Before Bobby Womack and then the Rolling Stones turned it into a romantic-ultimatum pop song, 'The Last Time' was a bluesy gospel song performed by many church quartets, most famously by the Blind Boys of Alabama. It was that older version that Texas singer-songwriter Gurf Morlix sang Saturday night at the Strange Brew, Austin's hippest listening room the past few years.
Morlix, standing tall with his silver hair swept back from a high forehead and wearing a blue-striped tie over an orange T-shirt, used two foot pedals. One sounded like a bass drum and one like a bass guitar, and their alternating beats reinforced his three-quarter-sized acoustic guitar with a percussive thump. This lent a physical force to the old lyrics about savoring the present moment, for who knows if this will be the last time we see each other before tragedy strikes one of us down.
Morlix's own songs suggest how some of those tragedies might unfold. That evening, an early start to the South by Southwest week, was a CD-release party for Morlix's new album, "Eatin' at Me." The album cover is a photo of a white cowboy hat atop a log eaten away by insects and weather and the new compositions also seemed worn away by skepticism and pitted by frank observations.
'Dirty Old Buffalo' described the steel-mill soot and barroom knife fights that marked his youth in upstate New York. 'Orphan Tears' described the sharpest kind of loss. 'Elephant's Graveyard' described the LAPD busting in on the song's protagonist to take him away. The music in these songs boasted the stark urgency of gospel-blues numbers such as 'Last Time' and Blind Willie Johnson's 'What Is the Soul of a Man,' which Morlix also sang.
'Fifty Years' can go by in a blink, another song suggested, and when you find the sands of time running out, he sang in yet another song, all you can do is 'Grab the Wheel' and drive 'til you die. Morlix, who produced and/or arranged the three best albums of Lucinda Williams' career and also produced breakthrough albums for Ray Wylie Hubbard and Mary Gauthier, has lent that same rough-hewn, dramatic sound to his own songs this time. On stage, accompanied only by his guitar, pedals, and Amelia Spicer's harmony vocals, Morlix's eaten-away tenor lent a now-or-never urgency to the unpalatable choices confronting his characters.