On Wednesday, February 22nd, Tracy and I headed out of town for an adventure through the great American Southwest. Our ultimate destination was the wedding of our dear friend, Jai Malano in Austin, Texas.
Our first stop however would be the Grand Canyon. This quite appropriately named chasm in northern Arizona is perhaps the most famous and one of the oldest of America’s National Parks. Like all of our National Parks, as well as natural resources such as water and air, the Grand Canyon is under siege by the maniacal, unhinged, seemingly mentally disturbed, illiterate, corporate criminal who has seized control of the White House. So it seemed like a perfect time to visit one of our National Parks on our journey. As you may know the National Parks and their employees have joined the fight against this interloper who has stolen our government.
The Grand Canyon has to be seen to be believed and even then you may not be able to accurately process what you are viewing. Words like spectacular, majestic and breathtaking only begin to describe this natural wonder.
Late Wednesday evening we pulled into Williams, Arizona, to get a few hours of sleep before heading to the south rim to catch the views with the early morning, winter light. Williams is the last township along the famous Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40. It has a western charm that caters to the world travelers who make their way to this remote part of the country to see for themselves one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Williams sits an hour’s drive due south of the canyon. That journey, through pastoral countryside in the Northern Arizona high country, gives way to heavily forested areas. It is a drive I have made several times in my life. It is also a trip where the anticipation and excitement of what I’m about to experience never diminishes.
What made the drive on this 27 degree morning all the more special was that my travel companion had never been to the Grand Canyon. No photograph has ever done justice to the experience of seeing this colossal natural beauty with the naked eye. The canyon that has been carved out of the Colorado plateau reveals over two million years of geological history. It literally has to be seen to be believed. So I knew that Tracy was in for a real treat and something she will never forget. I love sharing this, “Oh my God” moment with loved ones.
We visited several view spots all along the famed Desert View Drive with its numerous turnouts and parking areas where visitors are afforded one spectacular view after another. We then exited the National Park at the far eastern entry/exit point. From there we continued east through the Arizona desert and climbed back up to Flagstaff with spectacular views of the San Francisco Peaks along the way. This mountain range, which got its name from a Spanish mission honoring Saint Francis, contains the six highest mountains in the state. The famous city by the bay in Northern California would take the same name 147 years later.
These alpine mountains, all over two miles high, were blanketed in snow and stand in sharp contrast to the painted desert from which we just left and would be driving through again as we headed east to Oklahoma City to visit with family there.
Before we arrived in the Oklahoma capital, our journey took us through the Petrified Forest in Eastern Arizona and the beautiful iconic western landscapes of New Mexico appropriately nicknamed the Land of Enchantment. After a quick stop in Albuquerque to view a spectacular New Mexican sunset, it was off to the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma. Night driving through this part of the country is as spectacular as it is in the day time, which is to say, you aren’t missing much.
Oklahoma City like many parts of the country is a city rich in African-American musical traditions. Those of course include blues and jazz as well as rhythm & blues. These traditions started in the early 1900’s and ran right up until the early 1960’s when the so called British Invasion pretty much painted over all types of African-American musical expression. Before this cultural shift in tastes, this music was made by black folks and at the time was consumed almost exclusively by black folks. It is now enjoyed by people from all over the world.
The area in Oklahoma City inhabited exclusively by African-Americans was known as Deep Deuce. It was an important stop for all of the musicians traveling the Chitlin’ Circuit between Kansas City and Dallas. Big bands like those fronted by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Buddy Johnson and others all played in Deep Deuce nightclubs and dance halls. Musical legends such as Wayne Bennett, Lowell Fulson, Jay McShann, Jimmy Rushing and others were all from Oklahoma and played there as well.
Even though singer and guitarist Lowell Fulson had moved to Los Angeles, he would always come through Deep Deuce and play there on the chitlin’ circuit tours through the Midwest, Southwest and Deep South which Oklahoma City is geographically a part of, or at least adjacent to, depending on how you keep score. His wonderful band included the great tenor sax man from Dallas, David “Fathead” Newman. Fulson’s pianist and musical director was a young blind man from Albany, Georgia. I believe you know who I’m talking about.
The great Charlie Christian, who was born in nearby Bonham, Texas, moved with his family to Oklahoma City as a young child and it is where he grew up. This pioneer of the electric guitar played in Deep Deuce before joining up with the first integrated small jazz combo led by the King of Swing himself, Benny Goodman.
The great African-American Pulitzer Prize winning writer Ralph Ellison was also born in Deep Deuce.
Deep Deuce had it all going on. Now it has been re-gentrified into luxury condos, up-scale coffee houses, micro-breweries, restaurants, sports bars and even a minor league baseball stadium. The railroad tracks are still there, but going over to the other side of the tracks doesn’t mean a white person is going to be rousted by the cops for miscegenation with the Negroes.
