MARFA – Tri-county residents were treated to a first listen of Terry Allen’s new songs Saturday night at the Crowley Theater.
The Texas musician spent a week prior to the surprise show rehearsing with his band consisting of fiddler Richard Bowden, vocalist Shannon McNally, drummer Davis McClarty, guitarist Charlie Sexton, who just finished a tour with Bob Dylan, and multi-instrumentalist Bukka Allen, who is also Allen’s son. For an upcoming show on January 19 at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Allen wants to prepare all new material, so he brought the band to Marfa to work with the goal to perform them to an audience.
“I wanted to do a show of songs in front of people for the first time to see how it worked,” said Allen.
The show announcement came Saturday morning, giving enough time for residents and visitors to fill the seats that night. It was free to attend but donations were collected for Marfa Studio of Arts. Allen and his band performed for an hour and a half. While it was the first time the audience heard these songs, they at times laughed at Allen’s satirical lyrics and bobbed their heads and tried to contain their dancing to their seats. The evening concluded with an encore filled with five of Allen’s most notable songs, including “Amarillo Highway” and “Flatland Boogie” (dedicated to his wife, Jo Harvey, who sat close to the stage during the show). The audience didn’t hesitate to stand up for two standing ovations.
Allen also dedicated two new songs - “Sailing on Through” and “City of the Vampires” - to the late Valentine artist Boyd Elder, who passed away in October and was one of Allen’s oldest friends. The two artists met in 1962, standing in line to register for Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Their West Texas roots – Allen from Lubbock and Elder from Valentine – helped them instantly connect and they stayed in touch through the years.
“We could be anywhere in the world and you turn around and you might see Boyd. You never know,” Allen laughs.
Saturday was Allen’s first show without El Chingadero, but he felt Elder was still lingering around.
“I felt like that little rat is in the wings somewhere,” said Allen.
“City of the Vampires” is a campy song about what happens when the circus comes to the vampires’ town. Allen co-wrote it with his then-eight-year-old grandson as he stood next to his grandfather and told him when to include each character in the song.
“He kinda guided me and picked which mode I played in, so it’s a total collaboration,” Allen says with a smile.
It’s usually a family affair at a Terry Allen show. Bukka is usually next to his dad on stage during performances and sometimes Allen’s other son Bale joins them.
Allen celebrated the 2016 rerelease of two of his ‘70s albums, Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything) with a gig at Saint George Hall. A few months later, he spent a week celebrating his 55th wedding anniversary with Jo Harvey that included a live performance at Saint George Hall. Open to the public, Allen performed with his sons and a group of longtime friends including two-third of the Flatlanders, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, and Talking Heads’ David Byrne.
After that performance, Hotel Saint George owner Tim Crowley offered Allen the Crowley Theater as a practice space. Allen invited his friends and they spent 10 days writing songs. Some were debuted at Saturday’s show.
“I felt really good about it. I was trying so hard to concentrate on the songs because it’s always a little unnerving doing new songs,” said Allen, a guy who’s been in the music business for over 50 years.
He added that the feeling is about wanting this thing you’re making to be as good as possible, even if you don’t know what it means yet. Despite the fact that he has recorded 12 albums and has performed a multitude of shows with prolific musicians, each endeavor feels new and scary to him, but it helps him learn. The audience’s reaction helps Allen solidify the songs he’d like to record and present at the Paramount show.
“It was really a working night. It was a great night in that sense,” said Allen. “It was an incredible, productive trip for us.”