Two-drink minimum

The Enablers take Nino Rota and Dick Dale out for cocktails

The band plays in the corner--near the front door, just a few feet away from the bar. Sometimes, when the music is quiet enough, they can hear a patron place a drink order even if it's whispered to the bartender; the gurgling of the cappucino machine, the plops of ice into tall cocktails, and the ka-ching of the cash register are so audible they even seem like instruments in this rather laconic and funky mix of music.

Such is the way it sounds every Monday night when the Enablers play the Balcony Club, the cozy nightspot that's as long as it is dark. The music--loping and lazy, a soft and ingenious blend of surf and spaghetti-western and '60s pop turned down and toned down for the late cocktail hour--permeates the background, the quiet spots filled in by patrons' chit-chat, and everyone is happy with the arrangement. This is what Neal Caldwell, Bart Chaney, and Chris Dirkx had in mind when they set up shop here a few months ago--to provide a background music over which people could talk comfortably, the unobtrusive soundtrack to a dozen conversations.

"We wanted to do something that was real low-key that people could come and listen to if they wanted to and talk over," says Caldwell, who plays the organ and provides the hypnotic melody. "It always had to have a groove, a rhythm thing going...The main thing was a cocktaily thing."

"We wanted to provide some ambience," adds Chaney, the band's bass player. "You could listen to it if you wanted to. When you pay attention to it, it's interesting, but if you don't want to pay attention to it, it's background--like those [Brian] Eno ambient records. A lot of times, when you go out to see a band, it's almost like watchin' a movie. They command all your attention, they take all the air space.

"You can't have a conversation with the person next to you without shouting, just like you can't talk during a movie. So we wanted to do something so people could talk to each other while the music's going on. We provide the soundtrack."

But it's the great irony of the Enablers' music that it is actually so arresting. It's not the sort of ironic and self-obsessed lounge sound that is inexplicably the trend among the ironic and self-obsessed, but something much more complex--a cross between the work of Italian soundtrack composers Nino Rota (La Dolce Vita) and Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), surf-rock guitarist Dick Dale, and funk.

Mark Griffin--best known as MC 900 Ft Jesus, an occasional member of the Enablers, and an old friend and colleague of Caldwell, Dirkx, and Chaney's--describes the band as "this real comatose feeling that's sort of a cross between Bedhead and Sly and the Family Stone."

"It's really odd even playing trumpet with this band because it's such a loud instrument," he says. "It's hard to play quiet enough to sort of blend with it because everybody's really toned down. It's a challenge especially after being in live shows on tour [as MC 900 Ft Jesus] and being in this big loud band all year long, but it's also a relief.

"I mean, I can sit in that chair and say something in a normal tone of voice to Chris while we're playing a tune, and he will hear me perfectly. It feels so easy on the ears."

On Wednesdays, when the band plays its regular gigs at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, the Enablers actually become the centerpiece of attention instead of the distraction. When they performed June 14, Chaney, Caldwell, and Dirkx (the band's drummer) were joined by Griffin on trumpet and Phil Bush on guitar, and within the bunker-like confines of the MAC's lobby, where the music bounded off walls and concrete floors, the Enablers sounded like a huge band--the textures deep and thick, the laconic becoming more frenetic. (Even better, the applause of the six people in attendance was magnified to sound like the clapping of 600.)

During a set list that included excerpts from La Dolce Vita's soundtrack, the title song from Never on Sunday, the Frank and Nancy Sinatra chestnut "Somethin' Stupid," and some unnamed originals, the Enablers were all over the place--sometimes sounding like King Crimson doing surf, sometimes like old pop radio gone Caribbean, art-rock gone new-wave gone mad.

"One person said we're the band that's always two drinks ahead of everyone else," Dirkx says. "I don't know what that means, but it's interesting."

Though the Enablers have existed for just a little more than a year--and only since May with its current full-time line-up of Caldwell, Chaney, and Dirkx--they are all veterans of a local music new-wave and punk scene that has not existed for more than a decade, one that thrived in places like the Hot Klub, D.J.'s, and Magnolia's. Caldwell is perhaps best known as the bassist-lead singer with NCM, which also featured his brother Randy on drums and David Hill on guitar. Dirkx was the drummer for Bobby Soxx and the Teenage Queers and then the Telefones (with his own brothers Jerry and Steve); and Griffin played with the Telefones, replacing sax player Will Clay.

