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Back in the old days, when a rock 'n' roll or country tour came to town, it was an event. For one thing, live music shows were relatively scarce 30 or so years ago, compared to the constant barrage of recording acts that hit any fair-size city today; circuses and revival tents were the only things setting up shop in the heartland. More important, though, was the epic nature of those shows: package tours like Dick Clark's Rock 'n' Roll Caravans, where artists of different genres and races shared the bill each night, or the legendary traveling Motown and Atlantic shows of the 1960s. Lollapalooza might have counted in its infancy, but now it's nothing more than Billboard's alternative rock charts come to life in the sweaty summertime. And imagine the Atlantic revue in the '90s if Sam and Dave had posted e-mail diary entries about what a pain in the ass Aretha can be when the deli tray is late.
Nowadays, with artist egos being generally as big as all outdoors, few acts want to share the spotlight with anything other than a well-chosen opening act. But the Oakland-based HighTone label is taking a trip back to the good ole days, both conceptually and musically, with its Roadhouse Revival Tour featuring Dave Alvin, Dale Watson, Buddy Miller, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, and the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz. Hitting 18 cities from mid-February into March, the tour showcases the burgeoning commitment by the label to the musical style(s) that falls under the "Americana" rubric.
"It was kind of inspired by those Rock 'n' Roll Caravan tours of the '50s and the Stax tour of Europe," explains HighTone President Larry Sloven. "And more recently, [the Austin-based label] Antone's did a package tour of the West Coast a few years back. I went to the show here in San Francisco, and it really struck me as a big event -- a different kind of music than this tour, but the same sort of good artists who maybe didn't have hit records."
The timing certainly seems right. Watson, Miller, and Big Sandy have all had Top 10 records on Gavin's year-old Americana chart. Meanwhile, the "alternative country" of acts like Son Volt and 16 Horsepower seems poised to become 1996's flavor of the year, and HighTone has just secured a new distri-bution deal with Rhino Records that feeds the label through the mammoth Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (WEA) system.
The WEA deal marks a big step forward for the Bay Area's premier roots label, which was founded 13 years ago by Sloven and his partner, Bruce Bromberg. Both of them were avid collectors who had worked in label sales, while Bromberg had also made a name for himself producing records by the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins and Phillip Walker. Although HighTone's first release was Robert Cray's breakout album Bad Influence, which led to Cray's PolyGram deal, the company was actually started as a hobby by the two music fans in an attempt to reissue records by California country demigod Wynn Stewart and former Texas Playboys singer Tommy Duncan (which never happened). To wit, HighTone has since recorded Gary Stewart, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Rosie Flores, Tom Russell, and Heather Myles, while also working with such acts as the Loved Ones, Dick Dale, and Chris Smither.
"Bruce is known a pretty big guy in the blues world," explains Sloven, "but the main influence for both of us is honky-tonk music." So the Roadhouse tour is a natural in terms of HighTone's expanding country presence. "Several of the artists have pretty good followings all over the country, or at least in certain regions," notes Sloven. "I think that people who like Dave Alvin who live in California but aren't familiar with Buddy Miller are sure to like him. And maybe people in Nashville who are maybe fans of Buddy are going to dig Dale."
"I wanna get out and play, and that seems to be the most difficult thing to do, so I'm really happy," notes Miller, whose Your Love and Other Lies was one of last year's finest country discs out of Nashville (or anywhere else) in recent memory, deserving far wider exposure than it has gotten to date, no thanks to radio programming dominated by a Nashville assembly line that turns out bland, million-selling acts like they were Yugos.
Austin-based country artist Dale Watson, who is about to release his second HighTone album, holds his first concert -- Conway Twitty -- in fond memory, recalling how the opening acts built up tension for the headliner. That prospect intimidates even Dave Alvin, whose red-hot road band will also back Miller -- who plays lead guitar with Jim Lauderdale as his day job, and was just tapped for the Emmylou Harris tour -- and Watson, who will bring along his guitarist, Dave Biller, for their trademark twin leads. (Big Sandy gets backed by his Fly-Rite Boys, while the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz -- a combination of Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Lehrer, and Jeff Foxworthy -- is a solo piano act.) "To tell you the truth, I'll just go up for my show and sweat bullets after following all those guitarists," chuckles Alvin, "but it'll be fun."
He's right: The kickoff dates in Austin, Texas, each offering some three hours of music, were twangy country-rock rave-ups that offered a lot of bang for the clubgoer's buck. Other HighTone artists have sat in along the way since, and Chris Gaffney and Rosie Flores are expected to show up at some of the California stops; Blind Pig recording artists Preacher Boy & the Natural Blues will join the upcoming Slim's show.
"This is the best kind of exposure for these artists," Sloven notes. "They get out on the road and people see 'em. I'm putting an enormous amount of money into it, but thankfully the artists are working cheap because they see the value in this. Hopefully it will be an event that really crystallizes this movement, not only for these artists but for everyone doing this kind of music."
The HighTone Records Roadhouse Revival Tour plays Fri, March 8, at Slim's in S.F.; call 522-0333.
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