NEW YORK — It seemed like half the Texans in New York City were at Terminal 5 on Saturday night (Feb. 28), and while this was probably a false impression, there’s little doubt that the crowd packing the 3,000-capacity tri-level club on Manhattan’s West 56th Street was predominantly Lone Star. These displaced longhorns turned out in droves to celebrate Texas Independence Day (commemorating March 2, 1836, when the state declared its independence from Mexico).
On hand for the festivities were some of Texas’ favorite musical sons — Ray Wylie Hubbard, Charlie Robison, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Robert Earl Keen — who were only too happy to commune with their constituents, even if they were a little hazy about the specific precedent (Hubbard asked the audience “What exactly is Texas Independence Day?”). Whether the crowd was up on its 19th-century history or not, they had no qualms about wearing their Lone Star pride on their collective sleeve. This was likely the first time there had been this many 10-gallon hats in one place in Manhattan since the rodeo hit Madison Square Garden, and T-shirts bearing University of Texas logos and the perennial “Keep Austin Weird” motto were in abundance while the Texas state flag was held aloft by hardy souls throughout the night.
Hubbard was first up, and the veteran Texas troubadour — who, like Robison, is based in Austin — took the stage with a band as lean and mean as his dusty, dirty blend of country, folk and blues. Backed only by a drummer with a Spartan kit and son Lucas Hubbard on lead guitar, the 62-year-old singer-songwriter served up trenchant, poetic lyrics atop a sound as appealingly scruffy as his own unruly, desert-hued mane. Leading the crowd through a slithering chorus of his serpentine tune “Snake Farm,” he advised, “It ain’t exactly ’Kumbaya.'” The younger Hubbard sounded like he had assimilated his father’s penchant for bluesy, angular guitar riffs, providing the perfect counterpoint throughout the set. His father explained the youthful guitarist’s old-soul style by explaining, “I won’t let him listen to anything from 1970 to the present.”
Robison appeared after a short break, wasting little time placing the audience in the palm of his hand. With a drum-tight band, he delivered an exuberant, explosive sound full of precision-crafted, hook-heavy tunes in sharp contrast to his fellow Austinite’s droll, laconic approach, but his songs were just as full of the sardonic humor that seems to be one of his state’s natural resources. Beers were raised heartily in the air as Robison powered through crowd-pleasing imbiber’s anthems like “Barlight” and “Good Times,” the first hints of a distinctly Texan brand of boozy, post-Jerry Jeff Walker revelry that picked up steam over the course of the evening. Of course, the audience members’ specific origins became quickly — and loudly — apparent when Robison sang out “see you in Houston” (or Dallas, or Austin) on his 1999 single, “My Hometown.” He also made pointed reference to his ex-wife, Dixie Chicks Emily Robison, in introducing a new song from his forthcoming album. It all made sense when the first verse described a lady who “pretended to be a Democrat.”
Things took a harder-rocking turn a little later with Cross Canadian Ragweed. Opening their set, appropriately enough, with “NYCG” (“New York City Girl”), the country rockers from New Braunfels took the audience’s energy to another level. Girls were hoisted on burly boyfriends’ shoulders, and even in the close quarters near the stage, bodies bobbed joyfully up and down to the band’s mix of Southern rock and outlaw country. (On CCR’s home turf it’s known as the “Red Dirt” sound.)
Over the course of their set, the band’s roots in ’60s and ’70s rock became apparent amid heavy wah-wah guitar riffs and tendencies toward jamming. It’s hard to think of another country-oriented evening in recent memory that included no less than three bass solos, but it was all to the delight of the heavily CCR-biased crowd which needed little prompting to shout along with the pop-friendly chorus of “Alabama,” as sung by bassist Jeremy Plato.
Shortly after Cross Canadian Ragweed bid the energized audience farewell, chants of “Robert Earl Keen” began to fill the hall. In due course, the headliner made his way to the stage, offering a genteel tip of the baseball cap that covered his salt-and-pepper locks. Supported by a crack band including Austin guitar ace Rich Brotherton (who’s backed everyone from Robison and Hubbard to Marcia Ball and Toni Price), steel guitarist Marty Muse and drummer Tom Van Schaik, Keen seemed honed in on exactly what his audience wanted. Seemingly every other song found the crowd joining in en masse, not just on the choruses but throughout the entire tune.
All the elements that had been floating around throughout the night came together in his set — the black-humored lyrics, the fraternal, bottle-hoisting, goodtime feel and the mix of country twang with rock ’n’ roll drive. Couples buck danced on the sidelines, and cowboy hats were tossed onto the stage as Keen lit the faces of the faithful by launching into fan favorites like “Corpus Christi Bay,” “Feeling Good Again” and “I’m Coming Home,” all the while leaving space for the terse, tart interjections of Muse and Brotherton.
Finally, after some five hours of music, just as one began to wonder how much more hooting and hollering one crowd could physically generate in one night, Keen closed out the show by bringing Cross Canadian Ragweed back to join him on his version of the traditional tune “Walkin’ Cane” and the Kerrville tunesmith’s classic “The Road Goes on Forever,” much to the delight of the assembled Lone Star legions. By the time all was said and done, it felt as if Texas had not only re-declared its vaunted independence but somehow annexed the Empire State.