Some summers it seems that there are more blues players in Dallas than mosquitoes, all buzzing and shuffling along the same wide and worn Chicago groove. Mike Morgan's been there, too, and he wonders if part of the problem isn't that musicians tend to live so much by listening.
"Heck," the guitarist says from his Syracuse, New York, hotel room, "that's the stuff that I love. I can go for months just listening to Little Walter."
Luckily, Morgan's listening has been ranging a bit farther afield lately, dovetailing nicely with the talents of a (relatively) new member. His brand-new Black Top release, Looky Here! (which also features his longtime band The Crawl), reveals a more soulful side to a band that can pack 'em in simply by wandering through Mojo Hand Land.
The usual thumpers are again present, but there's a fascinating R&B-pop fluidity that creeps in around songs like the unrequited "You Don't Know How Much I Love You." Another cut, "They Both Just Want to be Loved," shows Morgan maturing as a songwriter and puts you in mind of no one as much as underappreciated soul crooner Major Lance--another Chicago boy, yes, but coming from an entirely different place.
Once again, it can be traced back to the ears. "I just have a tendency to subconsciously reflect my listening in my writing," Morgan explains. "I've been listening to a lot of Al Green and Otis Redding and Little Willie John! That guy is great!"
Looky Here!, the band's sixth Black Top release, marks the recorded installation of singer Chris Whynaught, who replaced Lee McBee two years ago when the latter developed a bad case of psychic road rash. "It was all geography," Morgan recalls. "The band is based outta Dallas, and [McBee] lived in Kansas City. It was a long drive."
There may be a longer haul in front of Morgan and The Crawl than the drive from Dallas to K.C., however: Whynaught's sax replaced McBee's harp, and his instrument and his voice both complement the soulful influences surfacing in Morgan's writing. Morgan himself seems to have picked up some tips from great minimalists like Teenie Hodges, one of Green's essential guitarists and a guy who often concentrated on being a great rhythm player rather than a flashy lead man.
Some folks, however, like to return again and again to long, wanking solos--the mojo hands and black-cat bones. They're generally the most stubborn about what they like, but Morgan's not overly concerned.
"We still have our roots in the Chicago stuff," he maintains, "and I don't care what the purists think. They're often wrong. I'm really happy with this record, and the reaction from folks on the road has been very enthusiastic."
Patrick Sugg was the lead guitarist in Shallow Reign, one of the first bands to make it big--in Deep Ellum, at least, which sort of counted for something back in the days when tourists from Plano were afraid to come downtown and experience the fledgling scene. But when the band couldn't escape the confines of Elm Street, Sugg left Shallow Reign in 1988 to work with former Lone Justice frontwoman Maria McKee, and it was a short-lived partnership; after that, he wandered through a couple of unremarkable bands in Los Angeles formed mainly "so I could play," he says now.
His semidormant friendship with Cult singer-guitarist Ian Astbury blossomed when the two hooked up again after the Cult broke up last year. Astbury was hungry for a collaborator, Sugg says, and "the next day I went by his house with a tape I'd done at home, and we just started working on [songs] in his garage."
The two wrote all the material on Cream, the Holy Barbarians' just-released debut on Reprise Records, and Sugg seems to have had a broadening influence on the sometimes ham-handed Astbury, who apparently has never met a '70s turd-rock riff he didn't fall in love with. The stadium-ready sturm und drang is still there, but leavened with guitar parts that are more widely influenced, from the early '60s studio work of hero Jimmy Page to a range of post-punk signifiers.
"We didn't want to make a heavy rock record," Sugg explains. "We're definitely into strong pop songs."
Sugg doesn't get back to Dallas much anymore, but when he does, he has noticed how his old home has changed. "When we come back, it's so different--everything's so big and commercial," he says. "When we started it was just us, Three On a Hill, and End Over End. Everything was so innocent: It was just a bunch of us hanging out at the Theatre Gallery and drinking beer."
But it's interesting to consider: Now that every Deep Ellum band that can start and stop a song at the same time seems on the verge of being signed (or dropped), does Sugg ever wonder how Shallow Reign might fare now?
"Hmmmm. That's an interesting question," he shrugs. "But, ummmm, no, I hadn't ever really thought about it."
Matt Castille and Eric Lumbleau--partners in the musicians' collective Vas Deferens Organization--will be flying out to Los Angeles to score the soundtrack for transplanted Dallas filmmaker Carty Talkington's next film. Talkington, who hit it modest with Love and a .45--a sharper-than-usual tale of desperate young lovers on the body-strewn lam that featured a cameo from Reverend Horton Heat--has tentatively titled the new film Hollywood Anarchist.
Castille, who says the script "adds a new dimension to Pulp Fiction," will fly out west with Lambleau about a fortnight after the film's female lead is decided upon, a decision rumored to be imminent.
Elsewhere on the Vas Deferens front, Castille reports that VDO material by Mercury Rev and Japan's Boredoms-esque The Ruins may soon see the light of day. First out will be a seven-inch single featuring the former band on one side and VDO--joined by Brad Laner and Jim Goodall of Medicine--on the other.
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Burgeoning buzz band Mazinga Phaser's new CD is also about to go to press. The psychedelic-pop band's album is a cooperative venture between Castille's own Womb Tunes label and Rockadelic Records, and may serve to catalyze a growing Denton space-rock scene.
What becomes a skull-tattooed scenester most? If you're Pump'n Ethyl frontman Turner Scott Van Blarcum, it's the deployment of a sprawling percussion rig made entirely of skeletal remains. Big enough to accommodate ambient grindcore band Primitive Echo's three drummers, the rhythmic ossuary features well more than 100 bones. Van Blarcum says he spent a year "just wandering around cow pastures" assembling the rig, which debuts June 7 at the Major Theatre, where it will be played by Primitive Echo, the middle act in a $5 all-ages show with headliners Pump'n Ethyl and Klingons Near Uranus. "We have a bone xylophone, bone percussion, and we use rib bones for mallets," Van Blarcum reports. "We've got coyote skulls, cow skulls, goats. Different skulls have different sounds, but I like dog skulls best..."
Baboon's full-length follow-up to 1994's astonishing debut Face Down in Turpentine won't be released till the fall or even early 1997, but the band's Grass Records-released EP Numb is scheduled to hit stores this week. The stars of Walker, Texas Ranger will also perform June 6 at the Orbit Room.
Street Beat welcomes e-mail tips and comments at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.