"Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm"
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"Man of Somebody's Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney"
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Tribute albums can be flimsy excuses to string together recordings by a hodgepodge of musicians. But in the right hands, they can be genuinely illuminating efforts, especially in the case of honorees who deserve broader recognition. Fortunately, two new collections paying posthumous props to Tex-Mex singer, songwriter and bandleader Doug Sahm and his spiritual brother, Southern California roots musician Chris Gaffney, fall squarely into the second camp.
The connection between the albums runs deeper than shared appearances by Los Lobos, Dave Alvin and Alejandro Escovedo, or even the presence of Sahm on the Gaffney album by way of his Texas Tornados' recording of Gaffney's haunting "The Gardens."
They are musical soul mates, genre-defying singers and writers who were equally at home with a Tex-Mex polka, a honky-tonk two-step, a soul ballad or a rock 'n' roll barn-burner. And both dusky-voiced singers were intimately attuned to the geography from which that music sprang. Sahm died almost a decade ago at 58, of natural causes; Gaffney passed last year at 57 from liver cancer.
Sahm's brief brush with mainstream success came in the 1960s, when his Sir Douglas Quintet logged Top 40 hits with "She's About a Mover," "The Rains Came" and "Mendocino." He could be reasonably credited as the father of the Americana/roots music movement, weaving together threads of rock, R&B, blues, country and Mexican music into a vibrant and organic tapestry in his subsequent solo recordings and with his Grammy-winning Tornados.
Bob Dylan is among Sahm's legion of music cognoscenti fans, although he's not on "Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm." The 14 tracks are dominated by fellow Texans, including Jimmie Vaughan, Charlie Sexton, Delbert McClinton, Joe "King" Carrasco and Terry Allen. Likewise, the Gaffney album skews toward his compadres from the Southland roots-music community, including John Doe, Tom Russell, Peter Case, Robert "Big Sandy" Williams and Gaffney's Hacienda Brothers partner, Dave Gonzalez.
In their version of "Nuevo Laredo," the Gourds find the magic Tex-Mex groove that Sahm pretty much defined more than four decades ago. McClinton handles "Texas Me," documenting Sahm's move from the Lone Star State to San Francisco when that early success started to turn his world upside down.
Gaffney never had that problem, slugging out a living for the last three decades mostly in Southland bars. His empathy for the solitary habitues of those watering holes showed up regularly in his incisive songs such as "Six Nights a Week," which Peter Case powers through here.
Alvin assembled this tribute for Gaffney, who was a member of his Guilty Men band and his best friend, and he adds an enlightening first-person introduction to "Artesia." The song is one of Gaffney's many testaments to the unique facets of Southern California that have given way to tract homes and shopping-mall culture.
David Hidalgo handles the lead vocal on the title tune, which might be Gaffney's most moving composition, a country waltz about a man who is "living a vision of his own indecision, he's all alone with his pride." Joe Ely cranks up the wattage with a rollicking performance of "Lift Your Leg," a masterpiece of bar-bred bravado, and Calexico turns what Gaffney performed as an ebullient norteno polka, "Frank's Tavern," into a moving ballad.
Both albums end on poignant notes: the Sahm tribute closes with his son, Shawn, doing a rendition of "Mendocino," while the Gaffney album leaves the final word to Gaffney himself in a recording made shortly before he died.
Alvin recorded him singing Stanley Wykoff and Michael Berberet's "Guitars of My Dead Friends," and you can hear the toll his illness had taken on his once mighty voice. But it's a fitting homage to the legacy that music can leave behind.