Jerry Jeff Walker Throws Texas-Sized Birthday Bash

Four-day celebration includes gig with Walker, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and others.

AUSTIN,Texas — Texas troubadour Jerry Jeff Walker turned 59 this weekend. In keeping with a tradition established 13 years ago, he hosted a Texas-scale party to celebrate.

But the highlight of the weekend was Saturday night's "unplugged" show at the Paramount Theater, where, with a little imagination, the faux-watering hole — dubbed JJ's Saloon — built on the stage fit the part of a cozy beer joint.

The barroom set helped establish a comfortable, down-home feel for the evening's concert, but the real transformation came with the music and fond memories shared by Walker and his guests. For the sold-out crowd, it couldn't get much better.

Bob Dylan compatriot Ramblin' Jack Elliott took the stool beside Walker at center stage to kick off the affair. The dusty-voiced cowboy — downright dapper in a red silk western shirt, vest and bodacious cowboy hat — sang Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" in his inimitable style, much to the delight of the audience.

Then came the yarns and the anecdotes from a life well lived. After fracturing Walker and the crowd with a tale about his automobile-driving dog Caesar, Elliott performed a tribute to another canine named Old Shep. Somehow the amiable singer managed to keep a straight face and continue strumming as Walker crouched before him and placed a comforting paw on his knee during the tune's sentimental chorus. It was a clear indicator of how the rest of the evening would proceed, and everybody in the house was prepared to be swept up in the warm-hearted vibe already permeating the beautifully restored concert hall.

Clearly on a roll, Elliott further endeared himself to host and audience with more amusing stories and colorful tunes. The topper was a hilarious Dylan tale followed by a unique version of "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," after which he took a seat among friends on the JJ's Saloon set.

Memory Lane Revisited

Walker then introduced a trio of old buddies with whom he shared a modest apartment on Thompson Street in New York City for a few years in the '60s. Paul Siebel, Keith Sykes and Gary White, all accomplished songwriters who have had tunes recorded by Walker, joined their old flat-mate to play and swap stories.

The four sang and reminisced as if they were sitting around on Walker's front porch waiting for the brisket to smoke. After a song called "Those Were the Days," Walker cracked that he was slightly stunned he had "forgotten the line about forgetting lines." Of course, it didn't matter. Nor did a few missed notes or a verse or two done slightly off key.

After a short intermission, Walker took the spotlight with his Gonzo Compadres and Texas singer/songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard. As the composer of "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," Walker's most identifiable song besides his own classic "Mr. Bojangles" (RealAudio excerpt), Hubbard is an integral part of the Walker legacy. Both demonstrated genuine gratitude for the role each has played in the other's career.

Their set was full of mirth and merriment, with Walker and Hubbard at times erupting into side-splitting howls of laughter. The music was excellent as host and special guest swapped songs from various stages in their careers. Standouts were Walker's "Backslider's Wine" and Hubbard's "When She Sang Amazin' Grace," which he described as his unsuccessful effort to fuse gospel and folk for purely commercial purposes.

Stories Accompany Music

Between songs came the wild — and more than likely liberally embellished — stories about the genesis of songs, life on the road and the years of hard living for which both men are exceedingly well known. Of that period, Hubbard may have bested them all in the snappy-one-liner department. Recalling the time years ago when the members of Walker's Lost Gonzo Band left to tour with him, Hubbard likened the situation to "getting a different seat on the Titanic."

Then the inevitable occurred, and the group led an audience sing-along of "Redneck Mother" that may well have stood up to a rendition of "Margaritaville" at a Parrothead convention. Hubbard left the stage to a standing ovation and was waved back by Walker to do a poignant cover of Townes Van Zandt's "It's Snowing in Raton."

Hubbard exited stage right, leaving Walker and Compadres Fred Krc (drums), bassist Bob Livingston and guitarist John Inmon to cap off a satisfying evening.

After a few more tunes, the crowd seemed poised for the night's grand finale, which begged to be Walker's signature "Mr. Bojangles." Instead, after "Gypsy Songman," the title of Walker's latest recording as well as his recently released autobiography, the man of the evening thanked the audience for coming and invited everyone to an after-hours gathering at a nearby hotel.

The weekend's events also included a benefit golf tournament on Monday to fund a scholarship at Paul McCartney's Liverpool Insititute for the Performing Arts in England, a show at the Broken Spoke in Austin on Friday night and another on Sunday in the tiny but made-legend-in-song town of Luckenbach.