By Paul T. Mueller
Most bands that started more than 40 years ago are no longer playing together, much less still creating good new material. One happy exception is Wheatfield, which began as a trio in Houston in 1973 and is now a quartet that plays a mostly acoustic brand of folk-rock, flavored with country, bluegrass and jazz. On Aug. 1, the group returned to its city of origin for a sold-out show at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck – part of a six-date tour in support of its long-awaited new CD, Big Texas Sky.
Wheatfield’s current lineup consists of original members Connie Mims (vocals, guitar and percussion), Craig Calvert (vocals, guitar, mandolin and flute) and Ezra Idlet (vocals, guitar and banjo), plus Keith Grimwood (vocals and bass), who joined in 1976. The four take turns on lead vocals and contribute to the harmonies that have always been a hallmark of the band’s sound.
Wheatfield: Ezra Idlet, Connie Mims, Keith Grimwood and Craig Calvert
A bit of history: The first phase of Wheatfield’s career ended in 1979. The band (then known as Saint Elmo’s Fire, following a dispute with another band that claimed rights to the Wheatfield name), was unable to break through to a national audience, despite a sizable fan base and musical achievements that included an Austin City Limits appearance in 1976. The members went their separate ways – Grimwood and Idlet teamed up as Trout Fishing in America, best known for its imaginative children’s music, while Mims and Calvert moved on to other musical pursuits. But the four stayed in touch, and about a decade ago, having reclaimed the Wheatfield name, started reuniting periodically for short tours.
The Mucky Duck show – 21 songs, 90 minutes – included most of Big Texas Sky’s 12 tracks, plus some classics from the band’s early days and a few selections from in between. The show opened with Sky’s title track, a seemingly autobiographical Mims composition about leaving home (she, Calvert and Idlet began performing together in high school, and legend has it that the already graduated Calvert and Idlet were in the cheap seats at Mims’ graduation in 1973, ready to launch Wheatfield’s professional career without further delay). Other highlights included “The Very Best Thing,” a sweet love song written by Idlet; “Where’s Your Mama,” a Grimwood-Idlet tune about a different kind of pickup line; “Grace of the Rio Grande,” Mims’ tribute to her grandfather, and “How Many Times a Fool,” a breakup song by Grimwood and Idlet with a bitter theme, but high-energy playing.
Longtime fans were rewarded with several familiar songs. “Cruzan Time,” a funny recollection of one of Wheatfield’s early gigs – a six-week residency at a hotel on the Caribbean island of St. Croix – benefited from Calvert’s fine mandolin. Calvert also got to demonstrate his flute skills on “This Year” and the jazzy instrumental “Roll Over Dave Brubeck.” The latter featured what has become something of a Wheatfield show tradition: Mims’ minimal contribution – striking a triangle at several points – earned her an enthusiastic ovation each time.
Wheatfield/Saint Elmo’s Fire always had an ear for well-chosen covers as well, and the Mucky Duck show included two excellent examples – Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock and Roll Woman,” both fueled by brilliant harmonies.
After closing with Mims’ “Anywhere My Heart Goes,” featuring some nice guitar work by Calvert, the band returned for an encore consisting of Joni Mitchell’s “Conversation,” a showcase for Mims’ singing and Idlet’s banjo, and Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom,” with harmonies every bit as beautiful and chill-inducing as those in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s version.
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