It would seem to me that if ever an event and a band were made for each other it would be The State Fair of Texas and The Gourds. I mean both the Fair and the Gourds are big and diverse. And the Gourds cover almost every aspect of Texas music, from country to Cajun, from Tejano to blues and on and on. So when they were scheduled to play two sets at the State Fair on Columbus Day, it was a good excuse to leave work early and head on down to Fair Park.
The Texas State Fair is held every fall in Dallas. It’s maybe the biggest fair in the U.S. Maybe the world. It’s big. And famous. If you’ve seen the movie “State Fair” – well, that’s pretty much it.
My biggest complaint with the Fair is the ever-escalating cost. Every year, it costs more to get in and more to park or eat, drink etc. Most people with families that I know don’t even attempt to go anymore, which is kind of ironic considering the huge crowds that swarm the event every year. Anyway, it wasn’t very crowded on a rainy Monday night, so that part was okay.
We got off to a good start when we scored the best parking spot imaginable. It looked bad at first. The parking lot was 9 bucks and offsite parking was even worse – 10 bucks – but the street between the two lots – about 20 yards from the gate by the stage- was free! Can’t beat that. And we could hear them playing while I parked the little truck. I didn’t recognize the song but that was Jimmy Smith singing.
As we approached the Chevy Main Stage, we could see a small crowd gathered. The band was gearing up to play “Blood of the Ram”. The sky looked threatening and there was a hint of rain in the air. More than a hint, it started drizzling as we parked on a couple benches. It was fixing to pour. We managed to catch a couple of songs before the rain got intense. After “Blood of the Ram,” Jimmy stepped back up to the mike and they started playing “Spanky.” The crowd left the benches and huddled up near the stage, but even that wasn’t working. Then they played something else but by then we – along with the rest of the crowd – were seeking the shelter of the Hans Mueller Sausage Tent.
At that point ,the band quit playing and just hung out on stage while it rained. Kev Russell (guitar, mandolin player, singer, and spiritual leader)
wandered off, then came back with a sandwich. I suspected the previously mentioned sausage tent.
As it seemed that more music was not forthcoming, we managed to find some fine Hefty trash bags to wear as ponchos and we wandered around and took in some ambience to kill some time before the second set. I met Jimmy (the bass player) at the coupon stand. He said he was going for a corndog.
We returned for the 8:30 show to find only about 25 people tops waiting to hear some Gourds. The band took the stage – which, it bears mentioning, was the most garish stage I’ve ever seen. It was about 4 stories high with brand new model Chevy’s perched on platforms in the risers. Think of a giant, towering showroom in the sky. The actual performance area within all that promotional space was huge too and the band seemed tiny up there, unlike a smaller nightclub stage which they and their equipment fill up.
On more than one occasion, Jimmy made a point of telling the crowd that the set would be G-rated since we were at the fair. This had to be a challenge for the Gourds since, it’s safe to say, their songs are not exactly PBS-for-kids material. Still, they gave it their best shot – Jimmy even sang a ‘bleep’ for the word “shit” in “Triple T Gas.” Of course, there were those people yelling for “Gin and Juice.” But, as the man said, it was the State Fair, for cryin’ out loud. There were also a few shout outs for “Hellhounds” – a song about befriending the bearded lady at the fair. It seemed that would be a good one to play – but they didn’t.
They did play some new songs in the 2nd set, as well as “Lower 48,” “Bottle and a Dime,” “Do 4 You,” and “Growin’ A Beard,” which they dedicated to the little town of Shamrock, Texas.
I was watching the crowd head for the exits and saw several folks, previously on their way out, notice the band and make a detour for the stage instead. By the middle of the second set, there were maybe 50 people there.
One of them was Dollar Bill Johnston (pedal steel, banjo and fiddle player Max’s father). The band spotted him and invited him up. He had to go wandering around to find a way to the backstage but, after a short while, he managed to get in and played "Smoke Bend” from “Cow, Fish, Fowl or Pig.”
While Dollar Bill was working his way to the mike, Max said, "He’s working the Fair again and this time he’s not running the Tilt-A-Whirl" which prompted Dollar Bill to spend a little time reminiscing about all the rides he used to run at the Fair and how they don’t make the big complicated ones like the Tilt-A-Whirl these days, in favor of rides they can fold up and load on the truck in a hurry.
The Gourds closed with a Neil Young cover – “Ready for the Country.” After that, everyone stayed and whooped and clapped and cried out for more. For just an instant, when the stage lights flashed on, it looked like there might be an encore. But then circus music started playing over the PA and everyone left.
As we walked to the truck, the moon was a thin sliver in the sky, and I saw a funnel cake that had been dropped on the ground, then rained on, just outside the gate. Drained of any color, it kind of looked like a wet brain lying there.