NCM and the Telefones were the best of the bands that played the Hot Klub--Dallas' answers to the Buzzcocks and Gang of Four, funny and edgy and catchy and innovative; songs like the Telefones' "The Ballad of Jerry Godzilla" and NCM's "Spazz Age," both of which are available on the Tales from the Edge Vols. 5-6 disc, hold up better than most anything on the Rhino New Wave Hits of the '80s series. And Caldwell, who owned VVV Records and its namesake record label, was among the most important catalysts of that scene, releasing NCM's singles and the now-legendary Live at the Hot Klub album.

Just as the Hot Klub was beginning to creep toward its end in the early '80s, Chaney was hooking up with bassist Gary Lance, guitarist Kim Herriage, keyboard player Greg Richards, and drummer Buddy Berry to form Feet First. Their 1986 album--the reggae-and-pop-driven In a Great Big Room, which featured the long-lost classic "One-Sided Conversation"--was the first (and only) release on the Deep Ellum Records label. Lance introduced Chaney to Chris Dirkx, with whom Lance worked at the Melody Shop record store in NorthPark, and Feet First and the Telefones began sharing bills.

Not long after the dissolution of Feet First, Steve Dirkx and Caldwell began putting together Whiteman--a pastiche of the island rhythms of which Caldwell was enamored, funk, spoken-word rap, and synth-organ new wave. Chaney, who had played keyboards and sung in Feet First, played the congas in Whiteman; and in the band's early incarnations, VVV Records employee Mark Griffin was also a member, and the things he would pick up from Caldwell--the spoken-word narrative-styled vocals, the cut-and-paste music-making, the laconic funk--he'd later use in MC 900 Ft. Jesus.

"Literally, I'm sure a lot of the stylistic influences on what I do came from being in Whiteman and just listening to Neil's crazy stories," Griffin says. "Contentwise, what we do [in MC 900 Ft Jesus] is quite different, but I've got to give him credit for the concept."

By the time Whiteman Again was released in 1992 on VVV Records--it was a tape produced in the very-limited quantity of 100, each cover hand-watercolored--the lineup consisted of Caldwell on organ and vocals, Steve Dirkx on bass, Chris Dirkx on drums, Chaney on congas, and Phil Bush (ex of Princess Tex) on guitars. (Griffin, by then well-established as MC 900 Ft Jesus, mixed the tape.)

The Enablers are, more or less, a toned-down version of Whiteman; many of Whiteman's songs--including "Sonia," "Give people their dope," "Perfect Silence," "Free bird," and "Time Was"--are included in the Enablers' sets, although in versions less than recognizable.

"There's some different things we like that we're able to draw on in this band that we weren't able to draw on in Whiteman," Chaney says. "That's things like '60s pop, like Dionne Warwick songs, and '60s movie music--the Nino Rota and the spaghetti western stuff and some surf."

The threads connecting these musicians and their bands past and present are so intertwined they can never be separated; it's like a family tree on which sisters married brothers married cousins married parents--everyone owing something to the guy sitting next to him on the stage.

"Whiteman--that was a big deal for me," Caldwell says by way of explaining the Enablers. "That was so much fun having Mark there. Mark and I had never played in a band before. I had never played with Bart, either. I had hung out with Chris a lot--we jammed a lot. To me, that's when it all happened because we spent a great couple of years together doing that, and when you connect with somebody that strongly and deeply and that well for a long period of time, you never lose it. You never do. And that's why he wants to keep playing with us and we want to keep playing with him. It feels great."

Ty one on
Local country-boy-made-good Ty Herndon, the subject of a recent profile in these very pages on the occasion of his major-label debut What Mattered Most, was busted June 13 in Fort Worth's Gateway Park for allegedly exposing himself to an undercover cop and masturbating in front of him; according to Fort Worth police, he also was in possession of a controlled substance after cops hauled him into jail and found 2.40 grams of methamphetamine in a plastic bag concealed in his wallet. And--even CNN couldn't conceal its glee about this small fact--this all happened just as Herndon was scheduled to perform before a group of 400 police officers.

Two days following the bust, the singer left a message on his mobile-phone voice mail apologizing for his addiction, saying he's "gonna be away about a month here dealing with some personal problems and getting my life into shape." On Monday Fort Worth police charged Herndon with drug possession and indecent exposure.

