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For more than three years, Naomi's Lounge on Canton has been the focal point for the local "Honky-Tonk Underground" movement that has spawned the likes of Cowboys and Indians, The Old 97's, Liberty Valance, The Cartwrights, Lone Star Trio, Tex Edwards and the Swinging Cornflake Killers, and even Houston's Mary Cutrufello--all for no cover charge, just the occasional buck in the tip jar. The venerable old jukejoint on the "country side of Deep Ellum," as owner Carrol Collyer calls it, has also been home to two of the best shows I've ever seen, both by Ronnie Dawson during his annual birthday show with Lone Star Trio frontman Matt "The Cat" Hillyer.
But there's a price to pay for charging $1.75 for beer: Collyer says that dwindling crowds put him in the hole by a few thousand dollars, which meant he could pay for the rent but not the beer. A benefit concert on November 19--featuring Liberty Valance, The Old 97's, Cutrufello, Cowboys and Indians frontmen Erik Swanson and Billy King--raised about $1,700, but the money will amount only to a temporary stop-gap unless crowds start to pick up again. And losing Naomi's would be a damned shame: It's broken-in like a pair of old boots, the only place in Deep Ellum you can hang out in without feeling like you sold your soul.
"I was down on my butt there for a minute," Collyer says. "It just kind of slowed down there. I don't know if it's the holidays or people are short of money or what, but it took me by surprise. Nobody is supporting the little local bands. They'll show up for The Old 97's, but they're on tour so much I'm having to work in some new young ones. I just don't know what happened to the people."
On December 1, The Mutineers (featuring ex-Cartwrights Barry Kooda and Donny Ray Ford) will perform at Naomi's, followed the next night by the Zydeco Swamptones; the next Friday night will feature Cowboys and Indians. And they're all good excuses to show up, buy a case of Lone Star or five, and drop the change in the tip jar.
Phases and stages
For the first year and a half of their career, Vibrolux performed almost non-stop and, in the process, ascended rather quickly up the Deep Ellum food chain, garnering a big-money record deal after weighing several offers.
In the process, the band has also run through nearly half a dozen members--a couple of drummers, a bassist here and there. In the end, it would be guitarist-songwriter Paul Quigg, singer-songwriter Kim Pendleton, bassist Alan Hayslip, and drummer Bruce Alford who landed the deal with Atlas/Polydor several months ago, not long before Alford split from the band over those ol' artistic differences.
The quest for a new full-time drummer coincided with a recording process for an EP that was due to be released in October but still sits on Quigg's shelf. As such, the band hadn't performed in three months until last Saturday's show at Trees. At the very least, they were distracted.
"It's been a really good experience so far," Quigg says. "The hardest thing we've had to deal with is getting our lineup together, and it's a touchy subject. You have to try to split your reality between being sensitive to people's feelings and being a practical professional. It's all so you can create the music you hear in your head.
"The first 18 months of our life as a band was a pretty busy thing, playing almost every weekend, and it accelerated a little bit, and then boom. It stopped. It's been a weird void, but it's been full of this other crap."
But some of "this other crap" is finally over: At Trees, the band debuted their latest (and, they surely hope, final) drummer--an unknown named Jeff Hennan, who makes his living as a drum teacher and as a session musician. Quigg says he also used to play in a cover band and a group named Mushroom Java--"or one of those names that sounds like that," he shrugs, laughing. Hennan joined Vibrolux about two weeks ago, following a series of auditions attended by numerous drummers around town.
"That was really pretty hard, choosing a drummer," Quigg says. "But eventually certain things lead to the best decision you can make, and you just have to go with instinct.
"We were looking for spontaneity and good humor. Jeff had that hands-down. Within 30 seconds of kicking into a tune, Kim was dancing around and smiling and singing her ass off. It was the most fun I had playing in a year, and by the third visit it was ridiculous. I was sold completely."
Hennan joins the band a couple of months before they head off to record their debut full-lengther for Atlas/Polydor, though they won't know exactly where or when they'll record until they pick a producer. In October, the band was originally scheduled to release an EP, which they recorded in August at Crystal Clear Sound with producer Robbie Adams (who has worked with U2) and ex-End Over End drummer Kyle Thomas. But the label and Vibrolux's manager Shaun Edwardes thought it would be unwise to release the EP if the band, which at the time didn't have a drummer, wasn't going to be able to tour to support it--which is still the case as the band heads into pre-production work on the album.