Lib at Large: 'The Grateful Dead of Texas' makes its Marin debut
POSTED: 01/10/2014 05:00:00 AM PST
Courtesy of Erin Houser The Greezy Wheels, a band that has been called the Grateful Dead of Texas, will play Rancho Nicasio on Jan. 19.
IN AUSTIN, the Greezy Wheels are known as "the Grateful Dead of Texas." You would think, with a nickname like that, a band that first formed in 1970 would have played at one time or another in Marin County, the Dead's longtime hometown. But, like me, you'd think wrong.
That all changes next weekend when, 43 years after they blew Lone Star minds with Dead-style progressive rock, the Greezy Wheels, recent inductees into the Austin Music Hall of Fame, make their Marin debut in a free afternoon show on Jan. 19 at Rancho Nicasio.
The day before, they're happily doing another gratis gig, this one at San Francisco's Jammin on Haight, a nouveau hippie boutique on the corner of Haight and Masonic that bills itself as "the center of the tie-dye universe."
It will be a nostalgic moment for the band's founder, 66-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist Cleve Hattersley, a New Yorker who was part of the hippie horde that colonized the Haight Ashbury in the '60s.
"It has always been a dream of mine to play out there, anywhere," he said from his home in Austin. "And to be able to play a free show, right on Haight Street, in a tie-dye store ..." he said, his voice blissfully trailing off at the perfect synchronicity of it all.
After the Summer of Love, Hattersley left San Francisco and moved to Texas to deal marijuana, a short-lived occupation that earned him a seven-year prison sentence.
He formed the Greezy Wheels during the 2½ years his case was on appeal. They were an overnight sensation, becoming the house band at Armadillo World Headquarters, a legendary music hall that presented everyone from AC/DC and Asleep at the Wheel to ZZ Top and Frank Zappa.
"We became pretty big pretty quickly," Hattersley recalled. "By the time I had to turn myself in, fans were wearing T-shirts that said, 'Free Greezy.'"
After losing his appeal, he did his time in the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, a pen notorious for having the most active execution chamber in the U.S. While behind bars, he was chosen to play in the band that performs at the prisoners' annual rodeo.
"They made us wear stripes," he recalled with a groan. "It was really sick, man."
Hattersley thanks powerful friends in Austin for persuading the governor to commute his sentence, freeing him after serving just 11 months. During his unfortunate incarceration, the band's co-founders, his wife of 40 years, noted fiddle player "Sweet" Mary Hattersley, and his singing sister, Lissa Hattersley, kept the Wheels rolling.
In 1975, they recorded their debut London Records album at the Record Plant in Sausalito, appeared on the first season of "Austin City Limits" and were stars in a flourishing scene that gave rise to the likes of Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Jeff Walker and Delbert McClinton. Along with the Grateful Dead, they were one of the first of what we now know as jam bands.
"Like the Dead, our songs tended to go on for a long time," Hattersley explained.
In 1978, frustrated by losing band members to other groups, he disbanded the Wheels and went to New York for several years to manage the famed Lone Star Cafe, an urban cowboy outpost in Manhattan where the Wheels had been a popular headliner. With that experience behind him, he was later hired to run the renowned Blue Note jazz club.
After returning to Texas, he managed several name musicians, most notably Kinky Friedman, running Friedman's first gubernatorial campaign.
"He was the first independent candidate to ever get on the ballot," Hattersley said. "We got 16 percent of the vote. I'm pretty proud of that."
He is currently running Friedman's bid to become Texas Agricultural Commissioner on (wait for it) a marijuana legalization platform.
"I've always been an advocate of pot reform," he said, chuckling.
In 2000, he and his wife revived the Wheels after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"We realized we didn't want to do anything else but play the music we always wanted to play," he explained.
In addition to Hattersley, his wife and sister, the current lineup features backup singer Penny Jo Pullus, a rhythm section of drummer John Bush and bassist Brad Houser, formerly of the New Bohemians, plus keyboardist Matt Hubbard from Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann's band 7 Walkers.
They have performed regularly in Texas and have ventured as far as Woodstock, N.Y., to play a couple of the late Levon Helms' Midnight Rambles. Since reforming, they've released five independent albums, the most recent, 2013's "Kitty Cat Jesus."
Reviewing one of their CDs, Margaret Moser wrote in the Austin Chronicle that it "picks up where Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks left off, but ditches the novelty edge in favor of sly Texas ambiance."
