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Joining a couple hundred fans in remembering Uncle Walt’s Band at the Saxon Pub on Friday night, Jimmie Dale Gilmore said simply that when he moved back to Austin around 1980 after some time away, “The best band in town was Uncle Walt’s Band.” Then he doubled down: “The three best singers in Austin were all in the same band.”
Listening to the new anthology “Those Boys From Carolina, They Sure Could Sing,” it’s hard to dispute that assessment. For two hours at the Saxon, Uncle Walt’s was home again. Surviving member David Ball was joined by the close kin of his long-gone bandmates Walter Hyatt and Champ Hood, plus a handful of Austin music luminaries who understood how fortunate Austin was when those boys from Carolina moved here in the 1970s.
Marcia Ball, the official Texas State Musician for 2018, did no less than credit her career to Uncle Walt’s Band. When she first saw them, she explained, they played a song called “In the Night” that she loved but didn’t know. Asking the band about it afterward, they told her it was written by her fellow native Louisianan Professor Longhair. That led Ball on a journey that changed her life, a debt she paid in kind on this night by singing “In the Night” with band.
That song and the Mississippi Shieks classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World” (which appears on the anthology) were the lone non-original tunes in the 21-song set. Great singers they may have been, indeed, but all three were also top-of-the-line songwriters. From “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too” to “As the Crow Flies” to “Seat of Logic” to “High Hill” and many more, those songs radiated all night long in the hands of the ensemble dubbed That Carolina Sound: Ball, fiddler Warren Hood (Champ’s son), guitarist Marshall Hood (Champ’s nephew, playing Champ’s treasured blue-faded-to-green acoustic model), upright bassist Nigel Frye and minimalist drummer Scott Metko.
Every few songs, a different guest singer added another special moment to the show. First up were Walter’s children. Taylor, who looks very much like his father, tapped into the swing-jazz groove of “Outside Looking Out.” Then his sister Rose reminded everyone just how exquisite Walter’s sweet torch-singer ballads were with “Ruby.”
A little later came Kelly Willis. “My dad played with Kelly for many years, and then I played with Kelly for many years,” Warren Hood said, underscoring just how tightly knit this extended Uncle Walt’s Band family is. Willis recorded Hyatt’s song “Motor City Man” on a recent record with her husband, Bruce Robison; tonight, she sang it sweetly and sincerely with the home team.
Gilmore’s true-country turn on “Georgia Rose” (a Hyatt song he included on his 2000 album “One Endless Night”) and Marcia Ball’s joyful Professor Longhair salute came a little later, sprinkled amid more Uncle Walt’s Band tunes that continued to delight the way-sold-out crowd. “Green Tree” (which isn’t on the new anthology) was a tune I’d somehow overlooked, and its lyrics were an epiphany: “Why did the fragile once seem so strong/ Why did forever once seem so long?”
All guests joined in at the end for the feel-good set-closer “Aloha,” but the forever-treasure moment for me was in the encore, when Warren Hood took the lead vocal on the heartbreaking ballad “I’ll Come Knockin’,” a Hyatt tune that Lyle Lovett rescued on his 1998 album “Step Inside this House.” They followed that with the hot-to-go finale “Undecided,” then departed with smiles, waves, and many conversations with old friends in the crowd. On this night, once again, the best band in town was Uncle Walt’s Band.
2. Don’t You Think I Feel It Too
3. Shine On
4. As the Crow Flies
5. Stay With the One
6. Outside Looking Out (with Taylor Hyatt)
7. Ruby (with Rose Hyatt)
8. Deeper Than Love
10. Lean on Your Mind
11. Motor City Man (with Kelly Willis)
12. Green Tree
13. Georgia Rose (with Jimmie Dale Gilmore)
14. Sittin’ on Top of the World
15. Seat of Logic
16. High Hill
17. In the Night (with Marcia Ball)
19. Last One to Know
20. I’ll Come Knockin’