More Stars Than There Are in Heaven
Honoring those who helped create, and now tend, the legacy of Clifford Antone
Originally published on June 2, 2006, in the Austin Chronicle
Last week was a broken, from-my-heart moan over the loss of Clifford. When I finished writing it, I had almost no idea of what it was. Still don't, because the grief still hasn't really hit.But this column is different; it's about Clifford, yes (next week we'll get back to the Constitution), but this one is for Susan Antone.
It's also for Derek O'Brien, Angela Strehli, Charlie Sexton, Paul and Diana Ray, Jimmie Vaughan, Sue Foley, Kim Wilson, Joe Ely, Denny Freeman, Riley Osborn, Bob Schneider, Lou Ann Barton, Ray Benson, Connie Hancock, and Marcia Ball. It's for Ian Moore, Will Sexton, Doyle Bramhalls I & II, Mike Judge, Miss Lavelle White, Gary Clark Jr., and the Keller Brothers. George Raines, Sarah Brown, Kaz Kazanoff, Jon Blondell, Speedy Sparks, Hubert Sumlin, Mel Brown, James Cotton, and C.B. Stubblefield are all included here, being acknowledged. This is especially for those whose names are not known to most of the crowds – the door people, bartenders, publicists, sound folks, bookers, and everyone on the staff – and it's for all those others, and more and more and more whose names are not listed.
Antone's is what it is, and what its legend is, because of Clifford. But working with Clifford were armies of the enthusiastic, committed, and devoted – working with, anticipating, independently creating, and envisioning the same dreams as Clifford did. Sure, Clifford Antone was just Clifford, but he was also the symbol, personification, representative, and leader of a community.
This takes nothing from Clifford, but only adds to his accomplishments. A teacher, a facilitator, a truly committed soul, a gifted cultural gambler, and a lover of the blues (the music and the players), Clifford brought out the best in people – lots and lots of people.
Next to Clifford, always, was Susan. When Clifford went off on his extended vacations at government expense, Susan ran the ship. Through those meanest storms and roughest waters, she stayed steady on the course. The community is there, as Clifford was never really alone; Susan isn't either. When times were bad, they were bad for both of them. When talent came ripping out of the crew, Susan was there to help cap the gusher. When Clifford was scheming, Susan was there with him. Often, she was a bit more alone in the actual executing.
The genius of Antone's is the community, and Clifford was always its leader. To be frank, naming stars is the easiest way to keep score and convey importance; the list provides shorthand for accomplishment. There are great teachers, guides, and influences that, lacking any star-followers, frequently don't get the credit they've earned. Names are easy, as they emphasize impact; conveying influence on any number of levels is a lot harder to describe.
Antone's, of course, produced "more stars than there are in heaven," as MGM once boasted. Many great musicians came of age on that stage and in front of Clifford. Even without any of those names, however, Clifford and company have had and still have an extraordinary influence. They not only nurtured a blues scene here in Austin but helped initiate a national blues renaissance as well. Great artists were brought back into the spotlight or finally achieved acclaim; younger talents were nurtured and educated; and audiences were entertained.
But isn't the real artwork in the art? The bottom line is that the club and its community, from early on, raised the bar for national aesthetic standards. They continue to raise it. Mature, creative ambition and adventurous artistry are requirements to even be of interest at the club. The goal is never to score above the cellar of acceptability, but to soar and keep soaring until wings melt. This is not about speed, technique, or showmanship, but taste and execution – the quality of music, depth of feeling, and the soul.
Writing on film for academic audiences has always been one of my greatest pleasures. I'm not talking about Rapunzel-towered pedants interested only in suffocating creativity under obscure verbiage, but those so in love with movies that they think about them in the most extended, knowledgeable, and passionate ways. There is nothing better than working in a situation where the audience really gets it, and their job is to keep up with you; it's not yours to reach down to them.
The blues scene, like many such national genre circuits, features any number of veterans playing 200-250 gigs a year, every year, often out on the road more than at home. These guys nearly always cook, but they know how to spice up an off night or an unremarkable set with a few musical pyrotechnics, accompanied by shared looks and shouted comments, as though they were inventing the heart of music itself right in front of this crowd.
When they play Antone's, there is no bravado. These are so often the best of the best. But they were playing for Clifford. And for an audience of the best: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton, Jay Trachtenberg, Denny Freeman, Stephen Bruton, Paul Ray, Derek O'Brien, Mike Buck, Margaret Moser, Jerry X Reed, the Hancocks, Jody Denberg, Jon Dee Graham, Larry Monroe, and on and on. No cheap flash or spruced-up old tricks will fool this crowd; on the other hand, if they're knocked out, there is no higher praise.
At Clifford's funeral, I watched as Charlie Sexton and Derek O'Brien helped Pinetop Perkins along. There it was in a single moment: Clifford's legacy. Not only do Sexton and O'Brien play better because they went to the school of Antone, but the national standards have been raised by those Texas hotshots who play with more genius than excess and more heart than cheap sex. This is about love, beauty, and the artistic joys of exquisite craftsmanship; listen to Sexton or O'Brien play. Against all odds, almost always with the option of kicking off some star rock band, Sexton has developed into a player of such beauty and skill. O'Brien seems older than time and younger than now, sometimes playing from someplace else. And Pinetop lives here. Pinetop is a teacher. Those who hear him play listen and learn. Pinetop is a presence, a rascal, and a musician. At this moment, it was really clear how extraordinary, remarkable, good, and righteous Clifford's work and achievements were. As with the old Sam Peckinpah family motto, Clifford Antone has entered his house justified. Just as he always entered the club. And, of course and thank God, Susan is here to honor his spirit and tend to not just that community, but all of us in its range.
This column honors Stevie Ray Vaughan, Doug Sahm, and Clifford Antone, as I hope many of them do, but it is for those they left behind, the ones still following their hearts and working out of love.