Ja, das is country punk

The old world discovers the Old 97's

It's boom times and heady days for Dallas' favorite insurgent honky-tonk combo, the Old 97's; the band has just returned from a quick fortnight in Europe, where it met with continental acclaim, and now is hashing things out with a veritable Greek chorus of major record labels, including Elektra, MCA, and Mercury, negotiations that have dragged on since the South by Southwest music festival in March.

The European tour, built around two major festivals and a couple of smaller club dates, was a gas according to Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller. After surviving a recuperative night in London--"People were yelling at us because we'd never look the right way when we crossed the street," Miller reports--the band spent a week in Switzerland, then a week in Norway, pacing gigs at a leisurely enough pace to allow some sightseeing beyond club bathrooms and van windows.

Things in chocolate and watch country didn't get off to that smooth a start:For one, Miller's luggage went astray, and before it could catch up to him, he found himself at the festival, sitting next to John Prine. "You know--great--here I am, tired, dirty, no clean clothes, and now I have to be clever," Miller remembers. "He was pretty nice, though."

Journalists--well, music journalists--aren't any smarter on the other side of the Atlantic, despite their cool accents. "Everybody had the same question," Miller says, slipping into his best Sergeant Schultz inflections. "You are the mix of the country and the punk, yes?" The musicians did their best to hide their disappointment. "No one asked us what we thought of John Cougar Mellencamp."

During its stay in the Alps, the band hung out with Will and Charlie Sexton ("Really nice guys," Miller says) and played a Zurich club date that Elektra Records' Seymour Stein attended, staying to drink and sing old Jimmie Rodgers songs until early in the morning. Guitarist Ken Bethea ran into Kris Kristofferson in their hotel elevator and called him "dude."

Norway was a bit different. Kris was absent, for one thing, and "they eat fish--fisk--all the time," Miller says, still turned off. "It was too much." The bars took some getting used to, too. "The sun set, like, at midnight or one, and you'd leave the bar, see the sun, and feel this guilt, like you'd stayed up all night long doing terrible things."

Jimmie Dale Gilmore joined the Old 97's onstage during one club gig in Halden, Norway, for the band's version of his "Dallas." "I thought, 'Oh my God, I changed his melody, he's gonna be pissed!'" Miller relates, "but we got to be good friends." Miller has a raft of stories about the trip, including tales of drinking beer and eating fresh salmon among beautiful fjords and of opening for the DeLillos, Norway's biggest rock band. "There were thousands of people, and rows of 14-, 15-year-old girls in front, just doing a total Beatlemania thing, screaming," Miller says, sounding not unappreciative. "It was amazing."

More amazing still is the ever-widening window of opportunity before the group. In addition to the ongoing label negotiations, there's a short Labor Day tour with Jimmie Dale planned, as well as a fall return to Europe and--somewhere, somehow--a record to make. The band's July 20 show at Sons of Hermann Hall may well be the hometown's only chance to see them this summer. The guys also are talking to Exene Cervenka about collaborating on a single that could come out at the beginning of next year. "Wherever she wants us," Miller avers, "we'll crawl there."

What's my motivation?
Talk about your typecasting, but that was Paul Slavens playing an insane fireworks salesman on one of the latest Texas Lotto commercials. Slavens may be best known as the leader of Zappa-esque and now-defunct jazz-rock band Ten Hands, but he's also working on an album with former Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abbruzzese and performing his twisted '90s cabaret act, "Dr. Paul's Freak Show," at local venues like Club Dada.

It's actually one of two Lotto spots currently running in which Slaven's mug appears, the most recent installment of what's amounting to a nice run of work for the singer, composer, and pianist. The other ad, which features Slavens as an insane painter, is seen less and "is actually better," Slavens claims, a dynamic no doubt familiar to him throughout his career with Ten Hands. Slavens has made three other Lotto ads playing "various and sundry freaks."

His Big Break came when he was accompanying a pal, improvisational comic and actor Scott Parkin, leading a backup band that included current Spot member Reggie Rueffer and former Ten Hands drummer Alan Emert. There was a part in the show where Slavens took random suggestions from the audience and extemporaneously wove them into a song. Afterward, a rep from the Kim Dawson Agency who had seen the show came up to Slavens and "basically said that I could have a career making TV commercials if I wanted," Slavens recalls. "They gave me their card, and afterward Scott came up and asked me, 'Do you know how lucky you are?'"

Slavens' first audition was for the Lotto spots, and he got a gig right then, playing an insane pirate. Since then, he's done a number of spots as well as voice-overs for popular electronic games like Doom.

"They usually hire me because I can do...um...those things," Slavens speculates, referring to the eye-popping, face-morphing theatrics familiar to Ten Hands friends and detractors alike. "It's perfect for a musician," he says of the acting. "You put in not a lot of time--except for auditions, really--and then you usually just work a day; the paychecks last much longer."

When not spazzing out in the name of legalized gambling, Slavens continues work on the Green Romance Orchestra, his project with Abbruzzese, and his "Freak Show."

"What I'd like to do is get something going that's regular, that people might want to go to more than once," he says of the please-use-yer-coasters-cabaret-from-hell concept of "Freak Show," "and then have guests, so that it's different enough that they can go to more than one show."

The one-man-show philosophy behind "Freak Show" is a bit of a departure for Slavens. "When I was in Ten Hands, I thought the secret was to play, play, play, play," Slavens admits. "That just isn't the case anymore; I think you're just as well off sitting by yourself, working on your own thing."

Rat pack come home
The Red Jacket--current cool spot that got quite a bit of ink when it opened at the site of the old Fish Dance on Lower Greenville Avenue, putting the former danceteria's 20-times-life-size James Brown to sleep beneath a blanket of midnight blue paint--has gotten into the lounge revival with a summerlong series featuring noted Fort Worth saxman Johnny Reno.

