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Ray Wylie Hubbard proves wholly engaging

Threadgill's World Headquarters, Austin, August 10, 2007

Reviewed by Brian T. Atkinson

As opener Eric Hisaw wraps up his 50-minute set - chock-full of hard-luck characters "stoned on pain, powder and pills" from his misspent youth in small town New Mexico - Ray Wylie Hubbard walks into the beer garden among the line of paying customers. He stops by the ladies working the cash register and speaks with no fanfare to a couple of admirers.

Hubbard looks not unlike a long-tenured poetry professor - a black bandanna holds back the Wimberley, Texas resident's robust fright of curly hair, and he wears wire-rimmed glasses, old blue jeans and a blue work shirt. The somewhat disheveled appearance suits his rambling stage presence.

Over the course of this 95-minute set, Hubbard acts like Todd Snider's wild uncle - constantly cracking wise, often telling richly detailed between-song stories that offer advice and accusations and typically absolve wayward sinners in the end.

Tonight he pulls liberally from "Snake Farm," his latest and greatest release, opening with a grizzly reading of "Rabbit" that drives straight into the title track.

"Snake Farm, it just sounds nasty," Hubbard sings, "Snake Farm, it pretty much is. Ewwww." The warble in his voice sends a chill across this 90-degree Texas evening.

Well into his second-act career as a bluesman - 2003's "Growl" and "Delirium Tremolos" in 2005 nimbly prefaced that 2006 masterwork "Snake Farm" - Hubbard has few songwriting peers today. Each delivered growling and forcefully at this venerable Austin venue, look to songs like "Rooster," "Last Train to Amsterdam" and "Polecat" for evidence.

"Oh yeah, I forgot to mention something," Hubbard says after the second verse of "Snake Farm," a wry smile deepening the wrinkles on his cheeks. "This is a sing-a-long. Really! It's not exactly 'Kumbaya,' but we're at Threadgill's - help me out!" The crowd obliges. This Friday night audience might barely fill out the venue's seated area, but there's little doubt that all here are hardcore devotees.

There's good reason. Like a new song that he describes as an agnostic gospel tune, Hubbard's themes are complex and ultimately fulfilling. He is, to say the least, wholly engaging in material and presentation.

"It really doesn't get any better than this!" Hubbard exclaims enthusiastically at the end of the song. Then, shoulders suddenly slumped, body dramatically dragged back to the mike, he deadpans: "Really, it doesn't."

Hubbard's frequent jabs are clearly well rehearsed - after all, he's been at this since his past life as the "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" cosmic cowboy in the 1970s - but the delivery is oven-fresh.

"I don't name drop," Hubbard says, introducing the wry "Name Dropping." "Matter of fact, I was just talking about this with Robert Earl Keen."

Then, later, introducing the new "Drunken Poet's Dream," Hubbard quips sarcastically, "I wrote this with Hayes Carll. It's nice to see someone that young so burned out and fried, bitter and resentful. He has a great future ahead of him."

The last part is true, at least. Indeed, Carll is a bright prospect in the current generation of rising Texas songwriters. Just three weeks earlier at Stubb's Barbecue, the Houston-area native turned in his own reading of their latest co-write (the pair also dreamed up the funky "Chickens" from Carll's 2005 effort "Little Rock"), which matched the elegance and empathy of Hubbard's own stellar take. That's no easy feat.

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