71 years young, and still as ornery and as feisty as ever, Ray Wylie Hubbard brought his Birthday Bash to Austin’s beautiful Paramount Theatre Friday night. It was an elegant and serene setting for a night of gutsy Americana music served up the only way Ray Wylie knows how – greasy and real.
And his fans were out in full force. These are friendly, down-home folks who appreciate real music played from the heart. Throughout the show, there were whoops, hollars and laughter as the audience sang along and reveled in the beautiful noise emanating from the big stage.
Joined by his son Lucas on guitar and Kyle Schneider on drums, Ray worked his way through the high points of his catalog, stopping along the way to tell stories about his songs that, in all essence, are really just stories themselves. He is the penultimate storyteller in the pure Texas troubadour tradition.
And when Ray tells his stories, he does so with a glint of mischievousness in his eye. For example, he would intro a song with an emotional recollection of his grandfather on his deathbed and just when your heartstrings begin to tug, he would pull the rug out from under you with a zinger of a punchline. That’s vintage Ray. And it was glorious.
He told stories of French Poets, of playing the David Letterman show and of trying to get into heaven, each punctuated with expertly timed comedic punchlines.
As expected, he played “Snake Farm,” “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” and “Mother Blues” to rousing applause, but when he played the title song from his new album, “Tell the Devil that I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can,” there was something different in his delivery. On record, he is joined by Eric Church and Lucinda Williams. He needed neither one to connect with this song tonight. Like a fine wine, his songwriting gets better with age and it was a joy to watch him light up as he told his tale of life on the road and hanging onto the dream.
After a short intermission, Ray played “Mississippi Flush” before bringing out a couple of guests, the first being Jeff Plankenhorn. “Plank” is a real-deal roots-rock slide guitarist who has appeared on several of Ray’s recordings. He is a musician’s musician who has the chops to take over and impress, yet the wisdom to lay back and add just the right touch of melodic spice to take a song to the next level. Jeff’s playing serves to make those around him better and seeing him trade licks with Lucas was truly fun to watch.
They played “Mr. Musselwhite’s Blues” with Plank’s lonesome slide perfectly complementing Ray’s harmonica wails. Plank joined him on vocals for a soaring rendition of “Don’t Bother Asking Me” which led into Lucas and Jeff trading licks on a low-down blues number.
After another story about a crow singing a Lightnin’ Hopkins tune and listening to Sam Cooke on the car stereo, Ray introduced Liz Foster from the Trishas, who lent her sultry country-blues voice to “Count My Blessings.” What a beautiful pairing it was.
Not wanting to disappoint a fan he met earlier in the evening, he dedicated the next song to the people “who don’t want a void in their life.” He then proceeded to play one of the night’s fun-filled singalong songs, his signature hit “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” to an obviously delighted and enthusiastic crowd.
“That was the best it’s ever been done” he exclaimed, again with a knowing twinkle in his eye.
He played “Wanna Rock And Roll,” a hit for Cross Canadian Ragweed that “bought him a new fence.” The tune seamlessly morphed into “John the Revelator” with a guitar jam that kept the crowd enthralled.
Not wanting to end the show on a “greasy” note, Ray wound down the set with a story about his grandmother being a carnival fortune-teller before easing into the beautiful and poignant “The Messenger.” As the song eased into its final notes, the audience rose to a standing ovation.
The crowd wasn’t about to let the show end, and it wasn’t long before Ray and the band returned. Ray gave his heartfelt thanks to the Paramount Theatre and to Jody Denberg, who introduced Ray and “has done so much for Austin music.”
“I guess I am gonna leave you with something a little trashy” he declared, before closing with the magnificent “Choctaw Bingo,” letting the crowd sing the last couple of “questionable” verses. It was a fitting end to a fun-filled and slightly irreverent night.
In his own words, Ray Wylie Hubbard says he is “an acquired taste.” If that’s true, you need to quickly expand your palate. You won’t regret it.