With the rollicking spirit of an Irish wake, this collection celebrates the indomitable essence of Ronnie Lane, whose career culminated in a love affair with Austin, Texas. Through the mid-to-late 1980s, the laid-back city and the buoyant Lane were plainly a match made in heaven, even as his body suffered the hellish ravages of two decades of multiple sclerosis.
Elsewhere, he might have been considered a broken-down has-been, but in Austin he was not only a hero, he was a catalyst. From Alejandro Escovedo’s Orchestra to Poi Dog Pondering through the acoustic interplay of Toni Price’s sit-down, “hippie hour” sets, Lane cast a stone into the pool that has continued to ripple long after his departure.
To the world at large, and particularly in the States, Lane’s homespun artistry has been overshadowed by brighter luminaries — by Steve Marriott in the Small Faces (though bassist Lane was largely responsible for writing “Itchycoo Park”, the band’s breakthrough hit); by Rod Stewart in the Faces; as junior partner to Pete Townshend, Ronnie Wood and Eric Clapton in subsequent collaborations.
He achieved his highest Stateside profile as the poster boy for M.S., when illustrious buddies including Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck rallied to his aid. Their 1984 benefit concert in Houston, where Lane had moved for its medical care, received cover-story coverage from Rolling Stone. The aftermath proved a fiasco of financial mismanagement (not by Lane), and Lane left Houston for the more music-minded city of Austin.
Long before “unplugged” sessions and “jam band” looseness returned to musical vogue, Lane and his younger Lone Star compatriots were developing a synergy that was well ahead of the stylistic curve. As this collection of late-’80s radio tapes and club performances attests, the interplay extended the gypsy troubadourism of Lane’s Slim Chance, his post-Faces British band that highlighted his music’s folkish underpinnings without sacrificing the more raucous energy of his rock years.
For the musicians who fell into Lane’s Austin orbit — guitarists Escovedo and Rich Brotherton, violinists Susan Voelz and Mary Hattersley, accordionist R.C. Banks, and many others who enlisted in the Texas division of Slim Chance — working with Lane was a turning point or even the high point of their musical lives.
It certainly proved significant for Escovedo, for whom Lane’s music provided a retreat from the True Believers and refuge from the rock wars, just as Lane was finding refuge in Austin. One of the oddities of this collection is that, before the 1988 taping that dominates the album, Lane had recently fired Escovedo for excessive drinking. For Alejandro, who had considered the hell-raising Faces the embodiment of everything a rock band should be (both on and offstage), this was like being booted by Willie Nelson for smoking too much pot.
With Lane’s bands otherwise in loose and lively form, Brotherton proves a virtuosic replacement for Escovedo (who is limited here to a couple of ’87 performances). The 18-song selection spans Lane’s career with the Faces and beyond, highlighting the finest of his solo work and featuring a couple of newer compositions unavailable elsewhere (including one written with Steve Marriott, when the Small Faces duo reunited as the Majic Mijits).
As such, the collection serves equally well as a summation and an introduction, since the Slim Chance albums, even as imports, have been so sporadically available Stateside. The common denominator throughout Lane’s music is his impish lilt, a spirit that would prove even more compellingly bittersweet (like the girlishness in Billie Holiday’s voice through her latter-day rasp) as his body deteriorated. Whatever fate had befallen him, you couldn’t feel sorry for Lane, not when his music remained such a buoyant toast to life’s richness, marked by melodic grace and a celebration of simple pleasures, backed by musicians whose artistry soared even as the singer found it increasingly difficult to move.
The between-song banter with his bandmates shows that Lane was plainly a beloved leader, one whose material allowed for plenty of creative freedom. Thus, “The Poacher”, one of Lane’s biggest British solo hits, here could pass for a Poi Dog arrangement, while his version of R.C. Banks’ “Under The April Skies” sounds as much like Lane as his own compositions. The more recent material includes the seductively insistent (though grammatically challenged) “Spiritual Babe”, which became such an integral part of the Texas musical landscape that Joe Ely would include it in his live sets, as exhaustive notes by album compiler Kent Benjamin inform.
Though the bulk of the album features Lane with acoustic backing, a three-song interlude at the Back Room finds him fronting the Tremors, a harder-rocking bar band, with guest support from saxophonist Bobby Keys. Preceding their raucous version of the Faces’ “You’re So Rude” is a phone call from best mate Ian McLagan, recounting both the genesis of the song the two wrote and Lane’s departure from the band.
Other highlights range from the Depression-era lament of “Buddy Can You Spare A Dime”, punctuated by the brass of Poi Dog’s Dave Crawford, to a zydeco-tinged romp through Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”, to a version of “Barcelona” (co-written with Eric Clapton for Lane’s final studio album) in which the airy arrangement evokes the big skies of Texas.
For all the variety, my two favorites are “Annie” and “Nowhere To Run”, a pair of songs from 1977′s Rough Mix album with Pete Townshend. Apparently, these weren’t part of Lane’s regular set, but suggestions from radio buddy and occasional accompanist Jody Denberg.
The performances documented through this collection were the last music the wheelchair-bound Lane would record. In 1994, he moved to the drier climate of Colorado, where he died three years later, at the age of 51.
Belatedly, Live In Austin celebrates the living legacy of his Austin years while serving as a labor-of-love elegy. Bookending the album are two different performances of “Ooh La La”, Lane’s signature tune with the Faces, its older-but-wiser chorus so often quoted as poignant prophecy:
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger
For me, however, the more appropriate benediction comes from “Annie”, the loveliest song he ever wrote:
Hear the children, they call, Annie
Every leaf must fall, Annie
God bless us all, Annie
Wherever we’ll be.