Much of the area is now known as Bricktown. It is quite charming if one had no idea what has been lost. It has been widely reported that there is but one African-American owned business in the area previously known as Deep Deuce. I didn’t see any streets named after any of the people I mentioned. However there is a street that runs through this section of town called Flaming Lips Alley. Thanks to Tracy, my window into pop culture, who explained to me that this is a rock band. I would have liked to have been there in the heyday of Deep Deuce, but was born too late and to people of European ancestry. Of course to those who know me, the latter would have never stopped me from sampling the rich musical tapestry of Deep Deuce.
After our visit to Deep Deuce/Bricktown we visited with Tracy’s father whom I had never met. After a lovely dinner prepared by his wife, I told the old man that later that evening I was going to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. I went on to explain that I’ll be 60 years old come May and I am not in the habit of asking anybody’s permission for anything, but I’m an old fashioned guy who came to Oklahoma City to ask for his blessing in person. Without missing a beat the old codger, whom I had grown quite fond of over the past few hours said, “Not so old fashioned that you wouldn’t sleep with her for the past seven years out of wedlock.” I love the fact that this crusty old cuss took the time and trouble to bust my balls before saying “yes.”
Of course by the next morning I realized he wasn’t finished. He told us that the only reason he had said “yes” was because as he said, “I thought my daughter was smart enough to say no.” By now I had realized the sharp sense of humor which I have grown to enjoy over the past seven years comes naturally.
After finishing our morning coffee it was off to Austin. One and a half miles into our journey, what turned out to be an uninsured motorist smashed into our car. I thought for a moment we would become t-boned walkers. By all indications our 2012 Volvo S60 was totaled. Thanks to the safety features on this vehicle, despite the violent collision, we walked away just sore and bruised. Five hours of phone conversations with insurance companies, tow truck drivers, rental car establishments and a trip to Will Rogers World Airport to pick up our ride, we were back on the road, shaken, but not deterred.
We pulled into Austin late, checked into our hotel and headed for the Saxon Pub. We got there in time to catch an hour or so of a wonderful singer, guitar player, songwriter and raconteur Whitey Johnson. The Garland, Texas, native and longtime Nashville resident is the “alternate persona” of famed musician and songwriter Gary Nicholson. Nicholson’s songwriting credits alone are as long as my arm. On this evening Whitey was backed by the wonderful two piece horn section of Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff on sax and Al Gomez on trumpet, along with veteran Austin blues stalwart, guitarist Derek O’Brien. Our late arrival meant we missed hearing the Godfather of the Austin blues scene, W.C. Clarke, who performed earlier that evening at the Saxon Pub.
The next morning we spent in the Verizon Wireless section of a Target store in Austin as the night before, in a spasm of silliness in the parking lot of the Saxon Pub, my smart phone flew out of this dummy’s shirt pocket. I was franticly waving Tracy into a parking space like a third base coach waving a runner home. When the phone popped out and onto the ground; I then did my impression of a third base coach changing his mind and telling the speeding runner to stop. Of course Tracy just assumed I was making an ass out of myself in public again and rolled right on by and over my phone while rolling her eyes at me. All this fun at Target had us missing brunch with friends, but we were able to catch up and stroll down South Congress Avenue and sample a couple of outside patio/beer gardens that featured...yes, you guessed it, live music.
The first stop was at Guero’s Tacos where a very talented cover band played everything. By everything I mean from Freddie Fender ballads to old Bobby Bland blues standards as well as some classic Freddy King instrumentals.
Then it was time to walk a couple of blocks north on Congress and catch up with a twin bill which featured the Austin based blues man Greg Izor and Marco Pandolfi from Italy. Both Izor and Pandolfi sing and play harmonica as well as guitar. They set their guitars aside for this gig as they had that covered by two excellent players Willie Pipkin and Andrew Nafziger. These afternoon sets at Jo’s Coffee were a blast.
It also had a true Texas friendly vibe. There were older people and at least one grandpa in attendance (me) as well as toddlers and everything in between. People brought their dogs, who didn’t seem particularly interested in the music, but had a good time none the less. I asked the man sitting next to me, who was with Patches, if Austin is a dog friendly city. He said in a laconic Texas drawl, “Austin is just plain friendly, we even like people here too.”
Then it was back to the hotel to spruce up for the wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony which joined two equally beautiful people together in matrimony. The very small, very private event will remain private as far as our readers are concerned. I will just say this; it was one of the great honors of my life to be amongst the 50 invitees to this very special occasion. As it turns out Jai told the congregation that each of the 50 invitees was chosen for a very specific reason. After dinner and toasts were concluded, the gates to the venue were opened and the public poured in to congratulate the couple. Many from the Austin roots and blues community were among the after wedding crowd and, as one might suspect, they played some music. Jai herself even got up and performed a few tunes. The frivolity went late into the night and into the early morning hours.
On Monday morning we got up late and went to a fabulous restaurant for brunch with the brides and friends. The establishment on South Lamar was called Snooze. The eclectic menu and creative preparations by their chef made for a spectacular mid day meal that would carry us until our late dinner.
Then it was off to the airport to exchange rentals cars and back to the hotel to prep for a Monday evening out on the town. If that town is Austin even a Monday seems like a Saturday night just about anyplace else.
