By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Resentments are not a band, yet they are exactly what a band should be: five guys playing together for the sake of the song, the music. A conglomeration of Austin talent that, until recently, only played most every Sunday night at The Saxon Pub in their hometown, the group sports a front-line of veteran guitarists Stephen Bruton, Jon Dee Graham, and Scrappy Jud Newcomb (all of whom write songs and sing), backed by drummer Mambo John Treanor and bassist Bruce Hughes. But don't call them an Austin supergroup, even though they are a super Austin group, representing the city's mythical ethos of playing music for the sheer sake of playing at its best. Enough of those have already come and gone.
If one were to design this band, it would certainly look good on paper. Consider the stats for a moment: playing with everyone from Bonnie Raitt to John Doe to Poi Dog Pondering. Having songs covered by such diverse artists as Willie Nelson and Patty Smyth. A former drummer and founding father who happens to be country star Hal Ketchum. Sets that can include everything from Big Star's "Thirteen" to Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business." Such guest stars as Ray Wylie Hubbard, former NRBQ guitarist turned hit Nashville songwriter Al Anderson, and LeRoi Brother Steve Doerr. And, this weekend in Dallas, former Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne bassist Mark Andes sitting in (subbing for an otherwise-engaged Hughes). Of course, if The Resentments came together with the express purpose of forming a band to take a swipe at grabbing the brass ring, it probably wouldn't work anywhere near as well, if at all.
Yet The Resentments succeed admirably at what a band should, theoretically, be all about. "Anything can get said on stage, and anything can get played on stage. And it's nice to have that," observes Graham, the former True Believer who now boasts two acclaimed solo CDs. "Everybody's ear-deep in doing their own thing, and trying to make that work, and trying to get ahead and all that, and it's nice to come here, where that's not really a concern. This is just where we come to play. It's not about the business, it's not about the CDs. It's where we come to play."
Gypsy Tea Room
And that they do. Not with flash, but with feel and interchange--once again, as a band should. Songs are traded and embellished, not like at a folk guitar pull, but rather in the fashion an ongoing group might. Rather than play arrangements, The Resentments arrange as they play, each of them trying to bring something to the table, which may be one reason why it all sounds like a band, as some of its members explain as they sit in the Saxon Pub's pool room after finishing a show.
"I like it because there's a lot of musical conversation going on," notes Treanor, who has played percussion and drums with James McMurtry, Kris Kristofferson, and Austin's long-running world-beat jazz band Beto y Los Fairlanes, among many others. "Everybody's listening to each other, and there's a lot of musical conversation going on, licks being traded back and forth, questions and answers...It's almost like a jazz gig, if you look at jazz as a process of musical conversation. It's real heavy like that. It just goes there collectively."
That was never part of the plan. Actually, nothing has ever been part of the plan; there isn't one. The last time The Resentments rehearsed, it was before their very first show some three years ago, and with a different lineup from the one the unit has mutated into now. "We're not against rehearsal," explains Hughes, who is a veteran of Poi Dog Pondering, Cracker, and The Ugly Americans, as well as the newest Resentment at a year running.
"It just hasn't happened yet," Treanor says.
"We just don't know if we're for it," chimes in Hughes.
Then Bruton adds a last word: "Rehearsal has its time and place in other bands. Just not this one." After all, they probably don't need to rehearse, for reasons Bruton makes obvious. "I'll bring in something new and try it, and usually by the second verse, everyone has it."
The post-show repartee reflects another essential element of The Resentments that goes beyond the music: the onstage bantering and wisecracking between songs, especially between the acerbic wits of Bruton and Graham, who trade quips as effectively as they trade licks. "It's really funny, because we're doing a live record, and we had to listen down to all the cuts and see what version is best," says Graham. "And I was shocked at all the talking there is. Man, it was like 45 minutes from switch on to switch off, and there was only like eight songs, maybe."
