Artist: Jon Dee Graham
Venue: Continental Club
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 16 April 2014
On the advice of my bandmates, we took a field trip to see a local Austin favorite. Jon Dee Graham performs regularly at the Continental, playing just about every Wednesday night unless he's out of town. I wasn't sure what to expect of him, but I decided it was worth a shot to check him out.
Jon isn't a young musician by any means, but judging by his stage presence and his lyrics, he's clearly been around the block. I don't know many details about his history, but I do know he's been in several Texas bands and he's played guitar for a long time. His bandmates were not young either, but they too had the appearance of being quite familiar with the stage. While Jon did all of the singing and talking, he shared guitar parts (rhythm and lead) with a serious-looking but sharp-playing guitarist. Also present were a drummer and a bassist/backing vocalist.
Jon sings and plays guitar in a rootsy, uncomplicated, but emotionally compelling fashion. He doesn't have a pure or perfect voice, nor extensive range, but his voice does have strength and depth, and he clearly knows how to make the most of what he's got. Watching him sing was oddly captivating; he wasn't melodramatic or particularly showy, but he had a certain way of making me want to pay attention. His lyrics didn't lose themselves in metaphor or obscurity, but instead revealed honest and sometimes rather plain descriptions of life. I appreciated his willingness to break out of the narrow-mindedness of most songwriters who simply write about romance, as if that was all there was in the world.
In describing Jon, I find it hard not to use so many contrasting statements. This constant dichotomy underlies the crux of the experience. I felt like he wasn't quite up my alley, but he was appealing nonetheless. He didn't blow me away, but he kept surprising me in little ways, like a seamless chromatic ascension between radically different parts of a song, or a song sung in Spanish, as if he had been speaking bilingually the whole night. The bassist had a few tricks up his sleeve, but the second guitarist had even more. He switched between a semi-hollow Gibson and a dobro, both of which were tuned unconventionally, allowing for fingerings and phrasings that were easy to differentiate from Jon's. His expert use of a volume pedal to slide in and out of the mix made him all the more impressive.
I think I found myself enjoying the show more than I expected.
P.S. I did not see any of the other bands on the bill. We were on a mission.