Doug and Gaff
Tribute records are only as good as the person being feted. Their success or failure is also directly linked to how much energy the performers put into the project. Most tributes operate via telephone and UPS, meaning everyone uses the telephone to figure out what song they want to cover, and then UPS (or if you’re really sexy and rich, Fedex) delivers the finished tape. Actually, in some really impersonal cases, the music might be sent via email. Gee, ain’t this `ol digital world great?
Anyway, the point here is that most tribute records never include any live recording. None of the participants ever lay eyes on one another. This disconnect makes it very hard for any tribute record, no matter how well intentioned, to hang together and have any cohesion. Most have about one track you really need to hear, and want to hear again, and the rest is half-assed fluff. For some reason though, tribute records are like Christmas records for a lot of musicians. They keep doing them. That’s a psychosis that’s probably best left for another time.
Ten years ago this November, I called old friend Bill Bentley in Los Angeles with the sad news, just broadcast over the Albuquerque TV stations, that Doug Sahm had died in a motel in Taos, New Mexico. Bill and Doug were lifelong friends and so not surprisingly he was thoroughly shocked. Now a decade later, Bentley has been instrumental, along with Doug’s motor mouthed son, Shawn, in putting together Keep Your Soul a tribute to this great figure of American music.
Best known for his days in San Francisco and his rock band, The Sir Douglas Quintet, Sahm was a loveable guy who had the usual edges that come with cranky, eccentric musicians. Last time I saw him alive, he was leaning against a bar at Buffalo Billiards in Austin decked out in a red patent leather jacket with a much younger senorita on his arm. Yeah, we loved him from afar but up close, the man was a little squirrely. Part hippy, part country boy, all Texan, Sahm and his music work in a rootsy, pop vein with “She’s About a Mover,” and “Mendocino,” being his biggest solo hits. Later in life he was also part of the Texas Tornados, but this new tribute record, Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm focuses on his solo career. Sahm also famously appeared on Anodyne, the final Uncle Tupelo record singing a duet with Jay Farrar on “Give Back the Key to My Heart>” Legend has it that he never got paid for the sessions because he wouldn’t give his SSI number to “The Man.”
The record starts off on exactly the right foot with Ry Cooder playing some nice, buzzy guitar chords behind East L.A. legend, Little Willie G. who croons out a convincing version of “She’s About a Mover.” From there on, like most tribute records, it’s up and down. Los Lobos are smooth in “And It Didn’t Even Bring Me Down,” Delbert McClinton is solid in “Texas Me,” and accordionist Flaco Jimenez. Sahm’s old partner in the Tornados is in top form in “Ta Bueno Compadre.” Austin legend and former Dylan sideman Charlie Sexton gets all garagey on, “You’re Doin’ It Too Hard,” and Marcia Ball and a regrouped version of her first band, Frieda and the Firedogs, who Sahm often played with back in the 70’s, nails one of Sahm’s best tunes, “Be Real.”
Another fun part of tribute records is that there’s usually one person or band that comes completely out of left field to give a killer performance and here that person would be onetime frontman of the late great Afghan Whigs, Greg Dulli, who really throws his heart and voice into Doug’s “You Was For Real.”
Overall, congrats to Mr. Bill who helmed the project and should be very proud of the way it came out.
At nearly the same time, former Blaster Dave Alvin produced Man of Somebody’s Dreams, a tribute to Chris Gaffney, another musical hero who left this mortal coil entirely too soon. Although it’s less Texas-centric and has more pedal steel guitars on it, this 18 track collection matches the Sahm tribute in star power featuring Boz Scaggs (in probably the best track between either record, his version of Gaffney’s crowning achievement as a songwriter, “Midnight Dream.”), Calexico, Peter Case, James McMurtry and Robbie Fulks among others, along with repeat guests Alvin and Los Lobos. LL’s resident genius David Hidalgo sings the hell out of the title cut. Calexico does a nice job with “Joe’s Tavern.” The great Muscle Shoals legend Dan Penn does his usual superlative job on “I’m So Proud.” It never ceases to amaze me what a towering singer the unassuming Penn always is. In an odd twist, Chris Gaffney sings from beyond the grave in, “Guitars of my Dead Friends,” a track recorded just a couple weeks before his death.
Great as these two records are, which is saying something because I can count on one hand how many tributes ever really inspired me, you come away from both with a twinge of sadness for these two great talents who’ve been silenced too soon.