I haven't been to a gig in a while, excepting Devo in Austin which was different because it was Devo and was as such more akin to a religious experience; so this is the first live music event I have attended since moving to Texas - excepting Devo, like I said, and I suppose men in restaurants with accordions. We are in Jack's Bar, somewhere on the outskirts of San Antonio. It doesn't resemble anything I would recognise as a music venue, or I suppose even a bar for that matter. All of these things were different in England. Gigs were either in pubs or much larger buildings, usually made of brick. My wife and I are at a table inside a large tin hut, something in which I might ordinarily expect to find cows; but here in Texas this is a bar as signified by the presence of a bar with stools arranged along the front supporting booze enthusiasts from diverse walks of life. There are three well-dressed office girls of a certain type characterised by conversation in which one person is customarily all like ohmahgerd and the other is all like shut up, and there are a couple of people my own age, just guys. Maybe they're waiting for the gig. My wife and I are trying to work out just where the bands are going to play. There's a table to one side from which someone is selling t-shirts, but no other indication of Jack's Bar being a music venue, excepting the billboard outside listing tonight's acts - the Fixations, Henry & the Invisibles, Channel One, and Fishbone - who are headlining.
The bar sells bottled beer, something I still haven't quite got to grips with over here, although the term encompasses Newcastle Brown Ale - peculiarly quite popular in these parts, it turns out - and so I stick to that because it at least tastes like you're supposed to drink it, rather than just pour it over either your head or your tits whilst yelling awesome! to the appreciative grunts of other morons. I am familiar with the names Coors, Miller Lite, and Lone Star as typeset in neon letters above the bar, but I'm not sure which of these I've drunk, if any. They all taste like the connection your tongue makes across a couple of battery terminals to me.
A door opens next to the bar, just beneath Coors spelled out in neon. I point this out to my wife. 'Maybe there's a stage through there.'
She nods and we watch three men emerge from the other room. They talk to the woman selling t-shirts, or rather waiting to sell t-shirts, the present clientèle of Jack's Bar numbering less than ten including the staff. One of them might be the janitor. Maybe he's just finished his shift so he's telling t-shirt woman where the cleaning supplies are kept in case she needs anything of that sort. They don't look like people who would be in a band, but then what do I know? I'm way out of my depth here.
'I'm going to text Jenni,' my wife tells me, texting Jenni.
Jenni is part of the reason we are here. She's Bess's cousin from a branch of the family I've thus far encountered only twice, which is a shame because I like Jenni and haven't even yet met Skip, her husband. He plays guitar in the Fixations who are first on the bill tonight, but annoyingly this is to be their farewell gig because Skip and Jenni are moving to Tennessee at the end of the week. I'd hoped I might get a chance to know them a bit better seeing as we share a fair bit of musical common ground, but it's just the way it's worked out.
'She's back stage with the bands,' my wife tells me, studying her phone. 'She'll meet us later.'
Well, at least we seem to be in the right place, despite appearances. I know there's the table with the t-shirts and the names of bands we'll be seeing are printed on those t-shirts, but there hasn't been much else to support the hypothesis of our having come to the right place. Fishbone were massive at one point, as I recall. I saw them on some television show in England, which itself suggests some kind of scale, and even if that was over a decade ago, there should surely be more people here given that Fishbone are apparently still big enough to headline.
The doors at the side of the bar open, and stay open. Something is happening. People with coloured hair are arriving, and so we follow them through into the other part of the cow shed. There is a second bar and a decent-sized stage. The place is of modest scale, about the equivalent of the Amersham Arms in New Cross, but it's definitely a music venue. I buy another bottle of Newcastle and Bess and I inhabit a ledge at one side of the dance floor. The crowd are slowly filtering in - students, regular people, a few leather jackets with the green or pink hair. There's something reassuring about their presence. When I started at Maidstone College of Art back in September 1984, the college canteen at lunchtime was a joyous riot of spiky, back-combed, or otherwise sculpted colour. By the time I left, the student body resembled Val Doonican's studio audience and were as such seemingly indicative of a downward conservative trend in English culture which continues to this day. I no longer have the inclination to grow my hair and dye it purple as once I did, but I'm glad that some do. Of course Jenni is one of them, and I think she even uses the same colour dye I once favoured - or something fairly close. I spoke to her about it at Gwen Arnold's birthday lunch, and she expressed a few minor but related concerns about moving to Tennessee, as she and her husband are doing.
I got the impression that there may be circumstances under which it's perhaps not always so easy to stand out here in the American south, so I have some admiration for her and Skip keeping the freak flag flying, so to speak. Contrary to the lazy Deliverance-lite clichés perpetuated by means of the usual received wisdom, the south is disarmingly friendly, but it's also very, very big with a certain quota of relatively isolated communities full of people who rarely encounter strangers, and who may not have any idea how to act on the rare occasions when they do. So dyeing one's hair bright pink constitutes a much bolder statement here than it does in Camden.