And even though Herndon vehemently denies the indecent exposure charges--he calls them "a bunch of shit" and promises to "fight that to the ground," claiming he was only taking "a leak"--already local country radio station KPLX-FM (99.5) has taken his singles out of heavy rotation. Allegations of drug use and homosexual behavior don't play well in the Bible Belt, and Herndon--who just recently was at the top of the country singles charts--is quickly on his way to becoming a forgotten would-be superstar, no matter how "supportive" fans might appear at first.

But rather than look upon his arrest as bad publicity--of which there's no such thing, even if you're The O.J.--Herndon ought to seize the opportunity to establish himself as the new Bad Boy of Country. Herndon, whose music is so bland and pop it's closer to Bread than it is to even John Denver, has finally found a way to join the country tradition his music always distanced him from.

Hank Williams was kicked off the Grand Ol' Opry and the Louisiana Hayride for his alcoholism, and Willie Nelson is renowned for dope-smoking onstage, even at Billy Bob's. David Allen Coe used to love his coke and heroin, and before he found God in the back of a limousine, Johnny Cash used to visit "Cocaine Carolina" every damn chance he got (in 1964, he was arrested in El Paso for possession of almost 700 Dexedrine capsules and 500 Equanil tablets).

Bob Wills used to get so drunk he wouldn't show up for gigs, and on the 1937 recording of "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas" by Wills and the Texas Playboys, Tommy Duncan sings the line, "I can sell you morphine, coke, or snow." And closer to Herndon's heart--way closer, depending upon the dosage--in the 1940s, the Texas Rhythm Boys recorded "Benzadryne Blues," an ode to the joys of speed.

The allegations of whippin' out Li'l Ty in front of a police officer--in a park notorious for its cruising--are potentially more damaging in the redneck, homophobic world of country music. For years, Randy Travis vehemently denied the charge he was queer and married his manager, a woman some three decades his elder, to prove his manhood. (It should be noted that Herndon is indeed married to a woman named Renee C, to whom he partially dedicated his album: "Without you my dreams are wasted.")

As Nick Tosches wrote in his 1977 book Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America's Biggest Music, "There is not a surface plenty of faggotry in country music." But, Tosches does point to one song as the leading example of the genre--Cowboy Jack Derrick's "Truck Drivin' Man," released in 1946 on the King label. In the song, Cowboy Jack ("in his raspy baritone," says Tosches) anxiously awaits the return of his main squeeze: "When my truck drivin' man comes back to town/I'll dress up in my silken gown."

Harping on it
Cindy Horstman, one of just a handful of jazz harpists in the country, has just released her second album--the appropriately titled Fretless, on her own Seahorse Records label. With a song list ranging from originals ("Ballade for Andy," "Rio") to standards (Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" and George and Ira Gershwin's "Summertime") to a cover of Steely Dan's "Do it Again," Fretless is an engaging work, successfully balancing the coolness of jazz-pop and the warmth of bop. It's the kind of album that could get played on KERA, the Oasis, and a straight-ahead jazz station--all the disparate parts adding up to something wholly unique.

For her second album, Horstman has called upon such pals as guitarist Andy Timmons (voted Dallas' local musician of the year in the 1995 Dallas Observer Music Awards), sax player Fulton Turnage, bassist and percussionist Michael Medina, singer James Kings, and a handful of others. The result is an album more varied than her 1994 debut In Flight--and more accessible to a pop audience, sometimes at the expense of the blues and bop that made In Flight such a welcome surprise.

Horstman will celebrate the release of Fretless with a performance June 22 at Sambuca in Deep Ellum from 8:15 p.m. to 12:15 a.m. Many of the musicians on the album will also sit in with Horstman throughout the night.

Speaking of Timmons, he can also be heard on one track on the new Paula Abdul album Head over Heels. He joins the string section of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on the tepid and overwrought ballad "Cry For Me."

Scene, heard
Darden Smith has had to cancel his June 30 show at the Sons of Hermann Hall; he has been asked to open the European leg of Joan Baez's current tour, and likely will play the hall near the end of July. In his place, Austin singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso will perform at the Hall on the 30th...

Liberty Valance, Yeah!Yeah!Yeah!, and the Sole Poets will perform June 25 at Club Dada for a benefit for David Ranke--the monitor mixer for the Beach Boys and a Dallas resident--who is recovering from recent surgery to remove a brain tumor. Ranke, like so many people in the music business, doesn't have insurance and is having trouble covering bills. The benefit runs from 28 p.m., cover is $3, and free barbecue will be provided.

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