Junkyard jazz

The Calways go a little crazy

It's obvious that tonight--with Deep Ellum roiling in the aftermath of the Texas-OU game--was not the best night to schedule an interview at Sol's Taco Lounge. An orange-and-white Winnebago at the curb is but a faint warning of the mayhem within: a crush of spilled beer, red faces, and bellowing voices. This, you think, is what a rugby game between teams of Viking real-estate agents must be like.

The three Calways, sitting by a window, are slightly bemused by the high-volume carnage. If you were casting an old World War II movie--the kind with Van Johnson in it--bassist Todd Pertll would be "the quiet one," and drummer Jesse Hall and leader Todd Deatherage would probably have to arm-wrestle to see who'd get to be "Sarge" and who'd be the one known as "The Joker."

As a band, they don't have a whole lot of use for conventions, be they the kind that govern music or the ones that--tonight at least--seem to insist on very loud, spittle-flinging discussions about a certain state university to the north.

"You just can't be too conscious of playing in a certain style or everything comes out piecemeal," Hall explains over the din. "We don't think about a song's 'sound' too much."

"You've got to get it all to mesh together," Pertll adds. "Without trying." Diverse influences, though, sometimes make identification difficult, and past models of the Calways have featured steel guitar and Pertll on upright rather than his current electric bass. This has often led to them being lumped in with the Old 97's. Granted, there are similarities: Singer-songwriter-guitarist Deatherage is in fact a friend of the Old 97's Rhett Miller (he even puts Miller's singing in the background of the Calways song "Losing My Cool"); his country listening crops up all over the Calways' music; and the band is a group of smart, attractive fellows who generate a certain chick magnetism.

Deatherage, however, came to this spot through a long association with jazz, influenced by Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery and a host of other jazz guitarists "too numerous to mention" and nurtured by the arts magnet high-school program. After graduating, he dove into the area blues scene, where he played with mouth harpist Memo Gonzales and bluesman Hash Brown, the latter of whom became such a mentor to him that Deatherage borrowed Brown's real last name--Calway--for his band.

"The first bar I ever played in was Schooner's," Deatherage remembers. "I grew up with that scene. When I was about 15, Hash Brown saw me and kind of took me under his wing...He used to work at this pawn shop, and my mom would drop me off there, and he'd just take hours showing me stuff on the guitar."

But Deatherage was always listening to country, too, picking up on classic sounds recommended by school chum Matt "The Cat" Hilliard (Lone Star Trio) and Donny Ray Ford; he also played with Ford. That listening surfaces in all sorts of places, like the gallop of "Losing My Cool" and the lament "Why Must I Have a Heart?" But while the Old 97's go for the twang, the Calways swing; Deatherage's jazz background shows up in his atypical chords and sometimes-odd rhythm patterns.

"I don't think that we sound that country," says Hall, who previously has played with acts like Denton's Little Jack Melody. "It's more like the Rolling Stones when they were hanging around Gram Parsons, but we're all into jazz. That's what keeps us together."

"Jazz players have better interaction," Deatherage adds.
"You gotta listen," Hall says, noting that the Calways listen to everything from Buck Owens to rap to Weezer. "You have to know what's going on, when to end a solo, and that's important to us when we could be playing the Barley House one night and Trees the next."

"We just want to be a damn good rock group," Deatherage says, mentioning Reverend Horton Heat and Tom Petty as ideals.

With pal Steve Visneau on drums, Deatherage experimented with different instrumentation and forms for the band, including "a whole bunch of bass players." Deatherage and Visneau hit upon Pertll about a year ago, and the three of them put out the six-song 96 Summer Demo. When Visneau's other band, the punky Mess, moved from the ma-and-pa label Direct Hit to Last Beat, Visneau decided to devote all of his time to that band. The current incarnation of the Calways--with Hall on board in Visneau's place--has been together since early September.

"We're just now clicking as a rhythm section," Hall says as Pertll nods his head. Pertll, originally inspired by rockabilly slap bass, has only been playing for three years. Some might see him as sort of a junior member: Deatherage writes the lyrics and chord changes to the songs, and then the group susses out the tunes' final forms; often, both in rehearsal and live, the big bassist seems to be just watching the interaction between guitar and drums, but he says it's all part of his role.

"The bass is supposed to support the song," Pertll says. "I don't go for all these guys strumming the bass and using picks to play all these chords...It's for the background."

As this lineup coalesces, a new sound is emerging; Pertll and Hall are working hard on their backup singing. "Not just screaming," Pertll says, "but really singing together." This new focus gently turns the Calways away from honky-tonkin' and toward something poppier.

Think of the Crickets, with the minimalism of post-punk but with more options.

"I don't really like guitar solos," Deatherage explains, no doubt appalling his old blues buddies. "They're not necessary. We're a song band, not a guitar band."

"We're not a country band, and we're not a jazz band," Hall adds. "We're just what we are."

"People keep calling us rockabilly, and I hate that," Deatherage says with a hint of exasperation. "Because we're not. Rockabilly--you've gotta have your hair right from the '50s and your clothes right from the '50s or people won't come."

