Paul Ray and the Cobras; to me, they were the ultimate mythic band. Not only because of who played in the band, but also for their reputation; to be named the best band in Austin in 1976 commands reverence. The fact that the only studio work to see the light of day w/ the original line-up is a rare 7 inch single (one apparently sold for $600 in a Dallas auction) only added to their mystique. To me, they represented the Austin that only exists in stories and memories anymore………. and I was going to get to see them in their one-night-a-year performance!
It had taken over a month of back and forth emails, unbending ‘no’s, pleading calls and emails to friends who’d been a part of the scene in its prime, etc, etc, and finally, I was given the go-ahead; I packed my car and headed for the Continental Club and Austin. Countless bad roads and alternate routes later, I was in front of the venue I’d heard so much about, that had taken on a life of its own in my mind. Not only that, I was about to see Denny Freeman not play a Bob Dylan song haha. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Dylan’s songs as much as ever, but if you know anything about me, you know just how much I dig this guy, so to see him as his own boss was guaranteed to really be something. Words cant really describe how much I was really looking forward to this
Unfortunately, in front of the venue was where I was to remain……… for a LONG time. The owner had neglected to tell the door guys that I was supposed to be let in I had an email, but since it was a forward, and not directly from the owner, that was no good. I was a half an hour early though, and the door guys were pretty friendly. They called Steve and left a message on his machine. I called my guy and left a message on his machine too. Especially from Colorado, the weather was by no means cold, but the light breeze made it that much harder to sit outside and watch the population inside steadily grow. The clock was ticking down, and still nothing. I was starting to really get a bit freaked out now. It was after 10, and though I’d been assured they wouldn’t start until it was packed, the next thing I know they’re taping the “sold out” sign to the door, and I’m still on the sidewalk! I talked to a friend a few minutes previous who promised that Steve would be there; he was always there to see them, but then I saw that same friend take the stage. All I could see of his guitar was the headstock: it was upside down and definitely not anything he’d ever used to play w/ Dylan. What was I missing?!?!?!?!?!
The worst, most indescribable feeling came over me when the opening notes of Sugaree hit me, still outside under the awning. Paul Ray wasn’t singing; I couldn’t see who the singer was, and I couldn’t see Denny from the shoulders down. I had to get out of the way a few times so that stragglers could get in, and I was finally reduced to leaning against the door frame. Paul came on for the second song, and I could see only his head bopping up and down. I tried to imagine I was listening to a tape (even outside, the sound was excellent), albeit an extremely expensive tape. It brought back memories of working the Telluride show in 2007, expect this was much, much worse. It is the ultimate feeling of helplessness; the worst feeling in the pit of your stomach, up into your throat and out to your arms. There was no one even to blame; the door guys were only doing their job and Steve was doing me a huge favor letting me in. I was praying to every deity, spirit, power, whathaveyou, but it didn’t seem to be working. I never want to feel that way again. It’s the helplessness you feel when something dies.
3 and a half songs into a legendary show, someone taps me on the shoulder. Oh great, I’m standing in the way again. Some other lucky SOB gets to go enjoy the show I turn around. “I’m Steve, sorry I’m late, go on in!” Oh G-d! I cant get stamped fast enough and thankfully am able to find a route to that old familiar spot.
Because I’ve now spent more time on South Congress then I ever wanted to, I don’t have my good camera, I don’t have my pencil and paper; no setlist, no chord notes. Given the circumstances though, I could be a lot worse off. Bare w/ me though, I cant remember exact titles of almost anything played.
The first one that jumped out at me was, I believe, called Difference, Makes No Difference, something like that. Anyway, I’ll spare you the whole history, but Paul left the band back in the day because of throat problems, so I expected the vocals to be a bit harsh. I never, in a million years, would have expected him to sound so good. He was so smooth, it was incredible. It was not the voice from the aforementioned single, but it was damn near close. You’d have thought his voice had simply aged normally; no smokes, no drinks, and sure as hell no throat problems Denny, of course, owned the guitar all night. It was great to finally be in a crowd that really appreciated him. This was his audience, everyone hung on every lick. His work on this song in particular, just really struck me; it was very emotional, very beautiful.
Paul had to leave for the next song, so what do they play but……. Hideaway! I had heard Denny play this one before, but being there is a completely different thing then listening to a record. I mean, there is no way anyone can be anything but blown away seeing him play! There’s just no two ways about it.
Paul came back, and the rest of the night passed in a flash. They played a lot of Bobby Blue Bland type stuff (I’m drawing a blank on a lot of the artists they played, I’ll know I’ll remember once I hit submit), real soulful bluesy stuff. It was great, it was exactly how I’d imagine it would have been like 30 years ago. They played their own “Other Days” from the single (Denny slaying, again), and a fair number of songs that just the crowd moving (that is, if everyone hadn’t been squeezed in).
Another highlight of the night, for me, was Jimmy Reed’s Shame Shame Shame, dedicated to Stevie. Obviously I never knew him, but it was great to hear that his song that night wasn’t some remorseful number that makes you want to crawl in a hole and cry your eyes out. Plus, its Denny Freeman playing Jimmy Reed; how fucking cool is that ?!!!!!!
They ended the night w/ a killer Chuck Berry/rockabilly tune, and there’s nothing I can say about it that doesn’t apply to the entire show. Everything was just on point! I cant really think of any other way to say it; it far and above exceeded my expectations. Seeing Denny in Dylan’s band is one thing, seeing him tear it up to Chuck Berry, or Jimmy Reed, or Freddie mofuggin King, is something else entirely! I cant articulate how incredible it was to be there.
Not just Denny, but the whole band was a trip to finally see. I’ve talked a lot about Paul and Denny, but I’d hate to slight the rhythm section, for they too never missed a beat. For a band that plays together once a year, they were tighter then some guys I’ve seen who play together every week.
After every song though, Paul always deferred back to Denny, but at the very end, while introducing everyone, he said “its like Christmas up here, w/ Denny Freeman as the baby Jesus.” Denny shot him a great look, but it was true; we came to see him as much as anyone. Hell, he was even singled out on the marquee.