By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Despite a credible track record since the transplanted El Paso musicians formed in Denton in '89--three acutely hummable albums including the brand-new Sugar Pill (their second for El Paso's Tortilla label), a Bud Light sponsorship, and such early promise that they were one of the first acts signed to Dragon Street Records--the Moon Festival today operates largely under the shroud of anonymity.
"It's really kind of a weird situation," says Salim Nourallah, the band's lead vocalist, bassist, and main songwriter. "We're really happy with the music we're making, and with Sugar Pill, but we'd sure like to play more. Unfortunately, around here, anyway, that's out of our hands."
It's two hours before showtime during a Wednesday night monsoon, and Nourallah is sitting in the nearly empty Barley House with his bandmates, guitarist/brother Faris Nourallah and new drummer Chris Davito. They're eating chicken enchiladas, and Salim, amused, wonders aloud if all the chips (tortilla variety) on the table might fit onto his shoulder.
It's true that--in a new year already rife with superb melodic rock CDs by such local bands as Grand Street Cryers, pop poppins, and Quickserv Johnny--Sugar Pill certainly holds its own. It's also true that, for whatever reasons, the Moon Festival has no booking agent or management company, and, although the band's following is devoted, its size is, well, rather modest.
Salim says, "I was at the record release parties for both Grand Street Cryers and pop poppins, and it was, like, 600 people at each one." He laughs. "We had ours here at the Barley House, and we were on a first-name basis with everyone who showed up."
To hear the members of the group theorize precisely why they're outsiders in the metroplex music scene is rather like listening to a primal therapy group session between Rodney Dangerfield (no respect), Oliver Stone (conspiracy theory du jour), Frank Sinatra (they did it their way), and Richard Lewis (it's their own fault). The rationalizations would actually be painful if a comprehensive listen to Sugar Pill and its predecessors (1995's Tornillo, also on the Tortilla label, and 1991's Shrine, the Dragon Street album) didn't indicate that the band is, in fact, damned good.
That they're signed to Tortilla, a small indie label out of El Paso whose roster also includes Austin's New Texicans and an El Paso group called the Sun Kings, is a comforting source of legitimacy and creative freedom. Tortilla, says Salim, is basically an outlet to release and distribute DIY records, though ultimately the idea is to shop the bands and move them to larger labels.
The Bud Light sponsorship also lends no small slice of credibility to the band, though some purists claim such endorsements are cheesy. It can't be argued, though, that the sponsorship is prestigious, not only in that the band is one of only 43 acts so honored (and the only one in a third year of sponsorship), but also in that the band receives equipment deals and advertising revenue.
But the Moon Festival presumably wouldn't have the record deal or the beer sponsorship if the music wasn't good, and their records certainly validate that. They also reveal an interesting and curious stylistic devolution over the years: Where Shrine was very much a prototype of the chiming alternative guitar rock popular at the time, Tornillo moved backward, maintaining '90s production values even as the band water-colored Robert Smith-isms with broad "Across the Universe" and "Lola" brushstrokes.
Now, on Sugar Pill, the boys back-flip further, dragging John Lennon into the Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society sessions. It's an ambitious and lengthy record (25 songs); if the overall tone of the album threatens derivation and redundancy, repeated listenings begin to chip away at the first impressions and reveal Salim's subtly scathing wordplay and delicate melodic nuances. The comparative brevity of the tunes also seems to make them run together, where, in fact, songs like "Pleasantry Lane," "Dead Letter Girl," "Delicate Diana," "Laggin' Behind" and "Never Had a Girlfriend" slowly emerge as minor pop masterpieces.
So why is the Moon Festival mired in the lower levels of Local Band Hell? Their questionable ability as a draw is a point the band readily concedes, but they're quick to add that it's hard to build a crowd if you can't get a gig.
"Everyone knows the only legitimate booking agent in town is [the Alliance Entertainment Group]," Salim says. "And Alliance essentially only books bands that come from three groups: Rainmaker Records groups, anybody involved with the steve records/Crystal Clear people, and artists managed by Robinson/Wood. Other groups occasionally get booked, but bands associated with those three major organizations obviously get priority."
That select booking agencies hold large slices of power is nothing new in the music business. It's been an evolving science since entrepreneurs had the idea to ship Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper off on package junkets, and has continued through Bill Graham's visionary circus-like mega-tours.