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Published: 2009/03/24
by Brian Robbins

Keep Your Soul A Tribute To Doug Sahm various artists

Vanguard Records

The best memorial services I’ve been to have had as much to do with smiles as tears. In my mind, there’s no better way to honor those we’ve lost than with stories, laughter, and when appropriate music. In the case of Texas music legend Doug Sahm it was about all of the above plus the groove and the new Doug Sahm tribute album Keep Your Soul continues that tradition in fine fashion.

If you don’t know Doug Sahm, there’s no quick way to tell the story. Born in Texas in 1941, Sahm began his musical career as a young boy with an unreal mastery of the guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and pedal steel. His roots may have been in country music, but as “Little Doug” grew into “Sir Douglas,” his sound incorporated rock, blues, jazz, R&B and the hybrid blend that came to be known as “Tex-Mex.” The Sir Douglas Quintet nailed a number of hits in the 60s, including “She’s About a Mover” and the Vox organ-driven “Mendocino” tunes that rednecks and hippies alike could fall in love with. Ringing any bells?

How about this: haul out your copy of Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne from 1993. Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were in the presence of royalty as far as they were concerned when Sir Douglas joined them for a ragged-but-right run through his “Give Back The Key To My Heart.” Sadly, Sahm died in his sleep in 1999 at the age of 58 and the Keep Your Soul project was put together to mark the 10th anniversary of his passing. It does a great job of it.

Keep Your Soul wastes no time in laying down a big ol’ Sir Doug smilin’ groove: the album opener “She’s About A Mover” simply reeks of smoldering hot tube amps and where’d-that-backbeat-go-JESUS!-there-it-is rhythm, courtesy of guitarist Ry Cooder and his son, percussion demon Joachim Cooder. Throw it on and turn it up: by the time Little Willie G. launches into the vocal, you’ve already got a party going on, even if you’re the only one in the house.

From there, we’re treated to the kind of versatile musical world that defined Doug Sahm: Los Lobos sways through the sweet soul of “It Didn’t Even Bring Me Down,” Alejandro Escovedo builds a crunchy wall of sound and sings of “Too Little Too Late.” There’s sweet heartbreak (Greg Dulli’s pedal steel-soaked “You Was For Real”) and shouts of joy (Dave Alvin’s bouyant “She’s A Dynamite Woman”). Jimmy Vaughan lays some classic old-school Texas blues on us with “Why, Why, Why” and Charlie Sexton’s Mystic Knights Of The Sea blast through a sweat-drenched eff-the-effin’-curfew-we’re-locked-in-on-this-groove version of “You’re Doin’ It Too Hard.” The Tex-Mex side of Sahm’s catalog is well represented by the Gourds, Flaco Jimenez and the West Side Horns, and Sahm’s old buddies the Texas Tornados with Joe “King” Carrasco leading the charge.

The album’s closing cut may be the one that gets you: Sahm’s son Shawn leads the Sir Douglas Quintet through a perfect version of “Mendicino” (complete with a Vox break by Augie Meyers), “beautiful vibrations” and all. Even if Shawn’s tribute to his dad rolls a tear down your cheek, it’ll fetch up on a grin before it gets too far and does it get any better than that?

Groove on, Sir Douglas.

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