Photos by Todd V. Wolfson
by Jeff McCord
Ed Ward, one of the pioneers of rock journalism, was found dead in his Austin home May 3rd. Ward grew up in New York, where he met editor Paul Williams and began writing for the trail-blazing Crawdaddy magazine in the mid-sixties. He soon joined the staff of Rolling Stone, moving to San Francisco to become their reviews editor in 1970. He wouldn’t last long in that position, but he continued to write for the magazine and for Creem throughout the seventies, where his passion and blunt, hard-edged criticism quickly made him a known quantity.
So when Ed moved to Austin in 1979 and became the music critic for the Austin American-Statesman, it added a swift kick of legitimacy to the city’s established and blooming punk and indie rock scenes. Pre-internet and social media, getting a mention from Ward in his columns was a big deal to developing Austin acts. He applied the same exacting standards to Austin he had with his national coverage. Ed was never ambivalent; he would champion the acts he admired and offer little mercy to those he didn’t. It wasn’t long before ‘Dump Ed Ward’ bumper stickers began appearing around town. It did nothing to deter him.
Ed would stay at the Statesman until 1984. He began moving into books around that time, starting with his bio, Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, and a few years later he co-authored Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. He became the music editor at the Austin Chronicle, and it was there that I first met Ed, who gave me and many others some of their first Austin writing assignments.
He continued to call attention to the burgeoning Austin scene, and played a hand in bringing the MTV Cutting Edge show here in 1985. Suddenly our local heroes – Biscuit, Daniel Johnston, and all the bands of the exploding ‘New Sincerity’ scene – were on national TV. Ed was also among those instrumental in getting South by Southwest launched in 1987.
Sharing his voracious appetites for, well, most everything, you always walked away from Ed with some new discovery. Greil Marcus, who Ed succeeded at Rolling Stone, told the magazine, “If you sat down with him, flowers of knowledge would open up. Whether it was Sausalito or Berlin, he knew stories about this building or the scandal behind this restaurant. He was a wonderful storyteller. The world was richer when you were around Ed.”
But he was also a study in contradictions. His copy was clean and fastidious, yet his personal habits were anything but. Ed was as passionate about food as he was about music. He was also a very good cook. The one time he had me and a friend over to his Clarksville home for a meal, the food was excellent. But there was really no place to eat. We balanced plates in our laps in dusty armchairs, watching Ed’s dog Pete run back and forth, deftly navigating the skyscrapers of books and CDs that populated his living room.
Ed loved holding court and was loyal and generous to his friends. Yet he was cantankerous. He held tight to his grievances – often editors he felt had wronged him – and would fall on his sword over the most trivial points of contention. He could be exhausting.
Leaving a lot of bridges burned, Ed would move to Berlin in 1994, and later to southern France. He would stay in Europe until 2013, his only steady gig was as a music reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air. He wrote about art, food, scraped by. And stayed in touch with Austin.
While attending the Berlin Independence Days festival, Ed organized a trip to a newly-liberated Prague for a large group of us, and his morning tour of the city was better than that of any professional guide. I always consulted Ed when traveling overseas. He would unerringly steer me in the right direction. Just a few years ago, he sent me and my family to this out-of-the-way Paris cafe that was half as expensive and twice as good a meal as any we had in the city.
On returning to Austin, Ed picked up where he left off, writing The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1, which was published in 2016. Volume 2 came out in 2019.
I wasn’t among Ed’s close circle of friends. Years would go by without us seeing each other, particularly when he was in Europe. It had been some time since we had spoken when rumors began circulating that Ed was back in town. I was in the Apple store when I suddenly heard his voice, in an animated discussion with an employee. I walked over to him. “Welcome back, Ed,”, I said. “How are you?”
“Well, Apple is really fucking me around,” he angrily replied.
This was Ed, tirelessly fighting the world’s battles, exposing the wrongs, and celebrating all that was exceptional in the world, especially in his adopted home. We’re all better off because of him.
Austin five-piece releases their debut album
by Jeff McCord
So You Think You’ve Found Love?, the first full-length from Austin’s Sasha and the Valentines, eludes your usual indie-rock expectations. Lead singer and principal songwriter Sarah Addi might cite the Cranberries, Beach House, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra as influences, but the lived-in pop that spills out of the album seems more akin to a bygone era. Think Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry”, Dusty Springfield’s “Just One Smile”, or Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning” (which Addi admits is a favorite, along with her grandmother’s copy of the Moody Blues “Nights In White Satin”). This is an album that betrays some serious contextual planning. “I think that subconsciously came out of my like, well, love” Addi confesses, “of the movie musicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music. And the kind of dramatic, beautiful, melodic songs that come out of those things.”
