Is there anything more artistically daunting than standing up on stage – alone, save a guitar – and singing your own songs to a room full of people who have enjoyed a multitude of adult beverages? Songwriters, by nature, are an introverted bunch – they often write those songs because it beats actually talking to people. So delivering those songs while attempting to maintain rhythm, pitch, and an overall genial disposition runs counter to the typically solitary act of songwriting. Yet, we as music fans get to witness this contradiction pretty much anytime we’d like, especially in a city like Austin, where singer-songwriter James Steinle recorded his latest album, Live at Hole in the Wall.
From the start, the album is a snapshot of an evening in a great American music venue. Beginning with a welcome from Laurie Gallardo, a longtime radio host at KUTX across the street, and a gentle admonishment to the crowd to keep the chatter to a minimum, lest they mar the recording, you could be sitting in any premium country & western club in America (think The Saxon Pub or The Bluebird Cafe) where music takes precedence. But, because it’s an audio recording, setting matter little if the songs ain’t any good. Fortunately for the listener, they’re fantastic. Almost from birth, Steinle has been a wanderer, and he addresses that in the very first song, “Underside”, singing, “Like a Bedouin, I never establish one true home” and punctuating the words with rhythmic acoustic guitar. Steinle also knows the dearth of employment opportunities that come with such transience – in “Reupholstering Dining Chair Blues”, he sings “This gig’s about as permanent as a puddle of gas/But it’s been fillin’ up my tank and makin’ miles pass.”
Steinle’s pleasant warble may not be a gift from the vocal gods, but he is a born storyteller, and that comes across in both his songs and his stage chatter. As an intro to “Cold German Mornings”, he jokes with the crowd about being allowed to play depressing songs “on a Friday night!.” He starts “Good LIfe On The Plains” by mentioning that the song is about “perspective, at I time I feel we need it most.” The song serves as a collection of single-verse short stories of folks trying to find their own small piece of happiness. It may be fleeting: of one particular vaquero, Steinle sings, “One day all that whiskey and smoke he downed/Reined back hard on his speed.” It’s not a happy ending, but it’s where most of us end up. Similarly, “Out To Sea”, prompted by a call from an old friend, is a shout-out to folks living on the edge: “The north wind, it cut through her clothes/As the night brought her down to her knees.” LIke the woman who will do nearly anything for a fix, Steinle has us all one step away from desperation: “Like currents torn from the shoreline/They’re pullin’ us all out to sea.”
Steinle’s time as a young vagabond (he lived in Saudi Arabia and Germany as a child) and a mostly rural upbringing (always a country boy until traveling to Austin to attend UT) informs a great deal of his writing, but none more plaintively than in “Town’s Coming to Me”. He misses the remote locations and starlit skies of his youth as the sprawl approaches – “I can see it comin’ for miles/Now it’s sittin’ at the gate” – and, spitting out a few of his lines to emphasize his frustration, he’s resigned himself to his eventual suburbia: “I don’t go to town no more/’Cause the town in comin’ to me.”
Live at Hole in the Wall was recorded, mixed and mastered by Andrew Hernandez. Even when the words are sad, the album is a fun listen. The songs are great, the venue is terrific, and the crowd is into it, even when becoming (pleasantly) a little more rowdy as the night wears on. Just like a real night out on the town.
To get a virtual feel of that night out, download or stream the album here: http://www.jamessteinle.com
To hear Mr. Steinle for your own self, make plans to see him here: http://www.jamessteinle.com/shows