Since 1938, it's been a tradition for all the men in Shamrock, Texas, to grow a Donegal -- that rim of whiskers from jowl to chin that makes the wearer resemble a leprechaun -- starting New Year's morning and ending on St. Patrick's Day. On that fateful day, the bizarre beards of Shamrock face off in the center of town, and the man with the most fruitful follicles walks down Route 66 a champion. In 2003, director Mike Woolf rolled into Shamrock with a hairy interloper from Austin, and therein lies the dramatic tension for Growin' a Beard, a 30-minute documentary that follows the contest from stubble to shaving line. Through interviews and hand-held camerawork, we get to know small-town characters like Bill Howe, who takes magic green pills that imbue his hair with a verdant hue; Roy Wardlow, who just uses paint; and Richard Smith, a champion beard who enters the contest only once every decade. Having reported on last year's World Beard and Moustache Championships, I am no stranger to the fanaticism of facial hair, but Woolf, without emphasizing the contestants' humanity or downplaying their quirks, has created a slice of Americana so warm and sweet you could melt cheddar cheese on top of it. Choosing Austin's Gourds to record the soundtrack was just the masterstroke.
In fact, so well matched are the Gourds to their subject matter, I have to wonder which came first to Woolf: the band or the contest. Certainly, the competition could have sprung from the collective consciousness of the hillbilly rockers, whose songs, such as "I Ate the Haggis" and "Ants on the Melon," have long been a celebration of small moments and big hearts. But the Gourds recorded fresh material for Woolf, including an inspired rendition of "Route 66" and some traditional Irish reels that were given the act's whisker rubdown. Little wonder, then, that Woolf approached the band again for the recent Something's Brewin' in Shiner, another short documentary set in a small Texas town, this one where the Spoetzl Brewery was set to unveil its new beer. And again the Gourds outdid themselves, recording, among other tunes, "What's It Going to Beer" and "If It Ain't a Shiner," two utterly sincere odes to the union of malt and hops. With Woolf's production company, Beef and Pie, keeping the boys so busy, it's no surprise the Gourds haven't put out a full-fledged recording since 2002's Cow Fish Fowl or Pig. But no matter. That album -- which matched reflections about William Burroughs, Henry Ford, and Muhammad Ali with ruminations on good food -- was meaty enough to hold us until the next hootenanny. The Gourds perform on Friday, July 2, at the Great American Music Hall at 9 p.m. Tickets are $13-15; call 885-0750 or visit www.musichallsf.com.
Recently, the violation of Sesame Street characters has become an all-consuming pastime for some of my generation. There's weird fan fiction involving either Muppet mutilations that must be sleuthed by the ill-suited Grover or lovers' spats between Bert and Ernie that end in murder; there are photograph contests depicting familiar furry monsters found in compromising situations; and there are games like Nightmare on Sesame Street and Who Would You Kill? (WWYK?). And then there's Cookie Mongoloid: Sesame Street speed metal, brought to you by the letters D-E-V-O and the numbers 6-6-6, led by a googly-eyed, blue-furred freak in black leather. Cookie Mongoloid is the ultimate in Sesame Street violation. It's all your favorite childhood songs -- "C Is for Cookie," "Up and Down," "The Number 6" -- souped up and turned out by homicidal maniacs armed with cookie cannons and accompanied by Sesame Street sluts. Cookies may be good for you, but Cookie Mongoloid is not. The band performs on Saturday, July 3, at Thee Parkside with the Midnight Bombers and Fracas opening at 10 p.m. Tickets are $7; call 503-0393 or visit www.theeparkside.com.