Remembering Denny Freeman

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.  

The Cobras Caught Live at The Continental Club album artwork

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. 

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