By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
No. 13 has come decked out for the evening's festivities: white cowboy boots with the pants tucked into the tops, a bit-too-small sport coat, and over his shirt--in place of a V-neck sweater--a ragged red sweatshirt with the arms and neck cut out. His number gleams whitely against the red fabric.
He had been one of the first to arrive, but more were now straggling into the cafeteria of a local mental-health-care facility (anonymous at their insistence) where the Dallas punk rock band Darlington was playing. This was their second year to visit the facility, and the band really enjoyed the weirdness of the vibe and the unabashed honesty of the residents' reactions--usually positive--to the music.
The band had played here last year, when they were a four-piece called Mess, but with the intervening seasons came the threat of lawsuit by a band who had already copped the name. Band leader Chris wasted little time on pissing and moaning and instead took advantage of the opportunity to change his spots, becoming Chris Darlington of the band Darlington with just as much vigor as he'd displayed as Chris Mess of Mess.
Darlington was reborn a trio. Chris' old drumming compadre Steven Visneau stayed over from Mess, and the two recruited longtime local figure Spyche to play bass, but the changes in the band went deeper than personnel. Mess had been a classic old-school punk band, which meant more than a bit of a snarl and quite a bit of disaffected attitude. Darlington--as can be heard through even a cursory listen to Girltroversy, their brand-new Last Beat album due out Tuesday, February 24--is a much sunnier beast.
Girltroversy is still fast and punchy, with just the right amount of anthemic punk power chording, but the music is different. Sparkly, perhaps, or maybe perky is a better word; definitely happy. "I just reached this point awhile back where I decided that I'd rather be happy and be silly than depressed, pissed off, and drinking," Chris says, explaining the course change. "It's more fun, and it avoids major violence at the shows."
The change wasn't abrupt or premeditated. "It was a progressive thing," Chris says. To keep Darlington on a steady but lighthearted course, he turns for inspiration to the Buddha of laissez les bontemps rouler, Chubby Checker. "I have this old album of his," Chris says, "and the picture is just hilarious. His hair. It's too much." As befits any Checker-based musical philosophy, Darlington's is twist-intensive. "A lot of the songs on the album are just the perfect tempo to twist to," Chris reports with the fervor of a true believer.
At no time was this more apparent than before the cafeteria gig. The building--with its varnished floors, pull-out bleacher seating, and raisable basketball boards--was redolent of small-town high school and perfect for Darlington's born-again sock-hop attitude. Given the nature of the audience, care would have to be taken in the songs performed. "'Baltimore' is out," Chris said, referring to Girltroversy's song about auto-erotic asphyxiation.
"So is 'Infection,'" Steve interjected. "And 'Bitch.'"
"And 'Lactate,'" Chris added. The tunes that remained were the cream of a giddy crop, cheery new numbers like "Sugar Fix," "Judy Jetson," and "Love," which is as good a summation of Darlington's new high spirits as any: "I'd rather be in love/I'd rather be silly...I'd rather have cooties."
It's rather warm and fuzzy even to consider playing such a place, but tonight Darlington is a black-clad ball of warm fuzziness. The three musicians help each other set up, swap banter, and exchange gossip. "I'd just like to take this chance to say," Chris announces into the microphone, doing a fairly credible version of Last Beat's leader, Shaun Edwardes, "that I'm behind the band 484 percent." Steve grabs Spyche by both arms and hugs her close to his side.
"We're just tickled pink to have Spyche in the band," he says with an enormous grin and a wiggle of his eyebrows. Spyche rolls her eyes but seems to love every minute of it. Steven doesn't even mind that the buzz-cut bassist usurped a long-held dream. "I always wanted to be the most butch one in the band," he had confessed earlier. "And finally I thought I was going to get my chance." He shakes his head. "Then they hire Spyche."
The residents are filing in slowly, and the band members watch them, at their positions and waiting. Some of the incoming almost skip in anticipation, while others shuffle along to some medicated beat. A woman spies the trio as she walks in and immediately emits a loud whoop of laughter. "What kind of music is this?" she booms, eyeing Chris' makeup. "New wave?"
She laughs again--an enormous sound--and takes a seat. Slowly the place fills up. A smiling man ambles up.
"Are you gonna kick it? Like Led Zeppelin?" he asks.
"Kind of." Chris replies, smiling back. Another, older man with a bushy white beard motions for Spyche to bend down; when she does, he takes her hand and kisses it.
The lights go down, and the band kicks off with "Jodie Foster," off Girltroversy. New sweetness notwithstanding, Darlington definitely keeps the punk song ethos of short and sharp alive: Even with in-between raffles for prizes and giveaways, the band ticks off a dozen songs in a little over half an hour, previewing more tunes off of Girltroversy--"Espresso," "House Pet," and "Plastic"--as well as some old Mess favorites.