Reno, who has spent the last several years touring with Chris Isaak, first got interested in older, smoother musical forms through friends with Los Angeles swing revivalists Royal Crown Revue. "They had this thing called the Royal Crown Trio, which was more stripped down and had more Sinatra-style crooning," Reno recalls. "I remembered when that was what I wanted to do, so I started looking into it." Last year Reno hung out in San Francisco with Jimmy Pugh, Robert Cray's Hammond organ player. "We both liked that old Jimmy Smith stuff...We were talking about making an album, but we just ended up jamming."

When Reno returned to Texas, he brought his new interest with him. It wasn't just a matter of putting together a band and buying a cool jacket from the Salvation Army, though. "It's more of a personal thing, more up close, and there was no place around here where you could pull it off."

John Kenyon, longtime area club impresario, co-owns the Red Jacket and provided most of the inspiration and guidance for the club's design, basing it on a notorious mixed-race bar by the same name that was across Maple Avenue from the Stoneleigh Hotel in the late '50s and '60s. An underage Kenyon used to sneak into the old Red Jacket--also patronized by Jack Ruby--savoring its air of danger, once dashing out the back door as the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission came in the front.

Kenyon commissioned old friend, West-textured musician and artist Terry Allen, to design the club's interior, telling him tales of his boyhood haunt and even making a tape of cool bar scenes from favorite movies. The result is a dark space, multileveled and red-lit, punctuated with go-go platforms and other touchstones of '60s nightclub cheese.

"I love designing and building spaces," Kenyon says. "I've always liked movies, and that idea of entering an entire other world; I think you can get that when you walk in a club, too, if you do it right. I pride myself on having dance clubs that don't insult your intelligence...and I don't really have any word biases--a disco to me is a music club, a place to dance."

"The Red Jacket was perfect," Reno says, recalling his first reaction to seeing the new space. "I knew (Kenyon) was looking for live music, so I approached him, told him that his club would be ideal for some sort of lounge thing, that we could work in some acid jazz, B-3 stuff, and everything. He said 'yes'; not many club owners would have the vision or be willing to take the chance on a whole summer series, but he did."

The closer, more personal vibe is still paramount. "When you come to the club, you'll notice that I don't set up on the dance floor, I set up around the corner, among the tables, where you can see the looks on people's faces," Reno explains. "I really dig this stuff, and it's a challenge to try to learn how to play a certain way; I want to work in some jazz and just generally explore. A lot of the music is really cool and sophisticated. I don't want to be so campy, like a lot of these guys are...I want the artists and the audience to take it seriously." Backing Reno up will be Paul Boll on guitar, drummer Jeff Howe, and Eric 'Scorch' Scortia on the Hammond B-3; they'll perform every Thursday evening this summer.

No tears here
Ask area fans of Texas music what most often finds them awake in the middle of the night, tearfully forcing back a sob and crying "Why?" and many of them will mention the late, great Three Teardrops Tavern and its ebullient Friday evening happy hours. Well, dry your eyes: Mike Snider is reviving the concept at the Sons of Hermann Hall, where he consistently books some of the best Texas talent on wheels. Hosted by Little John Holloway, DJ for the "Texas Renegade Radio Hour" on KNON-FM 89.3, Friday afternoon at the Sons will return to the 3T's concept of the free, catered honky-tonk happy hour with an early evening show by one of the night's featured acts. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the feed commences at 6; things kick off July 12 with Asleep at the Wheel and Cowboys and Indians.

Scene, heard
Super Secret Weapon will open for industrial combo Filter in Oklahoma City July 20 after Filter splits off from opening for bat-biting fat boy Ozzy Osbourne to do its own show. SSW lead singer, guitarist, and founder David Wayne is excited both about the gig and a new demo the band should have ready to release right about now. "People forget about you in two weeks," Wayne allows, "but we're really--finally--getting some things to choose from"...

Local alternative band Finger--formerly Goldfinger until the identically named Los Angeles punk-pop band called and nicely asked the band to stop using the name--has just released an 11-song CD under its new attenuated name on Buda Records. The band will celebrate the release with a show at 10 p.m. July 12 at Trees, followed by Tablet and Quickserv Johnny...

Call it the name change show, but Wonderland--now, after three years, changing its name to birch county--will be on the same bill. The band spent the last spring restructuring under the guidance of David Castell, known for his work with Deep Blue Something and Course of Empire. Earlier the band had recorded an album it wasn't too happy with, so the band decided not to release it and to seek higher guidance--i.e., Castell, who wasn't too excited about doing another local band. "It was a struggle to convince him to do it," remembers band manager Roger Bishara, "but we finally got him to come out to a show and he loved it." Castell has guided the band through something of a reshaping. "He looked at the songs and added some parts, took away others," Bishara reports. "It gave us a better flow and a more professional sound...You can really tell the difference." The reformation has resulted in the addition of a rhythm guitarist, Paul Reid, a longtime chum of guitarist Brett Bledsoe. For the CD EP the band will be debuting on the 12th, Castell put in more than 100 hours of preproduction with the group...

Monte Warden, whom Buddy Holly haunts when not spooking around with Colin "Otto Man" Boyd, plays Chuy's July 17 as part of the restaurant's summer show schedule, followed by Josh Alan on the 24th...

On July 16 rubberbullet hosts a throw-down in honor of open, its new Last Beat release. The party, which will feature the band doing a rare acoustic set, will be held from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the State Bar in Exposition Park.

Street Beat welcomes info and other stuff at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com. Thank you and good night.

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