20 Bands 7 Days

For one week, Sarah Hepola saw every band that invited her. God help her.

It's Saturday night at Club Indigo, and I'm staggering toward the finish line of a 20-band marathon. The act taking the stage is one I normally wouldn't see, a local and rather popular metal act whose brand of hammering, unsubtle music makes me want to shed a tear for every day Elliott Smith won't make another record. Even their name, Fair to Midland, embraces mediocrity. I'm here because some A&R guy invited me to the show, and as I elbow into the humid, cramped quarters of Club Indigo's back room, I rather wish he hadn't. I'm grumpy. I'm tired. And as the band kicks off its set, I realize this music is everything I feared--fast, hard, dark, loud.

But here's something I didn't expect. I love it.

These guys put on a show, says our photographer, Mark Graham, emerging from the mosh pit and wiping his sweaty brow. His face is obscured by swiveling lights, green and white shocks spilling across the darkness.

Like being witness to an electrocution: guitarist Clifford Campbell and lead singer Andrew Sudderth of Fair to Midland at Club Indigo
Mark Graham
Like being witness to an electrocution: guitarist Clifford Campbell and lead singer Andrew Sudderth of Fair to Midland at Club Indigo
For Second-Hand Soul, there are more bales of hay than audience members.
Mark Graham
For Second-Hand Soul, there are more bales of hay than audience members.

I have to yell to be heard. "I hate their music, but I love this band!"

Let me be more specific. Lead singer Andrew Sudderth has those old-school metal pipes, the ones that swoop from operatic to Linda Blair in seconds. When he's not singing, he's flat-out freaking; it's like being witness to an electrocution. Bassist Nathin Seals and guitarist Clifford Campbell flank him, pounding the stage while keyboardist Matthew Langley tinkles a melody that bridges the explosions on Brett Stowers' drums. Unlike the thrash metal that Pantera, and thereby Dallas, made famous, their music has a hint of melody and dynamics. They don't look like metal cliches, either. Sudderth could be in a boy band. Campbell has the emaciated, boho look of Rage Against the Machine.

With names like "A Seafarer's Knot" and "Dance of the Manatee," the songs remind me of the mystical mumbo jumbo of í80s metal bands like Iron Maiden. In a 30-minute set, the only lyric I understand is "Gather íround while we wait for high tide." Umm, if you say so.

Well, maybe I wouldn't listen to these songs in my car. Or my office. Or at home. Or, you know, anywhere. But no one in this sweaty, stinking room can deny that something--something fascinating--is happening onstage.

It's the kind of thrill I've been searching for all week. It came at the right time, too. I was starting to despair. Earlier that evening, I fought traffic and rain on Interstate 30 to Fort Worth, where a cover band called Second-Hand Soul played Mayfest. The quartet of middle-aged dudes churned out note-perfect renditions of classic guitar wank like Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan. They played their set to seven audience members sitting on soggy bales of hay.

Seven. That included me. There were more bales of hay than people.

The music wasn't bad, but it left me cold. Second-Hand Soul? It's like they stole my punch line.

It's funny how unpredictable live music can be. Here were musicians dotting every "i," playing songs I knew well, and yet the performance still lacked, well, soul. Meanwhile, in the crush of Club Indigo, I stood listening to a band I normally would never like, surrounded by people I normally would never hang out with--and I couldn't stop smiling.

Let's back up a bit. This thing started on a whim. One afternoon, bothered by guilt that I hadn't seen enough local shows recently, I included in my music column an off-the-cuff invite to see any and all bands for one week only. It was a loopy democratic gesture, a random grab for entertainment.

"Isn't it your JOB to see local Dallas bands without a bullshit competition?" one musician e-mailed me. "I hope you DON'T see my band."

Fine. That was easy.

But several others did take me up on my offer. Some guy in Salt Lake City even wanted to fly me up for the evening, although my better judgment prevailed. (Well, my editor said I couldn't.) What follows is an account of the shows I did attend--not a survey of Dallas music, exactly, because what would that be without the Polyphonic Spree and the Burden Brothers? Without Erykah Badu and the Reverend Horton Heat? Without Pleasant Grove, Centro-matic, the Deathray Davies? But that's music we cover already. In fact, the complaint I hear most about our coverage is that we're too insular, covering the same handful of ordained artists like one big circle jerk.

Consider this the flipside, then. A map of local music that's existed in our periphery until now--some I plan to keep an eye on and some I can't forget soon enough. It's a survey of acts still struggling, musicians who still get a thrill seeing their name in print, who may not even care what I think of them or write about them as long as somebody, anybody, acknowledges their work. I saw 20 of their shows in seven days, which doesn't include the acts I tried to see and missed because of the perils of travel, timing or, in one case, the idiotic decision to lie down at 11:30 p.m. with a cat on my stomach.

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