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JDG’s Big Sweet Life

It’s mid April, there’s a chill in the air and a light rain is falling; so, naturally, Jon Dee Graham and Mike June are finishing up their set in the parking lot of the Southgate House revival. June’s standing and Graham is seated between a couple of late model SUV’s, surrounded by the small but enthusiastic crowd who came out to see them this Tuesday night.

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The decision to wrap up the night outdoors appears to be both a gesture of consideration on Graham’s part and a throwback to his days with former band mate Alejandro Escovedo (who once tagged Graham with the moniker of “The white Howlin’ Wolf”).

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The retreat outdoors is a gesture of kindness, as well as necessity because the rock band playing upstairs had begun to drown out Graham’s acoustic set downstairs. Rather than hang it up, or throw a rock star temper tantrum, he took the show to the parking lot.

The alfresco finale was a throwback to Alejandro who, over the years, regularly unplugged mid set to wander, with his band, into the crowd to play acoustically. Graham was often part of these excursions having served duty as Escovedo’s guitarist in several of Escovedo’s protean music projects-most notably srving as guitar slinger in the famed The True Believers. (Catch them here on a recent collaboration.)

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Which isn’t to say that Graham lacks his own sound and vision. Quite the contrary. His recordings are the stuff of legend, even if his name isn’t household. His bio, despite his limited notoriety, is impressive. He’s been named Austin Musician of the Year during the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference in 2006; and has been inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame three times: as a solo artist in 2000, again in 2008 as a member of The Skunks, and again in 2009 as a member of the True Believers.

Graham, who is an old 54, has a shambling ursine presence these days. He’s a big burly man; a fifth generation hirsute, but neat, Texan. His legs are old and he sits through his sets. He’s got two sons- one, Willie, is now 17-old to play in his own band. “He’s got the bug bad now,” Graham says between sets.

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And while Graham shows signs of having accumulated more miles than money, musically, he still hasn’t lost a step musically. His playing is still sharp. his voice strong and he still covers an impressive range of moods and styles in his playing. But that’s always been the way. Graham, who has, also over the course of his career admittedly “stolen from everybody,” playing with John Doe, Exene Cervenka, James McMurtry, Eliza Gilkyson, Kelly Willis, John Hiatt, Michelle Shocked, Patty Griffin, Calvin Russell, and Lone Justice has, nevertheless also always managed to combine these influences into his own unique sound.

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I’ve been a fan since the first time I heard his disc Hooray for the Moon which hit like a double shot of twenty year old bourbon. I’ve remained addicted to his sound ever since. His voice, then as now, is simultaneously deep, full of gravel and barbed wire; yet strong, warm, and sturdy. It’s the musical equivalent of sitting, at the end of a hard day, in your favorite overstuffed leather chair with a cold beer in your hand and your favorite dog at your feet. His sound always been just right, whether he’s covering a nasty bit of electric Waitsian buzzsaw loveliness like “Laredo (Small Dark Something) ; or singing joyfully in Big Sweet Life; ” singing of the angst of fatherhood and wistfully recalling time spent with his son Willy onS100.00 Bill”; or contemplating the bittersweet , brief nature of life in the stunning existential Faithless.”

To date, Graham has released eight solo albums: Escape from Monster Island (1997, Freedom Records); Summerland (1999, New West Records); Hooray for the Moon (2002, New West Records); The Great Battle (2004, New West Records); Full (2006, Freedom Records); Swept Away (Film Soundtrack) (2008, Freedom Records) It’s Not As Bad As It Looks (2010, Freedom Records), and Garage Sale (2012, Freedom Records). His 2004 record, The Great Battle, was produced by Austin guitarist Charlie Sexton,.

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And the beautiful thing about this Tuesday night was that Graham was only half the story. He’s currently touring with Austin transplant, singer songwriter Mike June. Graham and June have been touring together now for a while. June says that he’s now’s played over 200 dates with Graham.

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June is, in his own right, a talented singer songwriter. June is a politically minded musician who recalls Mellenkamp, and Earl in their salad days. There’s a working class ethos combined with a rare concern for community. June describes himself as a singer songwriter who writes songs “about the complexities of modern life with a frank, earnest style befitting a man raised ten miles from the George Washington Bridge.”

June’s grandfather, Vernon, was a country singer in the 40’s and 50’s, making a name for himself locally by performing the songs of Hank Williams at the weekly Bear Mountain square-dance. Mike June began his musical career singing with bar band Wide Load and then formed Mike June & The Dirty Doves in 2002 releasing his first album, CROOKED at the age of 27. Altcountrytab.com gave the record five stars and called it “40 minutes of music without a wasted beat.”

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In 2008, June disbanded the Dirty Doves and relocated to Austin, TX. While spending three years in “self-imposed exile”, continuing to write prolifically. In 2010 he formed his new band, The Wilson Street Refugees; entered the studio, and recorded EXILE ON WILSON STREET. After releasing EXILE ON WILSON STREET, June has tirelessly toured the entire nation-taking- as he explained during his set, the pulse of the nation. He’s also recorded, and toured behind, a brand new record, TALKIN’ REVOLUTION BLUES.

June stylistically is also his own man, but his work, like Graham’s encompasses the intelligence, passion, heart and soul which is so completely devoid from the work of their emoting fey hipster peers.

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June describes Talking Revolution as channeling the rock and roll muscle of the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Neil Young and The Clash with lyrics about the struggles of working class America in our new decade. Maybe. There is no doubt, however, that the disc deserves play and attention and that June is a singer song writer who is years ahead of the curve. The miles and time he’s spent with Graham have apparently served him well.

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Graham and June continue to tour on what might be called their Bodhisattva tour. They are both dedicated to doing things their way-which means connecting with those who come out to see them and spreading a little hope in dark times. They’ve eschewed the trappings of rock and roll stardom for traveling the country together in a Toyota Highlander. During the set Graham says that while he’s flown to gigs and walked to gigs, played the big time and the dives; it’s this personal intimate style of touring that he loves best. “Our job,” he explained, “is to make people feel a little better than before they came. If we’ve accomplished that, then we’ve done our job.” And so they have.