Sometimes it’s hard for Texans to comprehend that not all of their heroes are household names beyond this state’s broad borders, or that some who once were have fallen into footnote status. But in the case of Doug Sahm, of Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados fame, their puzzlement is legitimate. At this year’s South By Southwest Music Conference & Festival, several Texas movers and shakers set about upping the legendary singer’s profile with a new documentary, a panel discussion and a star-studded tribute concert.
Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove, author Joe Nick Patoski’s directing debut, had its world-premiere screening on Thursday, March 19; the next day, Patoski moderated a panel titled “Sir Doug: The Making of a Music Documentary.” On Saturday, a parade of Sahm’s bandmates, colleagues, fellow San Antonio natives and those he influenced — from Augie Meyers, Steve Earle, Joe “King” Carrasco, Bill Kirchen, Rosie Flores and Roy Head (“Treat Her Right”), to sons Shawn and Shandon — filled Austin’s Paramount Theatre stage for a lively celebration of his music. There was a lot of ground to cover; Sahm’s career careened from country to rock to Summer of Love psychedelia to cosmic cowboydom to the Tex-Mex groove he and the Tornados essentially pioneered.
House band music director/Hammond B3 player Michael Ramos and guitarist Charlie Sexton summoned so many players for this so-called “Gathering of the Tribes,” by the time they all came out for the gleeful finale — a “She’s About a Mover” sing-along, of course — well over 40 people crammed onstage, looking as if they were going for a Sahm-tribute world record.
But SXSW co-founder Louis Black made it clear the events were not intended as nostalgic reveries.
“This isn’t just the launch of a documentary film on Doug Sahm, and it’s not just a tribute show,” he said from the stage. “It’s the beginning of a campaign. I never want to be in L.A. or New York again and say, ‘I’m working on a film about Doug Sahm,’ and hear people say, ‘Who?’ And they’re usually in bands whose music was so completely influenced by Doug Sahm. This is [about] reclaiming one of the great and most important Texas and American music legacies.”
Still, the night brought back countless memories for back-in-the-day Austinites and Texas natives like Earle, who said he’d sworn he wasn’t doing SXSW this year — until Black called to request his presence at the tribute.
“Doug Sahm is my own hometown personal rock ‘n’ roll hero, for all of my life,” said Earle, who reported that he knew he’d made it when Sahm referred to him as “a San Antonio cat.” After performing “The Rains Came” and his own, heavily Sahm-influenced “San Antonio Girl” with his Dukes bandmates Eleanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson, Earle said, “See you when I get there, maestro.”
The remarkably well-paced night was filled with “San Antonio cats,” including Sexton and film director Robert Rodriguez, who performed with his band, Chingon. “I grew up with this music … it meant a lot to my family growing up,” he said. “We passed the guitar around and played a rockin’ version of this song, called ‘Hey Baby Que Paso.’ And we just had so much fun with his music.” He dedicated it to a cousin who’d passed away that morning in a car accident. Choking up a bit, Rodriguez added, “This music’s gonna lift him up to the heavens, up there where he can see Doug.”
(Sadly, Rodriguez’s sister Patricia Vonne, who’d just performed a beguiling version of “And It Didn’t Even Bring Me Down,” learned of her cousin’s death from that dedication.)
Sahm, who died in 1999 at 58, began performing at age 4. When legendary Houston producer Huey B. Meaux decided Sahm should jump on the British Invasion bandwagon in 1965, he and keyboardist Meyers formed the Sir Douglas Quintet. Despite their Texas accents and Hispanic band members, they somehow pulled it off — and claimed Bob Dylan as a fan. But songs like “Mendocino” already conveyed their Tex-Mex sensibilities, which flowered fully with the Texas Tornados.
That supergroup also featured Meyers, accordionist Flaco Jimenez and late guitarist Freddy Fender; unfortunately, Grammy and Americana lifetime achievement awardee Jimenez missed the tribute because he broke his hip the week before, but Meyers — who still performs with the Shawn-fronted Texas Tornados — was in fine form.
During the finale, he traded keyboard riffs with Marcia Ball, who’d opened the evening with a reunion — after 36 years — of her first Austin band, Freda & the Firedogs (with bassist Speedy Sparks, also a Texas Tornado). The nearly 3½-hour show also featured the Bizarros (“Groovers Paradise”), the Krayolas (“Who’ll be the Next in Line”), keyboardist Terry Allen (“I’m Not that Kat Anymore”) and Australian duo Lulac (“Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Song”). Flores rocked on “Rollin’ Rollin’”; Kirchen and the West Side Horns brought “Think It Over” before the horns nearly stole the show with a pair of instrumentals.
Lafayette, La., guitarist C.C. Adcock came “to give back a little grease,” calling Sahm’s music “a Gulf Coast thing.”
“I think San Antonio to Mobile [Ala.] has got a sound,” Adcock observed before duetting with Sexton on a sexy medley including “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” “Crazy Baby” and “Please Mr. Sandman.” Fellow Louisianans the Iguanas offered “Nuevo Laredo” and “Nitty Gritty”; Sexton provided another highlight with sultry renditions of “Why Why Why” and “The Song of Everything” (the Sexton-produced Los Super 7 album Heard It on the X features Raul Malo on the latter tune).
When the Shawn Sahm-led Texas Tornados appeared, with Carrasco, the horns, Earle and rotating rhythm players including Meat Puppets timekeeper Shandon Sahm, the attentive audience finally took to the aisles, dancing to “Texas Tornado,” “Who Were You Thinking Of,” “Is Anybody Going to San Antone,” “Adios Mexico” “Mendocino,” “Down on the Border” and even “Meet Me in Stockholm.”
Among the drummers was Bill Bentley, Vanguard Records’ vice president of A&R and co-producer of the 2009 Sahm tribute album Keep Your Soul, who sat behind one of two kits for “Groover’s Paradise” and other songs, trading off with or accompanying Tornados drummer Ernie Durawa and house band drummer Mike Buck (a sideman for Sahm and Roy Head). In addition to Sir Doug bassist Jack Barber, the house band also included guitarist Denny Freeman, who has alternated with Sexton in Dylan’s band, and former Austinite Julie Christensen, a longtime Leonard Cohen backing vocalist.
Head gave the kids a lesson in showmanship with his mic-swinging delivery of his biggest hit just before that finale.
Earlier in the night, Black referenced another beloved late member of Austin’s music community with a story about a Tornados performance at Clifford Antone’s iconic club.
“Clifford says, ‘C’mon, come over. Look up there,’” Black related. “I look up in the rafters and said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Doug’s up there. And he’s listening.’
“And Clifford’s up there and Doug’s up there and they’re listening,” Black said Saturday, “and they’re smiling.”