Jenni emerges from a door at the side of the stage, gorgeous as ever - a detail I'm acknowledging because there's no point denying it. Like Bess, she has a certain excitable quality and brightens any room she enters. She is fun to be with. They both revel in terrible puns, so it probably runs in the family. The two cousins catch up - news, work, babies, and moving house. There is a certain quota of giggling and an occasional shriek, then suddenly the Fixations take the stage.
The janitor seen earlier now more closely resembles Hunter S. Thompson, and he makes for a dynamic vocalist. The band hit the room like a bomb going off, if you'll pardon my stooping to 1970s rock journalism. Skip rocks lead guitar with all the stage presence of your traditional hellfire preacher; and significantly he actually is a preacher, although not one who invokes hellfire so far as I am aware. The bassist looks vaguely Samoan, a man-mountain in skater shorts who stands staring either into the future or another dimension as his gymnastic fingers twang all manner of heavy shit from the instrument, grimacing occasionally at the odd riff plucked directly from his soul, so it would appear. I was looking forward to seeing this band mainly out of curiosity, but I had no expectation of their sounding this good. They are electrifying. I try to pinpoint something familiar in the sound by which I will later describe them to account for their appeal. I run through the Sex Pistols play ZZ Top, AC/DC meets the Damned, the drag race Terminal Cheesecake, but it's settled when they play a song which I gather must be called Motherfucker for Love; so they're the kind of band who would play a song called Motherfucker for Love. They're the kind of band I wish I were in. Their set is amazing.
I finally get to meet Skip after the Fixations are done, and I wish we had more time and preferably somewhere in which I could hear what is being said, but never mind.
Henry & the Invisibles turn out to be just Henry, a little Dilbert man in a silver jacket surrounded by sampling technology. He pings out a bass riff and it loops and repeats. He takes off his bass, pulls on a guitar and adds some choppy rhythms which are also looped and repeated. He builds up a sort of one-man Parliament of sound, then stomps around clapping his hands and whooping woah yeah, can you feel it!, but I can't because he's a little round white dude wearing a fluffy balaclava with teddy bear ears doing his hardest to channel George Clinton; but it's closer to Bill Clinton and I'm just not buying it. He sings the blues, albeit a sampled p-funk blues, yet somehow I can't find it in myself to believe that Henry really knows how it be when you down and out and ain't nobody gon' lend you a hand, my brother. All the technology in the world, no matter how expertly applied, can't raise him above being only the projects manager of funk. The crowd seem to love it, but then they're kind of young. Henry's set comes to an efficiently sweaty end, and his dad helps him pack all that gear back into the van.
Channel One are next, a local band featuring a lead singer who has flown all the way from Louisiana to perform tonight, such is the import of this performance. Weirdly, they are a ska band, nine or ten members and all white*. I say weirdly because the phenomenon of the white American ska band is new to me, and having lived in Coventry, England - home to the Specials, Selecter, and that whole Two-Tone thing - I feel a certain connection to the form, or at least to the revived form, even if it's only a tenuous connection. American ska seems to come from a punkier angle and has a peculiar penchant for anthemic choruses which sound incongruous to my ears; but tonight it's well played and it feels good. I engage in some of that old moonstomping so as to show everyone how the fuck it's really done, but no-one takes the hint, and I have to stop after about ten seconds because I'm fat and fifty. Jenni and Bess seem to find it entertaining anyway.
Skip returns to the stage to guest with Channel One. He and the singer know each other from a seminal San Antonio band called the Resistors. The Channel One guy introduces Skip as the man who got him into music. It seems Skip is something of a local hero.
Fishbone finally come on, and they are amazing, but Bess and I are knackered. We watch a couple of exhausting songs and leave. Tomorrow, if I remember the details correctly, Skip will be driving a truck full of all their belongings from San Antonio to somewhere I've never heard of near Knoxville, a distance of over a thousand miles. Jenni will be following in the car with her mother and two young children. I'm a bit pissed off that I've really only just met them, but I'm happy for them, and tonight has been a great way of saying hello and safe trip.
*: I've just deleted a couple of replies submitted to this blog post on the 19th of June 2016, two minutes apart, the second completing the first's oddly truncated sentence, and therefore probably both from one Laith Fisk who wrote:
Channel one an all white ska band? With last names like garza, Covarrubias, Valdez And Garcia? Haha.
Disregarding the mocking - some might say insolent - tone of the haha, the fact is none of them wore t-shirts with their names printed conveniently on the front and I'd never heard of Channel One before that gig, so how the blistering fuck I'm expected to know their surnames in advance, I have no fucking clue. Furthermore, as a former inhabitant of the fine city of Coventry, home of the Specials and Selecter amongst others, I am accustomed to ska as a genuinely multiracial music almost always involving representatives of the Afro-Carribean community and not as something invented by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in 1993; and what I saw that night looked one hell of a lot like a stage full of white dudes from where I was stood.