But just as the music isn't rehearsed, the running commentary--frequently on the state of affairs in Austin--isn't a routine. "It's not like something we go after," Bruton explains. "It's just a by-product of everybody not really taking it seriously. I think if we were all up there trying to be a big thing, it wouldn't work. Consequently, it does work. Because at the same time, the musicianship is there. And the songs are there. It's its own little perpetual-motion machine."
The origin of The Resentments is simple. About three years ago, Saxon Pub owner Joe Ables offered Bruton--who has played with Raitt and Kris Kristofferson, produced Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Alejandro Escovedo, and put out three fine solo discs of his own--a regular Sunday-night slot. Since "the great folk scare of the late '50s and early '60s got me into playing guitar," explains the Fort Worth native, "I really thought it would be nice to have a place where I could play acoustically." He invited Ketchum, who was living in Austin at the time, to share the night, and recruited Graham to join them.
"Hal and Stephen wanted to get together here and just do a sit-down night," Graham recalls. "And then, the more we started talking about it, they brought me in. Then we were trying to figure out what to do about drums, and Hal said, 'You know, I started off playing drums, let me do it.' And then it just turned into this thing." Ketchum's bassist Keith Carper initially held down the bottom end, while former Storyville and Joe Ely guitarist David Holt rounded out the lineup.
"We just showed up and started playing," Bruton says. "We had a couple of rehearsals just to get familiar. It was real fun, man. It was one of those things with absolutely no pressure. There's a lot of levity, and it seems that everyone is on an equal playing field, playing-wise, so it's real hard to throw anyone a curve up there, because everyone's done it all. So it's real fun to bring in a '20s jazz song, or a new song." Bruton then points to Treanor. "He walks in one night and gives everybody a chart, and says, 'It's a Cajun song,' and we just did it."
Such informality even extends to group membership, as former Loose Diamond and current Toni Price cohort Newcomb notes when asked how he became a Resentment. "I'm not really sure," he says. "They asked me to play a few shows, and then I was playing all of them. I'm not sure what the circumstances are, and I've never asked."
When Graham comes off stage after the group's first set at The Saxon Pub a few Sundays back, I suggest to him that The Resentments are kind of like church. "Yeah," he says with a laugh. "It's every Sunday, and it's hard to walk home afterward from both of them." No, that's not a double entendre, as if The Resentments fill their early Sabbath evening crowd with spirits rather than the spirit. Their crowd isn't the last-gasp party-hearty bunch trying to get in their final blasts before work on Monday. Rather, it's listeners who also like to get up and dance to, of all things, an acoustic group of singer-songwriters sitting on stage. You try to figure it out.
Maybe it's because the good time the musicians are having onstage--genuine enjoyment, not the false enthusiasm of trying to sell a set of songs, as so many gigs seem--is infectious. "More than anything, what it's sort of become is that I love playing with these guys," says Graham. "I love playing these songs in an acoustic format. When we're doing my songs off my two records, the approach on it is so different. And I really like that. It keeps the stuff from getting stale, because I get to hit it differently every week."
For Hughes, joining The Resentments had a similar appeal. "It's a bunch of great musicians. Who wouldn't want to play with them?" he asks. "There's nothing more to say about it. It allowed me the opportunity to learn a bunch of great songs, sit in with some super-caliber musicians. And also, they were already complaining, so I fit right in."
Treanor calls the Sunday-night stand "my favorite gig." And Newcomb, the youngest of the bunch, finds the whole affair incredibly enlightening. "Not to be over-the-top with anything, but it's just such a thrill to play with all those guys," he says. "Much like the Toni Price situation, it's like a guitar lesson every time you sit down to play with people of that caliber. That's absolutely how I see it."
With the pressure off, their two-set shows are almost like witnessing a living-room jam: guys swapping songs, trading riffs, and cracking jokes, all for their own mutual pleasure. "That's one of the things about being here, is that I don't care about whether we're cool or not, and I don't particularly care what people think," Graham says. "So there's a lot more chance for us to just open up and do what we do."
"It's just purely musical, which is a good thing," Newcomb concludes. "It always feels good to me, and there's some nights when, man, those songs are just...as perfect as they can be. If I was watching that band, that is what would keep me coming back."