Their debut won’t remind you of these chestnuts, though, at least not directly. Co-produced by Erik Wofford (“He knew exactly what we were looking for production-wise”), the love concerns are quite modern, the balance between synths and guitars well maintained. Tracks like “Tears for Mars” and “Don’t You Love Me” border on psych-rock, but it’s also easy to imagine the keys on “Cry All the Time” and the mysterious “Witches” as a stand-in for a swelling string section. These tracks manage the trick of sounding both unique and timeless. “[That] is probably just from the long process of marinating that we give to all the songs,” says Addi,” taking our time writing things and absorbing and editing them.”
While Sasha and the Valentines is only three years old, the musicians all played together in college bands at UMass Amherst before discovering and converging in Austin, once they all decided to give music a serious go. “We had money to buy a tour van and we had this tour of Mexico planned. We were going to do another West Coast tour. And then [the pandemic] happened and we were like, ‘This doesn’t really have an end in sight. So let’s just spend the band money and actually work with Erik [Wofford] full on.” The result, So You Think You’ve Found Love, is an ambitious release that Addi promises will be taken on the road when possible. In the meantime, it’s ours to enjoy.
photo by Todd V. Wolfson
By Jay Trachtenberg
In normal times, for the better part of a decade, guitarist Denny Freeman lent his name to the nominal leadership of an air-tight little four-piece of Austin music lifers Friday nights at the Saxon Pub. “The Band”, as they were known by the decidedly older crowd who packed this happy hour each week, provided a mix of Texas rock ‘n’ blues, R&B chestnuts, 1960s’ roots rock from The Stones to CCR and, of course, a healthy smattering of Austin heroes Doug Sahm and Roky Erickson. This gig was much more than a musical feast; it was a social gathering of old friends, many the veterans of the Armadillo World Headquarters crowd. Their appreciation of Denny’s fretboard mastery was evident as they bestowed love onto him and his axman compadre, John X. Reed, after every dazzling solo turn. Lifers Speedy Sparks on bass and Rodney Craig on drums rounded out what was perhaps the quintessential Austin garage band.
But that’s only one example of Denny Freeman’s musical mastery, which cut a swath across the Austin scene over the course of a career that touched six decades. He came to town in the very early 1970s with a host of Dallas refugees that included Jimmie Vaughan, Paul Ray, Doyle Bramhall, and a bit later, Stevie Ray Vaughan. While the Austin scene at the time was dominated by cosmic cowboys, this gang came to town to play the blues. Denny was a founding member of Paul Ray & The Cobras, where he mentored a young Stevie Vaughan.
Toiling at legendary haunts like The One Knight, Soap Creek and the original Antone’s on 6th St., and gigging with the likes of Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli and W.C. Clark, Freeman, as much as anyone, established Austin as a blues mecca. He was a member of the incomparable Antone’s house band, primarily as the pianist, during the club’s 1980’s heyday where he backed a who’s who of blues legends like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Albert Collins. He would move to Los Angeles and work in Taj Mahal’s Phantom Blues Band with fellow Cobra saxophonist Joe Sublett in the 1990s.
For several years at the start of the new millennium, Denny toured the world with Bob Dylan and appears on the 2006 album Modern Times. Returning to Austin, he once again became an immediate mainstay of the local scene. This included playing steel guitar in Reed’s old-time country band, jazz gigs at Antone’s and Continental Gallery, and, of course, Friday evenings at the Saxon. For a spell, he commuted back and forth to Dallas in between gigs to care for his ailing father.
Denny was not a flashy or ostentatious individual and his guitar playing reflected this. He was an artist who knew how to blend in when necessary, laying down tasteful, and soulful licks one minute, forging a fuselage of riveting solos the next. Two albums capture Denny at his finest: the all-instrumental A Tone For My Sins from 1997, and the newly reissued Cobras set, Caught at the Continental Club, recorded in January 1981. While the former reflects the many moods of Denny Freeman, the live date is a balls-to-the-wall affair with where Freeman peels the paint with one devastating solo after another.
Denny Freeman leaves shoes that will be hard to fill in the Austin music scene, both as a gracious, self-effacing gentleman and as a masterful musician. And for a lot of us, Friday evenings will never be quite the same without him.
Jay Trachtenberg will be featuring Denny Freeman’s music on his Sunday Morning Jazz program this week, 7-10am.