As the audience stood and swayed, or remained in place and kept time nodding their heads up and down, others held hands with their soulmates and remembered the first times they’d loved live music Austin-style. Still other longtime Van fans danced (and danced) like no one was watching, but it was all good as everyone has their own way of appreciating the live concert experience.
Others just smiled back at those next to them, drinking in every moment of the music, in genteel revelry among friends. The diverse crowd had one thing in common above all else—they acknowledged that “their Van” was as grand as always, perhaps better than ever, not just another of his nights to shine. It was, after all, his birthday and for most, it wasn’t their first Birthday Bash to attend either.
Wilks doesn’t have to be billed as Austin’s Favorite Guitarist, because everyone already knows he is, for both electric and acoustic guitars. Whether his distinction by the Austin Chronicle as a member of their Texas Music Hall of Fame, or being voted for yet another new title, Van Wilks is straightforward all about the music. It’s his job and he sets the world on fire every time he goes to work. He keeps his hat on his head and his mind on the music, another aspect of his demeanor as admirable as his sheer talent.
In the photo above here, see how many of these multitalented musicians, poets, legends and kings of Texas this 'n' that you can name. True Texans can name 'em all. True music lovers can name them all. If you score about 75% of them, then you really love your music. If less than 75%, you really need to get out more and here more live music. Austin is calling you. Can't you just hear the whistle of the train a-blowin'?
What’s especially cool is that live music fans, old and new, find Van’s guitar playing as eloquent as the way he tells stories in his songs, complete with a perfect voice for a storyteller. It didn’t matter last night whether you could name every song from his rich nine-CD catalog (and sing along) or whether it was a first time for some to hear Van playing live, birthday enthusiasts fully appreciated the essence of what it meant to be schooled in the blues.
It’s most fitting that Van was on the cover of April’s “Buddy Magazine”; a few guests found a spare copy or two in Threadgill’s newspaper display for patrons. Legends flow in and among the bands and gigs and players that were (and are) part of Van's rich history to date. Accolades don't overwhelm him as he cares only about the music. Wilks and has held the title of “Best Blues-Rock Band” four consecutive years in Austin, as noted by the Austin Chronicle Music Poll, it’s always about playing with the best musicians who love the genre as much as he does, including Charlie Fountain on drums and Dave Ray on bass. Together they’re just perfect. Pictured below is the lovely Lisa North, music and PR specialist, who keeps folks in the know about many fine Austin-based artists.
Wilks opened with “Strange Girl” from his ninth and best, latest CD, “21st Century Blues,” a must-have album, if you don’t have it already. “Golddigger” was another crowd favorite that kept the fans at total attention. At the end of the song, Van said, “You know it’s my birthday, you don’t have to be quiet here,” and then the crowd let out an appreciative roar into the Austin night.
Phone videos were launched, selfies to prove that people had actually been there were flying, and the crowd flowed gently around between old friends, new friends, and the generously placed bar areas. The perfect Austin evening weather was another present to Van, as earlier in the day, central and east Texas had high winds, hail, and ridiculously wild weather mid-afternoon. But it was clear 21st century skies, full moon, and Travis County’s finest music backyard in time for the party. Standards, originals, covers and more of the best music played on to a crowd that was filled with people who really didn't want it to end.
Speaking of the CD “21st Century Blues,” you can catch San Antonio native and Grammy winner/songwriter Christopher Cross and Austin treasure Malford Milligan as guests on the track, “She Makes Me Crazy,” (written by Cross). Another distinctive track on “21st Century Blues” is “Drive By Lover,” co-written by Van and Billy F. Gibbons, member of a little Texas band called ZZ Top. Yes, it’s the same Mr. Gibbons who so respects Van Wilks that, years ago, he gifted with a custom guitar with Van’s name logo engraved in the guitar neck. Try and follow that gift! You can’t.
Typical of a man who is at the top of his game, Van also generously embraced newer talent to Austin's scene, The Cuckoos, who opened for their good friend's birthday. First listen to the hauntingly good vocalist, true that you could think Jim Morrison was alive and well in Kenneth Frost. The Brothers North excelled also on original music, highlighted by funky bassist Devin North and scary-good guitarist Dave North, and rounded out with a solid Aaron Primeaux on drums.
The Cuckoos are catching fire quickly in Austin’s live music scene and with good reason. Their original music also shows great promise, and their version of “When Doves Cry” did Prince proud last night as well. Frost introduced the song succinctly with, “Y’all get ready for this!” Solid crowd favorites, start paying attention now so you can say later that “you knew them when.” They’re in the recording studio now.
Tommy Shannon came on stage celebrate Van's birthday with bass so smokin' hot that --together with Van's guitar genius made for, well, Double Trouble on “Keep Your Bird In the Cage and Your Monkey on a Chain,” another Wilks’ live favorite. Tommy and Van go way back, to say the least. Last night Van talked of a time that they played together in an early band. Van said, “Tommy and I toured all over the place, even in some silly places like ice skating rinks or hockey arenas, pretty fun days, and then he joined another band….”
Shannon may have played with Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Rick Derringer, for example, but when he played last night with Van, you felt like you were back in high school. Their music made you feel young again, possibly like the first time you heard these songs. These days you can catch The Tommy Shannon Blues Band most Wednesdays at Antone’s Night Club.
Van has been playing popular acoustic sets pre-show at Austin’s One World Theatre, so just don’t forget about his skills as an acoustic player, too. In the next month you’ll find him in downtown Houston, downtown Shiner, back in Austin, and on the boardwalk at Kemah. Check his web site for gig info. Treat yourself to a copy of 21st Century Blues and if you order from his web site, he’ll autograph before his team sends them out.
When Van has a birthday, we all get to celebrate. Mark your calendars for next year because if you miss it, you really will get the blues.
Crowds will show up anytime Van is there but the b-day bash was special. Amateur video captured fun of those who danced "like no one was watching" among hundreds just happy to be part of the groove. Happy birthday Van, & thanks for the music.