By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
A week before his show at the Gypsy Tea Room, Nate Fowler said he was finally "ready to get back in the park and play ball," and many of his fellow players had turned up for his return to the field. Most of them, after all, had suited up with Fowler over the years. To switch metaphors, it wasn't a full house, yet it was close to a royal flush. The Tea Room was half empty or half full, depending on your level of optimism, but the majority of folks there were face cards, so to speak. There were enough stray parts of Dallas bands to make up a pretty strong weekend of shows, or at least one great four-band bill. He may not have really gone anywhere, but plenty of local musicians were still on hand to welcome Fowler back.
The show at the Tea Room wasn't the most enthusiastic homecoming, but then again, it wasn't supposed to be. It was the end of October, and Fowler had just finished his first solo record, after recording for almost a year and thinking about it for even longer. He wasn't looking for a standing-room-only crowd, just a chance to play these songs in public for the first time in, well, for the first time. Even Fowler wasn't sure how long it had been since he'd stepped on a stage and plugged in his guitar. "Shit, it's been too long."
Fowler made up for lost time, shaking off the rust before he hit the first chorus. The band was good, the songs were better and if the local musicians in the room had shown up merely to pay a courtesy call, that pretense disappeared by the time the set was finished. He was back where he belonged, his hands on a guitar, his feet on a stage. You couldn't help but feel good for him.
Every city has someone like Fowler in it. A musician definitely, a journeyman maybe, a guy with a guitar who plays because he loves to, writes songs because he has to, makes records and money when he can, usually in that order. More often than not, he's a sideman, one step out of the spotlight. Fowler has always been that guy, starting with his first real band, Atomic Rodeo, and through his stints with Sixty-Six, American Fuse and Clumsy. Only now, with the release of the self-titled debut by Nate Fowler's Elixir, is he The Guy, the one in charge, the one writing all the songs, making all the decisions, putting his name above the title.
So although Fowler's been around a long time, you might not know who he is. In fact, he expects it.
"I realize that I'm starting completely over again, and right now, I'm totally unknown, basically," Fowler says a couple of months after that first show, sitting in a booth at New Amsterdam in Exposition Park. "For all practical purposes, I'm trying to reintroduce not only a brand-new band, but in a way, myself to my own hometown. I don't know how the fuck I'm gonna fit in, but I'm ready to fit in." He waits a beat, trying to figure out where, exactly, Nate Fowler's Elixir, the band and the album, does fit in. "It's a rock band," he offers.
This is about the only description required. The self-titled debut from Nate Fowler's Elixir is definitely a rock album, in the purest sense of the word; meaning, before rock was hyphenated to death. The songs are simple but not simplistic, unadorned but not plain, to the point but not always quick. On first listen, anyway. That's when songs such as "Japanese Radio" and "Bleeding Years" catch your ear first, songs that could be replacements for the Replacements. "Full," especially, might have been cut by the 'Mats before Paul Westerberg replaced the band with a Memphis horn section.
Listen again, and the record is closer to the kind of albums Steve Earle makes when he's not fiddling around with bluegrass or some such, the kind of songs that showed up on his Transcendental Blues in 2000. In fact, the skinny Fowler even manages to work his voice into Earle's gruff, grizzly-bear territory on songs such as "Anodyne Angels" and "All Saints Station," with the kind of easy phrasing that lands squarely in between making it up as you go along and knowing it better than your own name.
It helps that a talented cast of characters came along to fill in the blanks. The Elixir, on the album at least, is a handful of Fowler's erstwhile bandmates, including Eleven Hundred Springs drummer Bruce Alford (who played with Fowler in Sixty-Six), drummer Toby Sheets (ditto), American Fuse bassist Kinley Wolfe and bassist Tommy Hale (who produced the disc and backs up Fowler onstage). Although it may appear from reading the liner notes that Fowler simply decided to make a solo record and rounded up some of his old buddies, it wasn't that easy.
He first got the itch to make this record when he should have been recording another album with American Fuse. Instead, all the song fragments he was coming up with, all the melodies and lyrics and everything else, wouldn't fit into the box he was trying to stuff them into. They were different, songs that might not be American Fuse material, but they were definitely his. He recorded demos and sketched out the songs at home, yet they never went anywhere. He wasn't sure when they would.