While the band members refuse to acknowledge the limits of style, there are limits nonetheless. This summer they spent time in the studio with Matt Castille of the Vas Deferens Organization, but ended up not using the songs that bore his trademark production skills, which can often take a band's sound to outer space. Neither party really wants to discuss the matter, and there's the lingering hint of an exasperation common when creative people find themselves at cross purposes.

"We're trying to build a regional base," Deatherage says, "and to do that you've got to be able to recreate on stage what people expect."

"It's like a lot of these blues bands," Hall says. "They go into the studio with all these keyboards and horns and it's great, and then you go see them at the Bone and it's just three guys...and one of 'em can't really sing that well."

"The trio gives us room to stretch out," Deatherage explains. "Sometimes it'd be nice to have a keyboard player, but when you've got one, all of a sudden he has to do something every song."

"Plus," Hall says, "we don't want to make $30 a night instead of $40." The three burst into laughter.

There's another factor that distances the Calways from their honky-tonkin' cousins: While the heartbreak of some makes them come off more pissed on than pissed off, there's a real edge to even the prettiest Calways tunes that adds a parenthetical doubt--as in losing "Losing My Cool" (Is that healthy? Are you armed?)--that moves them over toward angry dyspeptics like the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano. In fact, the band has gotten more than a few Femme comparisons from fans.

"It's not a conscious effort," Hall says. "It just comes out of the pulse that Todd [Deatherage] feels as a songwriter, which is really different."

"I was quite the ham in high school," Deatherage admits. "Very disruptive. It set me up pretty well for leading a band."

The Calways currently have a five-song demo--new songs and remakes of 96 Summer Demo tunes--but haven't yet decided whether they'll make a couple hundred tapes for public consumption. They're really more interested in landing a deal with a bigger indie label.

"The key is to keep writing songs," says Deatherage, who, according to Hall, is a songwriting machine. "Right now we have no money, so anything we do is done in a day at a friend's house...but we do want to make a real album. I guess our goal right now is just to get somebody to pay for it."

The Calways play Saturday, October 26, at Bar of Soap; and Monday, October 28, at Muddy Waters.

Scene, heard
In a promising break with local tradition--which usually places the musical equivalent of your father's Oldsmobile on stage at charity functions--the fifth annual Boo Ball, a black-tie costume gala hosted by the American Diabetes Association, will feature Brave Combo playing for your dancing pleasure in the Malachite Showroom.

"Dallas is blessed with a lot of good, young music," explains the Ball's administrative chairperson, Bill Gibson. "We didn't want to attract just the Tommy Dorsey crowd; we also wanted to get younger folks involved...We want to get our message out to more people and increase awareness, because diabetes is a disease that often isn't detected until something else crops up, so early awareness can be very important."

The whole shindig--for which tickets run up to $300 a person--involves various ceremonies of honor, a champagne reception and dinner, and a silent auction; pianist David Gross will play during the dinner. To be held Saturday, October 26, at the Grand Kempinski, the event also offers those who wish to both do good and shake a tail feather the option of a "Friends" package ($35 singles, $60 couples) that gets them in from 9 p.m. until midnight and includes hors d'oeuvres and two free drinks. Charity events like this are something that succesful grownups do, so get some practice; if you happen to associate such maturity with stagnation (or just need to rest your feet), check out octogenarian Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery--longtime Light Crust Doughboy and mentor to the great Ronnie Dawson--in the Garden Court and discover that 'tain't necessarily so; For more info call the ADA...

The band birch county has been invited to play at this year's Philadelphia Music Conference, a three-day, four-night confab that will feature 300 bands at 31 different venues; the band plays the conference November 1...

Will the Vickery Tavern spin out of the orbit of cool venues dear to more-than-alternative bands like Transona Five? Only time will tell...

Hard Night's Day, Beatles cover band extraordinaire, will play the KERA Thursday evening free show at Chuy's October 23...

Austin rockers Loose Diamonds return to town on October 30. Showtime is 8 p.m.; you can be home asleep before the news is over...

Solitaire Music, a music publisher based in Dallas, is announcing a nationwide talent contest; the prize is a recording contract with Solitaire Records, a division of you-know-who; for more info call (214) 823-2926; the deadline is December 31...

Speaking of deadlines, bands interested in playing at the annual South by Southwest music festival have already missed the one for early application...

Congrats to Thing One on the occasion of the just-released Brother Humble, its CD debut, which mixes funk, rock, and a hint of prog...

On October 26, some of Dallas' most renowned jazz musicians will conduct classes, discussions, and lectures on the history and culture of jazz for A Tribute to Jazz: A Celebration of America's Classical Music. Among those particpating will be Marchel Ivery, James Gilyard, and Earl Harvin. The Saturday conference, to be held at the African-American Museum in Fair Park, will be followed by a concert at the Dallas Convention Center that starts at 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 27; both events are free and open to the public.

Street Beat welcomes all info and scurrilous bandinage at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.

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