Our first stop was to catch the Monday evening residency of a true Austin blues institution, Derek O’Brien, who was performing at a venue that is also an Austin blues institution, Antone’s. Clifford Antone, who is perhaps the single most important individual in changing the image of Austin from an outlaw country music town to a blues-centric city, left us way back in May of 2006. However, his namesake nightclub, now on Fifth Street downtown, is like a phoenix that keeps rising from the ashes. It was great to hear a bunch of terrific Texas musicians laying it down at this relatively new venue which has a glorious past, albeit at a handful of other locations. O’Brien and company were again backing Whitey Johnson. After the gig it was great catching up with Derek as well as Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff, the latter being an interview subject here at the JUNCTION.
When their set concluded it was off to the east side for some more great live music and dinner. As the band was coming on late we had time to walk across the street to Sam’s Bar-B-Que for an authentic Texas culinary experience.
The proprietor of this east side institution is Brian, the grandson of Sam. This 63 year old man carries on a decades old family tradition. The slogan of this down home neighborhood joint is “You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef.” They aren’t kidding as their slide right off the bone ribs and brisket were as soft, juicy, tender and flavorful as any BBQ I can remember eating.
I suppose the real treat is getting to know Brian. He is a real character who is also a character actor and movie extra. He has appeared in two films. He shared with us three scrapbooks that attest to this fact. He joined us at our table and even gave me a tour of the kitchen and the centerpiece of any great BBQ joint...the brick smoker.
After dinner we headed back across the street to the King Bee Lounge. This establishment, which opened in 2014, has a history that goes back to the 1960’s as the space once was occupied by the Legendary White Swan. To keep the blues spirit alive, the proprietor and legendary Austin mixologist, Billy Hankey, named the club after the famous James Moore tune. The spirit of Moore aka Slim Harpo can be heard on Monday nights as the great Little Elmore Reed Blues Band (LERBB) retains its residency from the Legendary White Swan days.
The band plays a mix of straight ahead natural blues in a relaxed manner at low volume...the way this music was meant to be played. I was in heaven. The band is comprised of Austin veteran blues musicians including the great rhythm section of Mark Hayes on drums and Pat Whitefield on bass. Guitarists Mike Keller and Willie Pipkin played with impeccable taste, tone and timing. Out front was vocalist and harmonica player Greg Izor who also demonstrated a tremendous feel for the blues. After all these years this band of Austin all-stars plays with a musical empathy where a true ensemble sound emerges.
After a somewhat hectic trip, which an irresponsible human tried very hard to ruin with his reckless driving, the LERBB at the King Bee Lounge was just what the doctor ordered. We had a chance to relax and meet some very nice people whose music I have admired for many years.
Billy and his fiancé Collette were lovely hosts who embody the spirit of Austin, Texas. They actively involve their patrons in their philanthropic activities, which include a monthly benefit for a local charity chosen by the patrons of the King Bee Lounge.
Austin, Texas, is an island of civility in a sea of bat sh*t crazy politics...the rest of Texas. Like most big cities and college towns, Austin is liberal. They revel in their progressive attitudes as it relates to many important causes. Billy and Collette represent these attitudes while running an establishment that is just plain fun. They are very experienced service industry professionals who know what the hell they are doing and, maybe just as important, why they are doing it. The King Bee Lounge receives my highest recommendation and endorsement.
I suppose any journey through this Texas Capital should make reference to Austin’s slogan and battle cry, “Keep Austin Weird.” This slogan has been adopted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance. It is used to create an awareness of local businesses and to avoid as much corporate encroachment as possible, which has become the bane of so many cities across America. To a large degree they succeed here in the state capital city. Why would anybody eat at a Chile’s when there is Sam’s Bar-B-Que? Why would one patronize Starbucks when you have Jo’s Coffee or order a pizza from any chain when you could have an exotic gourmet pizza with a unique cocktail at the King Bee Lounge? Why would you go to a House of Blues or Hard Rock Café (if they even have these in Austin) with the choices of locally owned and operated businesses that thrive here and cater to the live music scene? The answer is you wouldn’t, unless dare I say YOU are weird. Yep, you could say Austin is my kind of town. I suppose like everything else, weirdness is just a matter of perspective and context.
Tuesday morning we were on the highway and driving through some lovely countryside on our way back to California. We made stops in the Central Texas Hill Country which included the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, the Fat Ass Winery and the historic town of Fredericksburg. We eventually made it back to the far left side of the North American Continent and our home in Huntington Beach.
- David Mac
Post Script: While unpacking from our adventure back in California we got the news that the Volvo wasn’t totaled. What looked like a broken axle was just a breakaway, independent suspension feature, one of many safety aspects designed to keep not only the humans inside the vehicle alive but the car in the same condition as well. We are at $8,400 in damages, so far, which thankfully our insurance company will cover since this ass-clown, whose name is Jeffrey Roberts, not only texts while driving, but lies to the insurance company and it turns out is uninsured. We incurred tremendous out of pocket and unrecoverable expenses and inconveniences, which curtailed many of our plans for this trip to Austin, because of this scofflaw. However, we will be back. We just feel lucky to be alive and in love.
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