Roadshows

Splendor in the bluegrass
Sometimes, it seems there's not a Texas band in which Mark Rubin hasn't played, nor a style of music he has not performed. He was a member of the original incarnation of Killbilly, handling his antique upright bass like Hank Aaron handled a bat; for Rubin, there was nothing he couldn't play, no song he couldn't hit out of the club--country, punk, bluegrass, whatever, everything was a slow fat pitch down the middle of the plate. He lent his tuba to Kathy McCarty's Dead Dog's Eyeball, the dazzling tribute to Daniel Johnston; for a brief moment, he was also a member of the Austin Klezmorim, perhaps the only so-called "Jewish jazz" band in all the state. He has played with folkie Peter Rowan and conjunto keeper-of-the-flame Santiago Jimenez Jr.; for a while, he was also in Donny Ray Ford's Honkytonkers. And, of course, Rubin is a founding member of the Bad Livers.

As evidence of his legend among those who know him, Mark Rubin was the only man to have had a panel named for him at this year's South by Southwest music conference in Austin--"My Breakfast with Rubin," it was called, a roundtable discussion with former Glass Eye singer-guitarist Kathy McCarty and a couple of psych professors and therapists that asked the musical questions: "Can you forge a music career without selling your soul or losing your mind? Can you be creative without being in pain?" They are subjects about which Rubin, the tuba-blowin'-bass-slappin' Bad Liver, knows well, having long pondered how to make a living playing a form of music so maddeningly undefinable.

The Livers are, at their most basic, indie-rock's version of bluegrass that's as much Iggy Pop as Bill Monroe, as much gospel as it is country as it is Tex-Mex, acoustic music as powerful as anything electrified. With three amazing musicians--Rubin, Danny Barnes on banjo and lead vocals, Ralph White on fiddle--the Livers tread the high ground between novelty and ethnomusicology, never taking too seriously the craft they approach with straight faces. And it is, finally, the sort of music one could never sell out, if only because so few people have bought in.

For five years and on a handful of cassettes and CDs, the Bad Livers have created a sound that stands squarely in the middle of Texas tradition: it's rock and roll being played on a fiddle and a banjo, equally at home at a hoedown or in front of a Butthole Surfers crowd. They are traditionalists raised on punk and folk among so many other things, revisionists who redefine themselves and their sound every time they take the stage.

The Bad Livers perform May 13 at Club Clearview.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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