Beasts of Burden

Todd Lewis and Taz Bentley want to make it, sure. Mostly, they want to make it last.

By now you've probably heard the song. In a bar, perhaps, or while browsing in a CD store. Maybe you heard it on the radio, as I did. One day last week the song played on my way to work and on my way home. Early the next morning I stumbled into the car seat, spilled coffee on the upholstery and turned the engine on to find the song yet again, as if it had been waiting for me. "I don't want to talk, don't want to explain it/I don't want to [radio edit], and I don't want to fight."

The song, "Beautiful Night," is a hard, catchy little number taking off on the nation's Top 40 stations as you read this. It begins simply--the singer's aching voice over a palm-muted guitar. Nothing terribly special. But halfway through, just when you've settled in, "Beautiful Night" goes up in flames: a fusillade of drums, a howl full of fire and blood. Think early Soundgarden. Think '70s arena rock. Think rock 'n' fucking roll.

It was written by two music veterans--ex-Toadies singer and guitarist Todd Lewis and former Reverend Horton Heat drummer Taz Bentley. On a Wednesday night, they sit beside each other at the Dubliner on Lower Greenville, sipping Miller Lites. Bentley is an intimidating 6-foot-6 with long, mottled hair and a warm smile. Lewis (who also goes by his first name, Vaden) is lean and thoughtful, with a crew cut and glasses. Though they seem like opposites--with little more in common than a weakness for domestic beer and black fingernail polish--they are, in fact, brothers of a sort. They've both spent more than a decade in the rock industry; in other words, they've walked through fire. Just look at the name Lewis chose for their partnership: Burden Brothers.

"Early on," Lewis says, "it seemed like we both had baggage."

"And 'We Both Got Baggage' didn't sound right," cracks Bentley. "Oddly enough, I was never thrilled with the name, but it's there now." Bentley shrugs and slugs back the rest of his beer. "Band names are a bitch."

The two men have been friends for a while--Bentley, the good-natured tough, and Lewis, the unassuming guy with a demon's voice. They started playing music around the time that Lewis' baggage, in particular, felt heaviest. This was six years after his Fort Worth-based band the Toadies hit post-grunge platinum with their creepy radio smash "Possum Kingdom" off the album Rubberneck. Lewis spent the intervening years snarled in red tape at Interscope Records, and by the time the band's follow-up, Hell Below/Stars Above, finally hit shelves in 2001, Lewis had baggage to burn. So he called Bentley.

"When we first got together," Bentley says, "Todd's first words were, 'Let's write some heavy, heavy stuff. Real heavy metal.'"

"I was listening to [Speedealer's] Here Comes Death a lot," Lewis says.

Soon after, the Toadies called it quits, and a bitter Lewis washed his hands of the whole ugly business. Well, almost. "This one weekend my wife and I were on vacation," he says. "And people kept asking, 'So what are you doing these days?' And I'd say, 'Well, I've got a shop in my garage.' About the 19th time someone asked me that, I realized I really wanted to be playing music. That's what I wanted to do with the next 15 years."

Bentley had likewise soured on the industry, but old rockers die hard. What playing with Lewis reminded him of--what changed both their minds in the end--was the balls-out joy of playing rock 'n' roll. "We just had fun," Bentley says. "We had nobody to please. We didn't have a fan base, we didn't have a record label, we didn't have anything." They did, however, have a handful of songs. Not heavy metal, but burning with that kind of intensity--loud and dirty and full-throttle.

Wary of bureaucracy and eager to make the songs public, the Burden Brothers partnered with Deep Ellum's Last Beat Studio to put the songs on their Web site (www.burdenbrothersmusic.com), the best of which would eventually wind up on an EP with nifty promotional packages--T-shirts, playing cards, shot glasses. It was fast and fertile, the guys making it up as they went along, from rollicking covers of Lucinda Williams' "Can't Let Go" to the first versions of "Beautiful Night" and "Your Fault," two of the album's strongest songs.

"We didn't know what the next song was going to be or sound like, which was absolutely killer," Bentley says. It freed them from what had suffocated so many talented musicians before: expectations. "All [popular bands] think about is, 'Is the next one gonna be as good as this one?' And we just allowed ourselves to keep spitting out songs." The success of the homegrown venture was the perfect middle finger to an industry that had wronged them. Eventually, though, the Burden Brothers wanted more.

"We realized that it would stay a local, independent, Web-oriented situation," Lewis says. "We had to continue to grow." So earlier this year, the Burden Brothers announced they were leaving Last Beat for Kirtland Records and Trauma Records, who formed a partnership to release the album.

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