And in Texas Monthly, reviewer John Morthland wrote, "It rocks, it rolls and sometimes it does both at once."
Austin legends release fun album
Greezy Wheels is a legend in the Austin music scene. Releasing their first album in
Sweet Mary lent her violin mastery and vocal prowess to epic jams led by Frank Zappa,
Jerry Garcia, Jean-Luc Ponty, Leon Russell, and ... well, you get the idea. The Wheels
have a storied history, with legendary runs in NYC and at Levon Helms' Midnight
Rambles, but mostly stick close to home thrilling music lovers living in and visiting
Austin. Luckily, they've been busy recording great music, happily prolific in releasing
material in the new millennium.
The band’s latest offering continues their tradition of writing and producing freewheeling
and intoxicating songs that are sure to delight any lover of music. “Kitty Cat Jesus”
is rife with innuendo, loaded with humor, and gushing with memorable, catchy
melodies. The album marks the final work of retiring bassist John Jordan, and also
the addition of new members Brad Houser, who, replacing Jordan, joins his former
bandmate and rhythm section partner John Bush, who were part of Edie Brickell and
the New Bohemians, and keyboardist Matt Hubbard, who has graced Willie Nelson's
band as well as being part of 7 Walkers, a band that included Bill Kreutzmann (Grateful
Dead) and Papa Mali.
The performances are stellar, but the songs are the stars. Tunes like “Spitball Time,”
“Blowin' Up Stuff,” “I'll Get Away With It,” “I Cry Myself To Sleep,” and “Kitty Cat
Jesus” are certain to get your feet tapping and your face smiling. The band is so
obviously having a blast you can almost see them smiling and laughing as you listen.
I have become so enamored with this band that I plan someday to make the trek
to Austin just to see them play, as I have no doubt that a live Greezy Wheels show
might be the most fun one can have in that great music city. But in the meantime,
I'll cue up “Kitty Cat Jesus” often so I can get greezy right in the comfort of my own
home, 'cause once you get greezy, you gotta stay greezy.
Hear Wildman Steve’s Internet radio station, Internet radio for music lovers
24/7, at wildmansteve.com.
“Gone Greezy - One of my Top Ten Albums of 2011!”
Margaret Moser, Austin Chronicle
Greezy Wheels has been around long enough to wear three different music brands — all without straying too far from the band’s roots.
The Austin outfit was Armadillo rock, then progressive country and now Americana.
Co-founding member Cleve Hattersley said it’s all just as well, as long as you don’t call Greezy Wheels country.
“People tried immediately to call us progressive country, because nobody could figure out what we were up to,” Hattersley said. “I’d been hanging out with people like Jimi Hendrix, and with my sister, Lissa, who’s been a great jazzer since whenever. We’ve never done straight country, truly. We’ve just done what we do.”
Greezy Wheels was the unofficial house band of the Austin music hot house, the Armadillo World Headquarters, during the 1970s. Hattersley said the late 1960s through the ’70s was when Austin because the hippie capital of Texas.
“I look at it like this: Austin had to be that place, you know? It’s the state capital, and that means people who live 1,800 miles away from each other had to come to this one place and get along with each other. People would come from the Panhandle, from East Texas and from down south, and they all had to get along with each other.”
With a legacy of close-encounter difference, Austin and the Armadillo were musical way stations between the coasts: The West Coast had its psychedelic rock, and the East Coast had its jazz.
Hattersley said it’s the music of the Gulf Coast that “makes him crazy.” With delight, he means.
“When I think of our music, I think about the music in Louisiana and Arkansas,” he said. “It’s incredibly inviting, musically, Louisiana and Arkansas. Those places make me crazy. You got the French in there. You’ve got the black music, the white music. You’ve even got the Indian stuff in there. You’ve got Spanish — Louisiana and Arkansas were part of the Spanish territory before they became part of the States. There’s so much going on.
“When we started recording, we were very much about the music of the 1930s era, when radio was first born.”
Greezy Wheels plays Denton on Saturday night at Dan’s Silverleaf, kicking up some antique dust and playing songs from Gone Greezy, the 13-track record the band released in May.
Hattersley came to Texas from New York City when Roky Erickson invited him to join the 13th Floor Elevators. Hattersley took the bait, but not without a few misgivings.
“[It] was really weird if you think about it,” he said. “I was coming to the place that killed Kennedy, for God’s sake. But it didn’t take me long to realize that Austin was a special place.”
