Hot Damnations

Leave it to two Yankee sisters to kick it TX style

"We always messed around with [music]," Boone says, "but didn't feel the songs were good enough to show around publicly.

Kelly had a boyfriend in Santa Fe who used to hang out with some musicians in Austin who shuttled back and forth between Texas and New Mexico. They would always talk about Austin--the scene there, how it was indeed the oasis outsiders always portray it as--and when Kelly decided it was time to leave Santa Fe, she headed for Texas. She came to simply check it out and ended up staying, becoming enamored of a college town with so many clubs; she thought it was a "music town through and through," the perfect place for a punk-rocker on her way toward becoming a honky-tonk angel. Soon enough, Boone followed.

The sisters first ventured into public performance at open-mike nights at Chicago House, a now-defunct performance space with an egalitarian booking policy. They eventually put together an all-girl lineup that debuted at the venerable (i.e., about-to-collapse) Hole in the Wall across the street from the University of Texas. At the time, Boone had been playing bass for only a month. "I played other instruments, so I picked up bass pretty quickly," she says.

The band started solidifying when Keith Langford, one of the musicians Kelly met while working as a bartender at the Electric Lounge, signed on as their drummer. He was followed by Bernard, his bandmate in Prescott Curlywolf and a native of Shreveport whose previous band the Picket Line Coyotes were part of the nascent Deep Ellum scene during their Dallas residency from 1987 to 1990. Something of an anomaly within the prevailing New Bohemian-ish, neo-hippie trend of that time, the Coyotes were a scruffy, devil-may-care roots-rock band whose hard-working reputation on the regional circuit waned after the group moved from Dallas to Austin.

Bernard came to The Damnations camp first as a fan. "I used to see them play at the Hole in the Wall," he recalls. "It was really cool. Then Keith asked me to come down and play with them. None of us really expected all this stuff to happen, of course. At that time it was a lot more informal." After Curlywolf's disappointing one-album tenure with Mercury Records, the experience rejuvenated Bernard.

"I really liked the harmonies," he says. "You can't beat their harmonies. And their songwriting. They both had something seriously good songwriting-wise."

Their moniker came out of a drink-tank session one evening at happy hour and created a glitch when Half Mad Moon was originally scheduled for release last fall, when suddenly all these other bands with "Damnation" in their name started cropping up (though "none of them are The Damnations," Kelly notes). Hence the additional appellation TX, which in the act's lexicon makes their new name "Damnations, T-X," not "Damnations, Texas."

While the rise of The Damnations was powered by strong songs and resilience, they were also carried along in the slipstream of The Gourds, who are their musical brothers. "It's kind of a clan, I guess," says Bernard, who played with Gourds Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith in the Picket Line Coyotes and is the brother of Gourds accordionist Claude Bernard. Sharing stages as well as similar musical bents, both bands captured Austin audiences with an energetic and imaginative approach, something most alt.country bands sorely lack. Cementing the connection further, Langford decamped from The Damnations to The Gourds after playing on Half Mad Moon.

A limited-edition EP from an appearance on Austin public radio station KUT's Live Set show stoked the Damnations' buzz, and when labels started sniffing around, the group decided to record an album on their own. They rounded up producer and ex-Reiver John Croslin (Sixteen Deluxe, Guided By Voices, Spoon); if nothing else, they could at least see what the interest was.

The result was a deal with the resurrected Sire Records, whose honcho Seymour Stein (the man who discovered Madonna) is betting that lightning will strike twice--that so-called alternative country might mirror his label's success with such punk and new-wave bands as Talking Heads and the Ramones in the late '70s. "It's hard to believe," says Kelly of their leap from the Austin clubs to the Warner Bros.-distributed label. "We figured if we signed with anyone, it would be a smaller label, and then put out a few records and see what happens."

With Half Mad Moon bucking in the starting gate, The Damnations TX are already facing the vagaries of the genre game that plagues so many roots acts whose music doesn't fall into today's strict market categories.

"It's funny, because when we go on tour and we pull up to the show, there's the poster saying 'The Damnations,' and there's always that little line underneath it that describes us, and it's different in every town," notes Bernard. "But in Alpine, Texas, it was 'progressive Americana,' which I kinda dug. That's my favorite one so far of labels stuck on us. As far as what I'd call it, it's just music, y'know? The album will hopefully speak for itself."

The Damnations TX perform February 20 at the Gypsy Tea Room. Kelly Willis opens.

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