The Cactus Cafe, Austin USA, Fri. April 24, 1998

8 04 2008

       The straight-backed wooden chair on the small stage at the Cactus Café was flanked on the left by Shawn’s six guitars resting on two stands. To the right, his portable keyboard, with the Macintosh monitor resting on top, stood propped on wooden crates, too low for Shawn’s knees to fit under. Two microphones were set up in front of the chair: the lower one for the guitar and the higher one for vocals. In front of the mikes: foot pedals, cables, amps and speakers. A curving, red curtain at the back of the stage reached floor-to-ceiling, covering windows that look out onto the West Mall of the University Of Texas campus.

         By the time I had gotten there about 7:25, several Shawn Phillips regulars were already in line. Beverly and Jim Lancelot who had just joined up with EMH on the day the great Earth Day conflagration started were first in line, as usual. Michael Scully and friends were there. The other couple turned out to be Michael Dahlke and his friend Gail, who had driven the 80 miles from San Antonio. The omnipresent and reasonably omniscient Dan Eggleston had brought his thesis on Shawn, and Pat Aranda, from San Marcos was looking through it. Jan Ingram, from Austin, and her friend Beth had been there for the November show.

        Waiting in line is always like a family reunion.

Next came the famous Carolyn Coffey, who is not with EMH yet. I mention her because she’s the one who did the actual surreptitious taping of the Cactus Café Tapes, now available through JW’s EMH Tape Tree. Eventually, Cliff Hale from Midland showed up and Dale Martin from Houston followed. Houston is 3 hours to the east and Midland…well Midland is six hours to the west by car and 12 or 15 hours by bus, depending on whether you’re going to it or coming from it. It was great to connect faces with names I had seen on line for so long.

        The stage was about two feet high. Six feet from Shawn’s chair the curved rows of small round tables were filled with EMHers and their friends, altogether about 17 people. The second row of tables, stage right, was reserved for Tassia and family friends.

        After six numbers from the opener, a fellow named “Blue,” from Austin, Shawn took the stage without introduction. He wore the familiar red shirt, buttoned at the neck, with string tie pulled all the way up. His black leather vest had a large, gold musical note pinned on it. Pager, pocket knife, and keys dangled from his belt.

        From the opening notes of Landscape, we could tell that Shawn’s voice was going to be strong, in-tune, and joyous. I’ve never heard him do Landscape in concert, and he surprised with several older tunes that he hadn’t performed in a while. He had the words to Landscape written on a piece of paper, got one false start (couldn’t read the page), tossed his glasses aside and began again. Sang it beautifully.

        Steel Eyes: remember how Shawn uses the silence between notes so effectively? Even the bartenders were quiet.

         Next Shawn brought Thad Beckman to the stage. It seems that Thad had played with the group that opened for Shawn at the Executive Surf Club in Corpus Christi a couple of months ago, and they hit it off. Thad plays a mean guitar, and has a future of his own in the business.

        They played Free Samples. Had a lot of fun swapping leads, and Shawn really got that left foot stomping the stage. Thad played spirited guitar, running the blues scales, and the crowd was appreciative.

        Shawn pulled out the black Gibson to play one of his early songs: Us We Are and segued into L’ Ballade. Even college-age people in the audience sat entranced. “And I hope she will find a better man…to love him and rejoice” Man! What power in his lyrics and melody.

        Back to his red Gibson for Breakthrough. His falsetto was soaring and strong. Again…words and music that will break your heart!

        Shawn is especially proud of his newest, The Beautiful People. He and Thad juiced it up with what I would have called some down-home pickin’ licks, but Shawn claimed it sounded to him like Rogers & Hammerstein! So, who you gonna believe?

        Dream Queen. Ya’ll would have loved it. Beautiful voice, beautiful melody. His face wears the sincerity of his words. After the song, a man came up to the stage and slapped hands with Shawn in thanks. Shawn told us he had “played that song for my brother.” He later introduced the man as Ed Booth of the Austin Fire Department. Ed had helped Shawn load up his equipment into the Pedernales Volunteer Fire Department van and drive into town for the gig.

        Shawn introduced the next song as “If I miss You, I Think I’ll Just Reload,” and then got that wild look in his eye. He proceeded to sing One Way Ticket.

        While putting up his guitar and setting up the keyboard, Shawn introduced, from the audience, Pat Shaub, a Starflight pilot. Starflight is the Austin emergency rescue helicopter. It seems that this week Shawn had been out with the PVFD putting out a six acre grassfire, when Pat flew over and doused the firefighters with water poured from the helicopter. Shawn loves that firefighting!

        Shawn told us that he’s real excited that “the Peace Song has actually arrived at the World Peace Society, with Deborah Muldow…” He prefaced the song this time by adding some words written by James Tyman. I got down some of it:  

“I am an emissary of light
This moment the world is healed,
and I along with it, and it is so.”

        Then he played the intro, spoke the words about the galaxy and solar system and “the only difference it makes is to themselves,” and sang the song. Looking in the audience, most people had eyes closed, soaking it in. He ended it with:

“It is done.
I am one.
I am an emissary of light,
now and always.”

        During the break, I talked to Ed Booth (Shawn’s APD friend). Claims HE was the one who asked Shawn to start doing some of the older tunes, like Manhole Covered Wagon!

        After the break, and still with Thad Beckman, Shawn played Hey Miss Lonely.

        Manhole Covered Wagon, complete with a very good Bob Dylan impression.

        Discoveries segued into Lady Inviolet. It was a great combination of songs. The themes mesh and the music transitioned as though they were written for each other.

        Casey Diess had an amazing intro, consisting of guitar arpeggios. What a song:

“Bring him no wine from far away vineyards.
Tell him no tales of the canyon’s might.
Just wish him peace and eternal wisdom,
for he has died, and he died in light”

        Moonshine. They really COOKED on this tune. Shawn played the role, singing it like a toothless old street-corner blues singer. Got that left leg stompin’ again. Went right into Big Boss Man, and I’ve never seen Shawn let it ALL hang out vocally like he did on THAT tune tonight.

        Dispensed with walking to the back and just got on to the encore (You know the how he does it.). “Thad and I both wish you Health, Love, and Clarity.”

        Pulled out the double-necked guitar and used that plus the keyboard simultaneously for an extended introduction to SWWFHMITSATAYKILYBBIGTHTL. You all know what this song does to the audience, and you can imagine the looks of awe, rapture, and wonder on EVERYONE’S faces.

        He left the stage, but never made it to the dressing room. Had to stop and shake hands with everyone on the aisle. We were drained. It was 12:15. Said goodbye to all the EMHers and went home. Couldn’t sleep. Came in to the office to write this up. It’s 3:56 a.m., and I’m out.

Leonard Hough

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