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A few phone calls and 20 minutes later, everything's fine, and the group finally makes its way to the small stage tucked into a corner of the bar. They must be the best cover band around, because they begin with "Springfield, IL.," the first song from Slobberbone's new album, Slippage, which isn't even out yet, not hitting stores until September 24. And that's not the only new one: Whiskey Glass Eye will play "Write Me Off," "Butchers," "Sister Beams" and a couple of others from Slippage before the band's hour-long show is through. Pretty good since, as singer-guitarist Brent Best points out at the start of the set, "This is only our third show." You might believe him: At one point, Best laughs about how far out of tune he is, and not long after that, the wheels come off another tune, just about one verse in.
But you probably shouldn't. The guys playing these songs--Best, guitarist Jess Barr, drummer Tony Harper and bassist Brian Lane--are not, technically, a Slobberbone cover band. They're the real deal: Denton's finest are playing a few unannounced gigs under a pseudonym to work out the kinks before they hit the road to support Slippage, their follow-up to 2000's Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today. (Which won Best Album at the 2001 Dallas Observer Music Awards, not to mention a plug in, of all places, Stephen King's novel Black House. Really.) Slobberbone is spending most of next week in NYC, doing interviews and playing a gig at the Bowery Ballroom with Drive-By Truckers on September 18. A couple of weeks after that, they head to Europe, where the crowds treat Slobberbone like the rock stars they deserve to be.
"We haven't practiced in a while, and it's starting to show," Best says, taking a seat and a drag on an American Spirit. So they're spending their days rehearsing at Muddy Waters (their usual spot, Denton's Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, is too crowded these days) and their nights playing loose-and-loud sets as Whiskey Glass Eye. Kind of like boot camp, except with, you know, more cigarettes and alcohol. And no one has to get up early.
That said, the shows at Muddy Waters aren't really work or, for that matter, even Slobberbone gigs. "They're not a Slobberbone cover band. They're a Neil Young cover band," one member of the audience says, when the group begins a take on Young's "Cortez the Killer." They'd already played their version of "Piece of Crap." Maybe if the set had gone longer, they could've done "Cinnamon Girl," too. They usually do. No one here, however, really wants to hear more of Young's songs anyway, as good as Slobberbone plays them. All everyone at Muddy Waters wants to talk about, aside from the usual bar chatter, is the group's new album and how good it is. They're all friends and fans, they've all heard Slippage and they all talk about it, head nods punctuating their few words, a kind of reverence.
Which it deserves. Slippage (released by New West Records, home to the Flatlanders and Chuck Prophet) might not be the album that saves American rock and roll, but it'll back it up in a fight and tend the cuts after. The album comes in like a lion ("Springfield, IL.," but it sounds more like "Minneapolis, MN.") and goes out like a lamb ("Back," as in "when I find my way back," and acoustic guitars act like lanterns) and hits all the notes in between (including a cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," which is better than that song has a right to be), picking up where Everything You Thought Was Right left off and finishing the job. It's a great record by a band that only gets better, even when you think it can't. With any luck, by the time Slobberbone comes home from Europe, they'll be stars here, too, or at least as close as a scruffy quartet from Denton can get.
And if not, they can always go back to being a cover band.