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The Gourds, Jovitas, Austin, TX- 12/29

Locals claim that some things happen only in Austin. At least this much is true: Nowhere else will you find the Gourds jamming in the dusty back room of a Mexican restaurant. Of course, Jovita’s a popular, politically progressive south side joint that offers live music six nights a week and the intimacy of a house concert is precisely the kind of place that relocates so many music enthusiasts to the capital city.

This homecoming is a particular treat. Though the Gourds long ago graduated to larger venues like Dallas’ Granada Theatre they giddily squeeze into this 200-capacity room tonight. After all, musical roots run deep in Austin. A group of longtime supporters near the back door confirms that notion, swapping stories about the band’s notorious “Gin and Juice” cover evolving on this very stage. (For the record, that fiddle-and-mando lark you sent to a pal around the turn of the millennium was the Gourds, not Phish, Dave Matthews or Blues Traveler.)

As that riotous take on Snoop Dogg suggests, the Gourds bring moonshine to the hootenanny. Listen closely, though that levity veils skewed, deep-browed lyrics seldom heard this side of Leonard Cohen. Here’s how the balance works. “You go shootin’ with your gun/Sunshine from the sun/You’ve gotta get the flavor on your tongue,” Kevin Russell sings on “Flavor on Your Tongue.” Before the mood threatens to darken toward introspection, Russell breaks quickly into a Chuck Berry duck walk fists punching the sky, smile an acre wide to combust the crowd.

The humor undoubtedly remains, but some things have changed. Once uncomfortably pigeonholed as an alt-country outfit with bluegrass tendencies, the Gourds have morphed into an honest-to-goodness jamband. Importantly, Russell often employs an electric guitar. His songwriting foil Jimmy Smith in Uncle Tupelo terms, Jeff Tweedy to Russell’s Jay Farrar has grown funkier, looser over time. Smith’s dirty bass grooves “Dr. Spivey,” “Mr. Betty” and “Kicks in the Sun,” the latter of which loops on a wave reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Rain,” nearly levitate this tiny stage.

Talk about a match for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Eclectic and boundlessly skilled this quintet mixes and matches instruments like others pass the potatoes it’s due time for the folks at Planet Bluegrass to extend an invitation. Look to Russell’s nonlinear masterpiece “How Will They Shine” for further proof. “You want to smell like roses/You want to ring like a bell,” Russell laments. “You want to shine like a TV in spite of yourself/Go cry me a river.” Like the Rocky Mountains, it’s a seamless blend of growl and grace.

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