If you were fortunate enough to stumble upon Poi Dog Pondering in the fall of 1987, when the ragtag assemblage of Hawaiian travelers busked on the University of Texas’ west mall for a few weeks amid a cross-country trip, you probably remember it well.
The band, led by singer-songwriter Frank Orrall, won over so many fans in Austin that when they finished their journey a few months later, they returned to settle down here. Over the next few years, they gradually climbed the ladder of the city’s club scene and eventually secured a deal with Columbia Records, becoming one of Austin’s most prominent bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
When Orrall relocated the band to Chicago in 1993, some key members stayed behind. Singer Abra Moore got a Grammy nomination as a solo artist, and bassist Bruce Hughes became a mainstay in bands such as Stephen Bruton’s Resentments and Bob Schneider’s Lonelyland.
As such, return trips to Austin have become special occasions and semi-reunions. Sunday night at 3Ten was that kind of an event, as the band played for two and a half hours, revisiting material from its earliest Hawaii and Austin days and then charging forward into its long Chicago history. A sold-out crowd often sang along and danced the night away, caught up in the joy of the moment.
The band came to town largely for a private gig on Saturday night, at which Orrall had apparently lost much of his voice. For some bands, this would be a big problem. But Orrall is first and foremost a great bandleader, one who surrounds himself with major-league talent. And so everybody pitched in to help.
Moore sang the beautiful Hawaiian remembrance “Ku’u Ome O Kahaluu” solo to kick off the night. Violinist Susan Voelz stepped up for “Glad and Sorry,” the Ronnie Lane classic she once played with Lane himself in his Austin band of the mid-1980s. Hughes took the lead on “I Had to Tell You,” the 13th Floor Elevators gem he sang when the band recorded it in 1990 for the Roky Erickson tribute album “Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye.”
Later, a trio of soulful singers from the Chicago contingent — Charlette Wortham, Carla Prather and Kornell Hargrove — stood out on a series of high-energy numbers. The energy gradually built throughout the night, with early-set favorites like the folksy, string-based “Pulling Touch” (with Austin’s Mark Williams returning on cello) giving way to mid-tempo beauties such as “Catacombs” and finally all-out throwdowns including “Complicated,” with its memorable “Gonna get it right this time” chant.
They saved the Austin-era hit “Everybody’s Trying” for the start of an extended encore, finally wrapping things up just before midnight. Drummer/percussionist John Nelson offered a heartfelt shoutout to the late George Reiff, a much-appreciated gesture that underscored Poi Dog’s still-deep connection to the city.
Their last show here had been in February 2014, when they played a three-night stand at the Continental Club that also served as an Austin-era reunion. Sunday night made it clear that Poi Dog Pondering shows in Austin need to happen more than once every three years.
READ MORE: Poi Dog Pondering revisits Austin (2014)
Opening band Night Glitter was a pleasant surprise. With psychedelic moodscapes based on the interplay of keyboards and pedal steel, the foursome played 45 minutes that centered on the vocals of guitarist John Michael Schoepf (from local band the Happen-Ins) and LouLou Ghelichkhani of Thievery Corporation, an electronica act that also often features Orrall in their lineup.