In an age of commercialization, wherein big shots such as U2 undergo Lon Chaney-into-Wolfman transformations in calculated attempts to remain hip to fans half their age, it's refreshing to run across Malford Milligan.
As the frontman and big voice behind Austin's Storyville, Milligan (pictured) practices a times-gone-by sort of soul-rock in which a guidebook Texas guitar sound serves as the backdrop for fevered vocal cruises with Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Aaron Neville as guides. Storyville's music is as pure and genuine as it is time-honored, and to hear Milligan reference such old heroes in his music has nothing to do with the brand of grave-robbing practiced by Styx or Pat Benatar, who shamelessly feed on their own corpses. Although Storyville nods to an older genre, there's enough contemporary and creative songwriting to keep it fresh, and to see the band blister through an evening of funky roadhouse rock--with Milligan stomping in Frankenstein fury about the stage--is to recall that old General Public song: "So hot you're cool, so cool you're hot."
Milligan's voice is simply the most distinctive and powerful in Texas since Janis Joplin--he's every bit as exuberant, yet more disciplined and in control--and absolutely without the hoarse and ragged excesses and histrionics wrought of heroin and Southern Comfort. That alone makes Storyville worth listening to, but the melodic, signed-sealed-and-delivered groove goes far beyond Milligan's pipes. As delivered by one of the best Texas "super groups" ever assembled--guitarists Dave Holt (Carlene Carter, the Mavericks) and David Grissom (Joe Ely, John Mellencamp), and the locked and loaded rhythm section of Tommy Shannon and Chris "Whipper" Layton--Storyville is a musical force of almost awesome pedigree.
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Originally, though, the Storyville concept was just as a solo project for Milligan. With producer, guitarist, and songwriter Stephen Bruton, the singer entered the studio surrounded by the cream of Austin sidemen to record an album called Bluest Eyes, which came out in '95 on the fledgling November Records label. What emerged from those sessions was a many-splendored CD featuring a series of gritty, funkin' rock songs o'er which Milligan conducted his voice in symphonic fashion. The driving, heart-wrenching title track, based on Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's novel of the same name, brought an emotional depth and perspective to the album's surface grooves; Milligan is an albino African-American for whom the novel's pain and longing stuck a particularly deep chord.
By '96, the band signed with Atlantic/Code Blue and recorded A Piece of Your Soul. While the album lacked a cogent centerpiece like "Bluest Eyes," the overall feel was more precise and focused. Subsequent road work has tightened an ensemble that was tight to begin with, and Milligan remains a force--a true, if criminally unknown, Texas musical treasure.
Storyville performs June 12 at the Caravan of Dreams.