The Armadillo turned into the Lone Star State’s answer to Hollywood’s the Troubador, attracting a redhead upstart named Willie Nelson, then Waylon Jennings and Jimi Hendrix. Later, it brought in Bonnie Raitt, Brave Combo, Eric Clapton and Hall & Oates.Hattersley said Greezy Wheels absorbed the scene like a mad, sonic sponge.
“We put that to the test at the Lone Star Cafe,” he said. “It was the only place in New York where you could hear Jerry Jeff Walker; George Strait played there. It was the one place in New York where you could hear Texas music, or even really country music.”
Greezy Wheels went on hiatus for 25 years, years that Hattersley devoted to family and steadier work. He married Austin fiddler “Sweet Mary,” who has been part of Greezy Wheels since its inception. Lissa Hattersley, Cleve’s sister, is another founding member who still kicks around with the band. For the last 11 years or so, journalist and bassist John Jordan (the Vangards, Chris Duarte Project) has played with them, as has drummer John Bush (Edie Brickell & New Bohemians) and vocalist Penny Jo Pullus.
Together, they throw their sensibilities into a gumbo of song, and come up with Gone Greezy, a record that can evoke two-stepping and solitary soul-searching.
Some of the record winks at the collective angst of a First World band of malcontents (“My Planets Are in Retrograde), just as much of it takes things seriously (“Come the Wake”).
Lyrically, Cleve Hattersley tries to sustain an allergy to pretension — something he said he got to practice by writing “The Idiot & the Odyssey,” a column in Oui magazine, which competed with the likes of Playboy.
“It’s a story I’m trying to tell, stripping it all down to the bare bones. It’s the most honest way I can express myself. When we write music, for every lyric, there’s a corresponding note,” he said.
When it comes to performing live, Hattersley said the band goes where the spirit leads. And the spirit is a cocktail of energy from the audience, the alchemy between musicians and that unnamed, unknowable thing that makes live music exhilarating and a little magical.
“I’ve written a set list for every show for 30 years. We’ve never followed a set list. Not once,” he said. “We’re still hungry. In fact, we’ve got a song we’re working on called ‘We’re Still Hungry.’ We are. It’s the most honest way of expressing myself. I’ll say it until my dying breath: ‘Screw you, society. Change still needs to be made.’”
“COMES THE WAKE”
This song, the sleeper and highlight of Gone Greezy, introduces keening, Irish traditional fiddle phrases with Mississippi Delta, asphalt-scorching blues. The vocals are delightfully shaky — but this is a track in which the Wheels confront the certainty of death: “All we are is a thin trickle/trickle o’ blood in the sea of life/ha-ha-ha/Comes the wake/The drums and the whistles/the bells and the brass and they’re playin’ your song/ha-ha-ha …”
“DON’T COME HOME WHEN YOU’RE MAD AT ME”
The opening track is the first ever of Greezy Wheels’ to hit the Americana charts. Taken alone, the track backs the band into the country and Western category. It also shows off songwriter Cleve Hattersley’s lyrical chops. At first blush, the song is a humorous wink at sweet love soured. At second, it’s a sadder but wiser love letter to a scoundrel who can still make a besotted soul feel bad. Really bad.
“HOLLER UP THE MOUNTAIN”
This behind-the-beat jig sounds like an Irish pub breaking out in a ceili dance. “I holler up the mountain and howl at the moon/Tryin’ to make peace with a devil in the woods/The end times come and I haven’t made good/Gotta pass it on to the people in the ’hood/I preach and I pray/I preach and I pray/and I holler up the mountain.”
Austin. When you evoke the Texas city’s name, music immediately comes to mind. Much has gone into that association: a long-running live music television show, a festival spawned by that show, a trade show that has become the big one for everyone in the music industry, and thousands of great artists and bands.
Few, if any, have been around Austin as long as Greezy Wheels, one of the greatest bands you’ve never heard in your life, unless you live in Austin or New York City, as they’ve
played there too. Greezy Wheels is captained by Cleve Hattersley and his incredibly talented wife, Sweet Mary, along with Cleve’s sister Lissa. A more creative trio you will never find. Formed in the ‘70s, the Wheels were the house band for the infamous Armadillo World Headquarters and headlined or opened first Austin gigs for everyone from the Flying Burrito Brothers to Frank Zappa. They appeared in the classic Bmovie “Outlaw Blues” with Peter Fonda.
