Hot Damnations

Leave it to two Yankee sisters to kick it TX style

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."

"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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