By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Moon Festival churns out an impressive brand of vintage pop music, but, apparently, they can't dance. At least not the delicately timed ballet required by the Dallas musical community, where their efforts to fit in resemble nothing so much as Shawn Bradley stumbling through a two-step on Thorazine.
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.
Rock hasn't been that innocent beast so blissfully celebrated by the narcotized performers at Woodstock since Stevie "Guitar" Miller--the Curt Flood of the music business--utilized his high-dollar education to hold out for what was probably the first six-figure advance in music history. Even so, claims of political intrigue on the local front persist--and are in no way unique to the Moon Festival. Members of at least three struggling new bands indicated, off the record, that they too feel stifled by the tight-knit fraternity of music insiders in the Deep Ellum power structure.
"Of course music is political!" Salim exclaims. "And Dallas is just a microcosm of that concept, particularly so far as booking and who's on what bill are concerned. What does that mean? Well, the art of politics involves a bunch of self-interested groups. I'm not complaining--because we've had chances over the years with the Dragon Street deal and some nice shows back when Artists Development Agency booked Jackopierce, the Spin, and the Shagnasties. But that was then, and we're still here."
"And if a band isn't part of a self-interest group as far as the Dallas music scene today is concerned, then no one has a reason to promote you. We'd be perfect playing with Grand Street Cryers or pop poppins--wonderful--but you know what? We're not gonna get any of those shows because it's not in the self-interest of anyone behind them."
Chris Chaney, booking agent for Alliance, scoffs at the notion that the agency holds some sort of monopoly on gigs. "We have people say that all the time," she says. "In fact, it's a joke around here. But it's not true. We go after gigs like anyone else--aggressively. We fight for shows. Sometimes we don't get them. To say that it's impossible to get booked in this town unless Alliance does it is simply not true."
As for a Moon Festival assertion that they've been replaced on certain bills by newer, connected groups, Chaney says, "That's hilarious. When any band is on a bill and they get bumped, that's up to the club. They're the ones that are going to make money on the strength of a bill, and if they want to drop an act that's going to threaten the potential crowd and add a stronger drawing band, well, that's just an evil fact of the talent-buying business. And it happens to Alliance just like everyone else."
Chaney adds that while she hasn't been approached by the Moon Festival for bookings during her time with Alliance, she did book the band while performing that duty for Fitzgerald's in Houston some years back. "They're a good band," she says, "and they put on a good show, though there weren't many people there.
"There's nothing wrong with the Moon Festival. It's just that, so far as Alliance is concerned, right now our roster is full. We recommend that everyone send us a promo pack and a tape, and we review them and keep them on file for when a slot does come open."
The Moon Festival readily admit that they haven't approached Alliance, Rainmaker Records, or Robinson/Wood management, claiming that, by those organizations' very philosophies, they are anathema to the Moon Festival's musical worldview.
"We're not a punk rock band," Salim says, "but we have a very punk rock attitude. We have very hard-core beliefs about music and doing it because it's in your heart. Frankly, I think too many people in the music business, who are in it to make money, are fucking idiots. Because, you know, if that's your motivation, be a lawyer or a doctor."
Perhaps the Moon Festival are missing the point. Why the hell would a person want to spend 12 years in the whole medical school/intern routine when it's much more attractive and lucrative to enter into the business of entertainment? As anyone who's read Fred Goodman's The Mansion on the Hill knows, a scathing examination of rock's transformation from art to commerce, rock 'n' roll is rarely about music anymore. Which makes the Moon Festival's frustration understandable, and their philosophy of the future admirable.
"We'll take the blame for a lot of why we're not really a well-known band," Salim continues. "The Moon Festival's been plagued with recurring personnel problems [Davito is seemingly the group's 400th drummer], and it seems we're always kind of misfits. But we're in it for the music--and the long haul.
"I like to compare us to Guided by Voices. They made four-track records--like 14 or 15 of them--and couldn't get arrested. Now they're all in their late '30s and early '40s, and all of a sudden they're the hottest indie band going. Where were all the people that dig them now, back 14 years ago? Probably telling them they sucked."
The members of the Moon Festival strongly assert that they'll be making albums into perpetuity--even if they themselves are the only audience. Like some bizarre musical militia, they've quietly stockpiled recording equipment, songs, distribution theories--even graphic design skills--to ensure that, somehow, there will always be a Moon Festival CD in some mom 'n' pop record store somewhere.
"And who knows?" Salim smiles, pulling that last chip off his shoulder and popping it into his mouth. "Something big might happen." In any case, show time at the Barley House draws nigh, and, indeed, a few hearty souls have braved the miserable night, stamping in out of the cold rain and calling greetings to the band with the familiarity of fraternity brothers.
"In the end," Salim says, pointing at the crowd, "we do it for ourselves, but we do it for these people, too."
The Moon Festival appears Saturday, April 5, at the Collin County Community College Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. as part of CCCC's Eat Yer Vegetables showcase.