They practically owned the stage at the legendary Lone Star Cafe in New York City. Then, the hiatus began. It wasn’t supposed to last 25 years, but with Cleve managing first the Lone Star, then the Blue Note Jazz Club, Mary working at the School for the Visual Arts and both working with Kinky Friedman, they kept busy.
Fast forward to the present century and the duo returns to Austin and Greezy Wheels was reborn. Two albums and a couple of solo albums under their belt, the band has released another gem titled “Gone Greezy.” In what I can only describe as Dan Hicks meets Frank Zappa, “Gone Greezy” captures the delightful musicality, the endearing sense of humor, and the beautiful spirit of these people and the wonderful music they make. I dare you to listen to any of the songs on this album and hold back a smile or keep your foot from tapping. I think
Cleve says it best in the liner notes: “Then we were hippies. And now we are gone ... Gone Greezy, that is. It’s all about life and style, y’all, and we’re still living it.” Me too, Cleve! Let’s get greezy!!
After taking a 25 year break, Greezy Wheels returned in 2001 with Millennium Greezy. A few more Greezy Wheels albums and a couple of solo albums later, we have Gone Greezy. Right off the bat, Lissa Hattersley takes command with the opening track Don't Come Home When You're Mad At Me. With a 1920s jazz quality to her vocals and the authority of a 1970s punk rocker, the energy in her voice will leaving you thinking “whoa, I'm glad I'm not that guy!” With track 2, we switch gears and Cleve Hattersley takes over vocals. Whereas Lissa's voice has a certain jazz appeal, Cleve's vocals have a nice bluesy quality to them. And as the principal writer, Cleve has a great knack for writing catchy hooks and riffs. Overall, Gone Greezy contains a lot of hits........
Cleve Hattersley, the post-hippy child of beatniks, is the intellectual, writing clever, witty and sardonic lyrics, splitting the vocals with sister Lissa and ‘Greezette’ Penny Jo Pullus, and, in a fairly radical but effective departure, making them the center pieces of Americana-esque guitar and fiddle settings, the latter instrument, of course, played by the wonderful Sweet Mary Hattersley.
We LOVED them....very special! We’re playing ‘Don’t Come Home When You’re Mad At Me,’ ‘Line It Up,’ and ‘We Are Greezy.’
“The music of Greezy Wheels can feel as Eastern as India and as Western as the ‘Orange Blossom Special.' They are wry and silly and literate and proud to transcend any kind of mainstream musical labeling. They go way, way back in Austin music history, all the way to Armadillo World Headquarters days. Yet their new songs - sometimes satirical, sometimes spiritual - feel right at home in the 21st century. I'm not sure there's a song that connects more purely with the bohemian, anything-goes delight of summertime Austin than their tune ‘I Like Summer.' It's zydeco! It's the Beach Boys! It's Professor Longhair! All rolled into one. And I'm sure, if you ask them nicely, they'll play it.....”
"Call it post-punk folk Americana or post-modern art-house-hippie roots-rock...... Lissa's voice has the sort of post-punk authority and elasticity that fans of Ani DiFranco or Debbie Harry will enjoy. . . .The music extends to folk-inflected sounds and flat-out rockers. . . .[Greezy Wells'] signature musical nonconformity and their heyday during the punk era both inform their melange of sounds."
“[Greezy Wheels] mixed-gender format opened the screen door in Austin for bands such as the Damnations and the Belleville Outfit, and their rootsy-jazzy country-rock influence can be heard in the Gourds, Warren Hood & the Hoodlums, Reckless Kelly, and even White Ghost Shivers......there's no denying Greezy Wheels' feminine dynamic in singer Lissa Hattersley and her sister-in-law, fiddler extraordinaire Sweet Mary Hattersley. Between them (and bandleader Cleve Hattersley), new CD String Theory (Mahatma Records) picks up where Dan Hick & the Hot Licks left off but ditches novelty edge in favor of sly Texas ambiance.”
"It rocks, it rolls, and sometimes it does both at once. It's droopy, druggy, kinetic, clear-eyed, trad, contempo, satisfied, searching, aware, fearless. At last, true mood music for the oh-oh's."
“Greezy Wheels, a band ahead of its time."
"There's something really greezy about Greezy Wheels: greezy good, greezy style, greezy vibe. They just ooze greeze. They are greeze nirvana..........."