For a few precious years in the late 1980s and early â€™90s, the most communal experience on the pop touring circuit was a family affair. Recording artist-producer Don Dixon and his wife, the singer-songwriter Marti Jones, traversed the nation practically nonstop during those years, giving audiences in rock clubs and small theaters an irresistible two-for-one package: great tunes, of course, and the casual banter of two free â€“ and kindred â€“ spirits who were at the peak of their creative powers and clearly having the time of their lives.
This column represents a first for Popdose: our initial opportunity to post an â€œofficial bootlegâ€ recording provided to us by the artists themselves. If youâ€™re a loyal Popdose reader or Dixon fan, you hopefully recall the series of articles my colleague Will Harris and I devoted to him last autumn; in the coming weeks you may look forward to a similar series spotlighting Jones and her career. Today, weâ€™re focusing on the unique alchemy Dixon and Jones created onstage, and the small but dedicated following they built during their touring years â€“ a following of which Iâ€™m proud to have been a member.
The high church of the Don-and-Marti cult may have been Washington, DCâ€™s old 9:30 Club, where the pair set up shop at least three or four times a year, often for multiple nights. Since the clubâ€™s capacity was only about 450, it wasnâ€™t difficult to pick out some familiar faces at every show â€“ the heavy-set guy who came alone, planted himself in the front row (slightly stage right) and sang along to every song; the slightly built, bespectacled guy who was always close (but not too close) to the stage and never looked like he was having too great a time, yet was always back for the next show. There were several couples we could rely on seeing as well, and my (future) wife Gwen and I would secretly (and competitively) keep count of their appearances at the gigs.
“Those shows at the 9:30 Club were definitely special,â€ Jones told me last week. â€œWe loved those audiences, because they obviously knew our songs and they were so wonderfully warm to us. We felt like we attracted fans who were a lot like us, so a lot of times it seemed like we were in a roomful of friends. There were a number of places like DC and the 9:30 Club during that time â€“ pockets around the country where we got more airplay and could play larger venues, where we could count on folks showing up who were actual fans of our music. But then there were also times like the show I did at a little club in Detroit, where the marquee said â€˜Mary Jones.â€™ I mean, that’s my grandmother.â€
The shows themselves were intimate yet rollicking occasions, Dixon and Jones trading the spotlight and sharing silly asides between songs. Jones would poke fun at Dixon and encourage his self-deprecation; she would even playfully mock his songs (a habit displayed to great effect on Dixon’s live Chi-Town Budget Show CD, on which Jones sings his “Heart in a Box” to the tune of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.”) Dixon, inevitably, would at some point pick up a towel and wrap it around his head, Lawrence of Arabia-style. They seemed willing, even eager, to give their audiences a real sense of themselves and their relationship, and their set lists flowed almost as though they were being conceived on the fly.
Almost. â€œIf that was the sense you got, thatâ€™s a great compliment, because those shows were always carefully structured,â€ Jones says. â€œWe would put a set list together, weâ€™d label it, and weâ€™d keep doing that same set through a particular batch of shows. Weâ€™d organize them based on who had a record out at the moment â€“ we would go on â€˜Don Dixonâ€™ tours and â€˜Marti Jonesâ€™ tours, and whichever one of us wasnâ€™t pitching something would get fewer songs. But then, when both of us were between records, weâ€™d do â€˜Don and Martiâ€™ shows where we evened things out. Those were always the best shows, as far as I was concerned, because we had the least pressure on us and the most fun.â€
The concert featured below â€“ which Dixon in recent years had considered giving an official release â€“ was recorded on May 11, 1990, at the 1313 Club in Charlotte. Dixon was promoting his EEE album, which featured the Uptown Horns prominently on several tracks, so for the subsequent tour he and Jones added a horn section to their usual backing band. Jonesâ€™ contributions included previews of a couple tracks from her then-upcoming Any Kind of Lie album. â€œI remember that show because there was a lot of setup time, since we were recording it to 24-track,â€ Jones says. â€œThose shows were also memorable because there were so many freaking people on the stage! It was fantastic having the horn section behind us â€“ and it was really crowded.â€
Heart in a Box
Roots of Truth
Oh Cheap Chatter
Cat Out of the Bag
Any Kind of Lie
Mustang Sally/Down in N.O.
Gimme Little Sign
Calling Out for Love (At Crying Time) (includes slight recording defect at beginning of track)
At the Dark End of the Street
Love Gets Strange
I Can Hear the River
Happy Birthday Wilhelm
Since the show is rather Dixon-centric, here are a few tracks from Jonesâ€™ Live at Spirit Square album to even things out a bit. The recording, which was released on Sugar Hill in 1996, dates from just three months after our bootleg â€“ it documents a gig at Charlotteâ€™s Spirit Square Center for the Arts on August 29, 1990.
Sadly, the Don and Marti tours of that era arenâ€™t likely to be repeated â€“ Jones has pretty much sworn off going back on the road, though the couple occasionally agree to a one-off gig near their home in northeastern Ohio. So weâ€™ll have to content ourselves with the recordings and the memories â€“ as will Jones herself. â€œI think those tours were so much fun because Dixon and I are who we are,â€ she says. â€œWe always tried to be accessible to the audiences, and didnâ€™t feel like we had to separate ourselves from them. After awhile you donâ€™t really have a choice â€“ you have to become that person, the rock-star person. But Don and I never really got to that point â€“ I was never successful enough to get to that point, I guess.
â€œBut I mostly felt privileged during that time, to get to do what we were doing, and I know Dixon felt that way, too. I had been playing for so many years, in lounges and stuff â€“ I was just grateful that anybody was actually listening to what I was singing, instead of giving me dirty looks because I was breaking into their conversation.â€
Thereâ€™s much more Marti to come next week.