By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It is a story too good to be true, something only a publicist could concoct during a fever dream--so much to hype, so little time. But it all happened, and it of course makes for great copy: The Hottest Band in Austin Gets Hotter, or something along those lines. Get the advertising department on it.
It first occurred not long ago, when The Damnations TX were opening for Cake at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. During the band's set, a building next door caught fire. Then, less than a week later, while The Damnations TX were onstage at the Agora in Cleveland, sparks flew once more.
"We had all these problems with feedback," recalls Damnations singer-bassist Amy Boone. "We kept looking over at the monitor guy, because it was really loud and hurting our ears, and he just threw his hands up in the air."
"I was right next to him," continues singer-guitarist Deborah Kelly, Boone's sister. "And he goes, 'I can't even deal with the soundboard right now, because the system is on fire.' There was smoke pouring out from behind the curtain. Amy kinda wanders over to me nonchalantly in the middle of the song and whispered, 'Don't freak out, but backstage is on fire.' It was kind of weird: a second 'fire incident' while we were opening for Cake. We thought they were going to start thinking we were arsonists."
You see--maybe, in a way, The Damnations TX really are Austin's hottest band. "We're going to add new meaning to that term," Boone says, laughing it off.
Almost from the moment The Damnations (as they were once known) stepped onto a stage in their hometown, they've been adored and hyped beyond any wannabe rock star's wildest dreams. They've been showered with open-mouth, wet-kiss press clippings, hailed as saviors and second-comings before anyone outside of Austin ever heard of them--no easy task in a city where it takes forever to build a loyal local following. Even the Capital City's alt-pop hitmakers Fastball were only playing to a handful of fans after releasing their first major-label album. Since every building with a spare corner considers itself a concert venue and there are enough aspiring musicians to populate a small city, on most any night Austin has an embarrassment of, well, if not riches, at least original music offerings. It's not uncommon to catch some group with a buzz and still find oneself in sparse company.
Yet The Damnations TX were a strong local draw well before they even recorded their debut, Half Mad Moon, which will finally be released next week on Sire Records. And it's not just that the band has found an audience, but that they actually have fans--enthusiastic followers who crowd the front of the stage, some of them zealously doing a slightly spastic jig Kelly calls "the get-the-bug-off-me dance."
Given their music, it's no surprise. With a polished country-punk attack that's more comfortable in X's "Los Angeles" than the Eagles' "Hotel California," the band plays with adrenal-charged elan, making the rush they get from being on stage and performing not just tangible but downright infectious. Backing up that enthusiastic approach are songs with smarts and heart, led by Kelly and Boone's bittersweet harmonies and the wiry, electrified picking of guitarist Rob Bernard, onetime member of the Dallas-based Picket Line Coyotes and Austin rockers Prescott Curlywolf. Where so many recent country-rock converts are content to trot out Branson-ready tribute acts, dressing up in bargain-bin honky-tonk drag while playing slide-guitar blues-by-the-numbers, The Damnations TX have achieved a sound much their own, making their inspirations more implicit than apparent and melding rural stylings with an urban kineticism.
Although their approach has a distinctly Texan roots-music stamp, Kelly and Boone grew up in the heart of the Upstate New York rust-and-truck farm belt. The progeny of a civil engineer father and schoolteacher mother, they were weaned on everything from Bob Dylan to Stax and Motown soul, early influences that seal all the cracks on Half Mad Moon. But within the circumscribed horizons of the Upstate hills, there was little to do beyond "drive out to the cornfields and drink and smoke pot," as Kelly remembers.
(As to why these sisters of the same parents have different last names, Deborah explains, "I changed mine to Kelly because we have Kellys on my mom's side and Kellys on my dad's side. I just wanted to have that name instead of Boone, y'know--Debbie Boone. The joke got to be annoying after a while.")
After their parents divorced, first Kelly and then Boone followed their mother to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they both began pondering playing music instead of just listening from the sidelines. "When I was in New Mexico, I kinda thought of music as a fun thing to do, and I was thinking more of going to college," Kelly explains. "But college is kinda expensive. And after things started working out playing music, things started shifting the other way, and I started thinking maybe that college was the thing that was unrealistic, and music was maybe a little more realistic."