Gruene Hall Tuesday Night Song Swap with Mark Jungers, Brock Zeman and Chris Wall, Gruene, Tx
There aren’t many places on the planet cooler than Gruene Hall. (Gruene, TX). The list of folks who’ve played there fills the roster of the great honky-tonk in the sky, and the ones who get to play there nowadays are always strong contenders for addition to that list. Texas’ oldest continuously operating dancehall has seen masterful performances ranging from George Strait and the Ace in the Hole Band in their infancy all the way on over to John Travolta and his Hollywood entourage when key scenes from the movie “Michael” were filmed on the old hardwood floor. But day in and day out, seven days a week, Gruene Hall opens its doors and plugs in the speakers for artists who honestly understand what it means to pour out a soul on a six-string. On weekends it’s big names: Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, Roger Creager (all playing there in the winter or early spring of 2012). Weeknights or in the afternoons it’s different. Sometimes the legends – as with Chris Wall on the night Gruene gave birth to this review – and sometimes just strong pickers who are blazing a trail the big bright lights haven’t quite caught up with yet. But always someone worth your time, and always a song playing that’ll grab you by the heart and pull your soul out through your ears before you figure out the first little bit of the puzzle on the Lone Star bottle cap.
One Tuesday night in February, Mark Jungers and his current road-tripping Canadian compadre Brock Zeman took the Hall by storm. Mark asked Chris to sit in with them, and the resulting maelstrom of songs took on the sort of wonder that’s just par for the life in Gruene.
Song swaps are an intriguing way for artists to deliver the fruits of their craft. They’re intimate, and they’re brutally honest. No band to hide behind, no wall of sound to camouflage a tough night for the vocal chords. Two or three or four artists hooked into the same equipment, no special consideration for the gain on a particular guitar, not a lot of customization in the feedback from the monitors. Just raw, open, bare knuckle tunesmithing. So in a way, for an audience, it’s akin to hearing the songs on the back porch or in the garage where they first took flight. All the fancy’s torn away, and only the magic and mystery (or lack thereof) remain. It’s always a bit of a wonder to realize that musicians are even willing to play these sorts of gigs. No confidence boost for the front man, no opportunity to take a room by the throat for three hours and bend an audience to your will. Certainly no id food for the fuckin’ egomaniacs who often lurk behind the mic over there on the bright side of the lights. So why do these guys do it? Apparently, two reasons. One, they like having the opportunity to try to share their songs in the truest of lights. Two, even grizzled road warriors like to sit back now and again and just listen to somebody they’d normally not get to hear churn out some fantastic songs. And of course, then try to one-up them with a better track.
The results can be disastrous, a first-degree felony aural assault. They can also be majestic, producing a transcendent evening where melodies waltz on the breeze and world-weary travelers find respite.
Mark, Chris, and Brock turned in one of the latter on a cool February evening in Gruene. Mark as host led off, and the other two guys followed in succession, one song at a time. For four hours they took turns trotting out their best stuff, honestly and attentively enjoying listening to each other, and then taking their best shots at impressing their stage mates when it was their turn to play again.
On the surface they’re something of an odd pairing, even if you just count Jungers and Zeman on their current tour. Mark has a nasal yet oddly engaging and subtly powerful vocal style, reminiscent at times of the ringing, harmonious flow of songs you remember from the ‘70s. His influences in a song swap setting are worn pretty much on his sleeve, yet he finds a way to captivate and project himself throughout. The harmonica he’s addicted to definitely helps. Zeman on the other hand is something of a growler, to a Texan’s ear perhaps the way a guy has to sound if he spends most of his life in the Canadian snows. And a definite rock/pop sensibility. Reminiscent at times of another Canadian, one whose best work came between 1983 (Cuts Like a Knife) and 1987 (Into the Fire). Forget the Bryan Adams who did that dipshit sappy song for Costner’s Robin Hood flick, think the one who still sets your blood to pumping when you hear the opening strains to “Summer of ’69.” Or the one you probably didn’t hear who ripped apart any conscientious heart that ever heard “Native Son.” Zeman can do all of that, but with an added layer of nuance and emotion evocative of Mike McClure if the former Great Divide frontman had eaten sandpaper for breakfast all his life. Zeman’s is a weathered, soulful voice, one that when wielded effectively is powerful in a manner beyond words. Jungers lacks that raw power, but his storytelling and the musical sensibilities he shrouds his songs within hit you deep and from a different angle.
Put Chris Wall in between those two, you wind up with a night where each new song finds you holding your breath with anticipation. Wall took advantage of a rare appearance in an acoustic setting to turn out some of his older songs audiences haven’t heard in years. Those great tunes from the pre-Reckless Kelly collaboration on the Tainted Angel CD that everybody seems to know. And Chris also has some new songs, for a new record in the works, that are as vivid and visceral as anything he’s ever done. It may be that age and hard lessons have honed this troubadour, and whatever the case, his craft is every bit as astounding as it ever was.
So for four hours in Gruene, a steady crowd got a dose of Jungers singing story songs and setting a pace, followed by Wall springing chestnuts old and new interspersed with the sort of road stories only the really good ones ever have, capped off with Zeman turning an acoustic show into some sort of Springsteen rock revival. One of those incredibly oddball dance cards that wind up being one of the very best nights of your life.
Three fantastic storytellers from three fantastically different backgrounds, sharing perspectives as disparate as oil and water. All in an atmosphere of genuine shared respect, attempting to one-up each other and then in a hurry to hear the next guy sing. With Gruene Hall and all of its very happy, very genuine ghosts as a backdrop.
Lone Star beer and Bob Wills music might not always be available, but the spirit of both coursed through Gruene on a February night in 2012 in a way that would’ve made any self-respecting Maya reconsider his visions of apocalypse. If every night in the world was like this one, nobody’d need Seal Team 6.
These three guys are as distinct as can be, and you may find that they don’t all appeal to your particular sensibilities. But you owe it to yourself to give ‘em each a good long listen, especially if you’re not familiar with them. They each offer some backroads and barrooms that are entirely worth your time.
For more on Gruene Hall visit www.gruenehall.com
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Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas.
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