AUSTIN, Texas — It was a searing Saturday afternoon. The West Texas heat hit one's skin like dermabrasion and the sunlight scoured the retina. Inside Antone's, the blues club located on a bend of Guadalupe Avenue, the musicians, mostly black and mostly male, (with the exception of white guitarist Jimmy Vaughan and vocalist Angela Strehli) sat in the deep calm characteristic of off-duty athletes and performers. They had done their talking in their music last night, and would again tonight.
Some of the blues' legendary names, including James Cotton, Eddie Taylor, Snookie Pryor and Jimmy Rogers, were there. So were Pinetop Perkins, Albert Collins and Mel Brown, sitting at various tables around the club conversing softly and gnawing at fresh batches of Stubbs' Bar-B-Cue ribs, whose sweetish smell hung in the air.
Despite their influence on other musicians, the performers gathered here represent a last generation of artists. They're the final direct link to an American root--the Delta blues--that will in all likelihood dry up once they're gone.
In one corner, the soft, somewhat plaintive voice of Clifford Antone, the club's owner, could be heard talking to an attentive group of listeners from the media. They were drawn to the club by the big names attending Antone's 10th annual blues festival. But tonight it sounded as if Antone might be singing the blues' last song.
"Elvis and the Beatles changed the world," he said, waving his arm out into the afternoon torpor of the room. "But people don't know how much they stole from these musicians. How many know that Big Mama Thornton wrote 'Hound Dog'? They're humble people. All they want to do is live, pay their bills. They never complain. Just growin' up in Mississippi is tough enough. But they're gettin' a raw deal."
"Elvis grew up in the Delta, where most of this music originated," Antone continued. "When they migrated to Tennessee, so did he. Howlin' Wolf went to London in '64. Blew 'em away. What were the Rolling Stones then? Zeroes. Kids."
If Antone's complaint--that their effort had resulted in some whites' glory--was shared by the musicians, it was in an understated way; someone might mention it in passing as though it were a fait accompli , or acknowledge it with a shrug. What else is new? They had come to perform, pure and simple, and the night before they had cut loose in the raw, rambunctious, hot, passionate, piercing, melancholy and good-natured music that has reached like an artery from Texas up to Chicago and back down again into the Delta.
From a musicological standpoint, the blues is a relatively simple form. But within it is a variety of shadings that are infinitely suggestive and freighted with the shifts of fresh-felt emotion. The blues have basically two subjects, whose variations are endless: relations between men and women (usually sore), and getting up to face a rough day. A good blues lick cuts to the heart of a matter; its embellishments are celebratory or untrammeled rather than ornamental--they're spirited bursts.
It's the sturdiest, most primitive and existential of American musical forms whose passages reach back through Mississippi and Georgia sharecropper days to musical expressions of West and Central Africa.
At Antone's one heard the echoes of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters--a few of the numerous country figures who from early in the 20th Century moved around the Delta and played for small change, and whose music tied together not only the themes of world-weariness, sexual longing, exuberance and skepticism, but echoed the field shout, the gospel song, the Saturday night dance shuffle, and the chuffing rhythm of the locomotive, with its piercing whistle that brought evidence of implacable industrial might (read white power), and its evocation of something hauntingly far-off, hoped-for, and maybe lost for good.
In the sets that had been played the night before, which ranged from Snookie Pryor's plaintive harmonica in "Someone to Love Me" to Sunnyland Slim's wry "Every Time I Get to Drinkin'," punctuated by a Woody Woodpecker laugh, one piece stood out--Albert Collins' rendition of "Got That Feeling."
At best it has a simple four-note melodic line, which is purposeful and strong. But underneath, its shifting rhythmic scheme conveys a sense of confusion and being off-balance. "Got That Feeling" isn't a premonition about something good, or of feeling high-spirited, as you might expect; it's the suspicion of betrayal, and with Abb Locke's hot, terse, tenor saxophone ostinato kicking in, the whole piece cooked up into a riveting metaphor of obsession.
Collins, who has to be in his 50s, looks like a small, taut ebony-colored Indian who has had everything superfluous burned out of him. After four songs, any of which may last 20 minutes, he's through for the night. He appears to have given everything he has.