing on with a couple Chevy pickup trucks, playing to but a dozen die-hards on a mid-day afternoon at the Texas State Fair. Somehow, improbably, they took a gig playing the tiny stage in front of Central Market in Fort Worth. I doubt you'd ever see THAT again!

Keith Langford

I guess if you haven't caught them live by now, well, you might not be able to. Listening to their 12 studio records will only take you so far. To experience the Gourds, you had to see them live. You had to see Kevin's unashamed big-white-guy dance gyrations, and Jimmy's frenetic, possessed vocals and the way he laid waste to that electric bass--it's not clear what drove the rhythm more: that amazing bass or Keith Langford on the drum kit. Claude Bernard handled the keyboards and maracas, squeezebox and accordion, tossing out one liners and nonsequiters between songs. In the corner, stage left, the shy multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston would be coaxed a few times a show to lead the vocals on his original compositions, but mostly he stayed back, playing the lap steel, the fiddle, mandolin or banjo.

That the Gourds didn't perform with a single unified voice was one of their great charms--and possibly what ultimately drove the decision to take a break.  Jimmy's songs were greatly influenced by thick funky riffs, his lyrics akin to a beat poet's use of words as music even at the expense of a storytelling narrative. How often is a writer able to slip in "pythagorean theorem" to a song?but the word just fit.  A line by itself might seem jibberish; as a whole, it made. . .sense. Sorta. To wit, "Bean Bowl:"

"Flyin' moth took what it could
Yer half naked
Moth did good
A rabbit jumps it
A sheep makes it
Horse hockey
Piggly wiggly
Go cat go
And I want you to
Crawl out of my bean bowl baby
Little bit after midnight"

Kevin's compositions are more lyrical, romantic, touching: "Promenade" from Noble Creatures brings a tear to my eyes:

"I traded yer sweetness for my loneliness
Yer confidence for my own regrets
Yer simple grace for this disarray
That’s my stock and trade while you promenade"

These are creative artists, and two in one band guaranteed there'd be only so much room for both to fully explore their songwriting.  Both Russell and Smith will continue with their side projects, "Shinyribs" and "Hard Pans," respectively, as a way to more fully answer their muse.

 Max Johnston

The news of the hiatus comes only a few months after the release of the documentary film about the band,  "All The Labors,"  chronicling their shows in small taverns and theaters--and life on the road, of course. But it also touches, in a bittersweet way, about what it means to be a musician in your 40s, with family responsibilities and homes and kids and a wife you really don't want to leave for weeks at a time. And with that comes the same reflection on an impending mortality we all have at that age: are we happy doing what we're doing? Is this our lot in life? Are we as "successful" and "hard working" as we could be? And how do we define "success" and "hard work?"  The life of a musician at age 20 is a lot different than it is when you hit 45. They talked about bumping up against success time and time again, and not breaking through. They changed labels, hobnobbed with recording execs--but where has been the payoff for all that hard work? Not to be materialistic about it, but where's the nice house, the financial security, and college money for the kids? A thousand miles between gigs in a van and changing a flat tire on the side of the freeway gets old. The frustration, even if you don't define your success by record sales or The Billboard Hot 100, must be tremendous. In retrospect, you could see that October announcement coming.

Claude Bernard again

So, I'll make it a point to catch "Shinyribs" and "The Hard Pans" when they come through my town, and who knows, maybe each of these side projects will reproduce the deep well of devotion among the few who "get it." But it'll take a lot to equal the fun, the joy, the pure happiness I felt each time I emerged from a Gourds show.

Every time, it felt like all was right with the world.

And you can't give a band higher praise than that, can you?

The blogger and Kevin Russell:one of my musical heroes.

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