It should have been a disaster, the kind of performance bands talk about later as the beginning of the end, the exact moment things started to go all wrong. Even now, as they sit around a table at The Cavern with the moment long behind them, four-fifths of The Gospel Swingers characterize the April 23 gig at Trees only as "interesting," the kind of description that describes absolutely nothing. They're still not sure what to think about it, never straying too far below the surface. That night the band played in front of its largest audience to date, opening up for the Old 97's, yet the members of the group discuss the show as if they dodged a bullet. And maybe they did.
The Gospel Swingers had ended up on the bill almost by accident -- Gospel Swingers guitarist Chris Merlick is friends with 97's drummer Philip Peeples -- and had wavered until the very last moment, deciding to do it only a few days beforehand. They knew that it would be a tough sell, especially since it was the CD release party for the 97's new album, Fight Songs, and fans were driving in from other states just to hear the band unveil the new songs. Bassist Alex Sargent didn't want to play, but he had been outnumbered. The rest of the members -- Merlick, drummer Steve Adkins, organ player Kari Luna, and singer Quincy Holloway -- were just as unsure as Sargent, but it was just too good of an opportunity for them to pass up.
"We did it knowing full well that 95 percent of the people there were either going to hate it or just totally not get it," Adkins says. "But we figured if a few percent of the people like us, we'd be doing pretty good. We didn't get pelted with bottles or anything."
Sargent adds, "I thought we were going to get booed off the stage, or I thought people were going to be shouting, 'Old 97's!' while we were playing."
Fortunately, that never happened, though the crowd did seem to be more interested in what might happen later than what was happening right then, ignoring one of the best new rock-and-roll bands Dallas has to offer. The Gospel Swingers didn't look like they cared much either way, ripping through a 45-minute set that sounded like James Brown sitting in with the MC5, songs that found their scruffy soul in the garage. They could have been playing in an empty room, and in some ways, they were, only serving to provide a soundtrack to the discussions in the audience about which song Rhett Miller and company would open the show with. There hasn't been a bigger display of local veterans getting the brush-off since Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys.
Make no mistake about it -- the members of The Gospel Swingers are veterans, even though the band itself is still relatively young, playing its first show only last October. Holloway has been in a number of Denton and Fort Worth bands (including Record Player, Sivad, and Sub Oslo); Luna is a former Grown-Up; and Adkins was in Lone Star Trio and The Accelerators, among others. Merlick played with Lithium X-Mas and Fireworks, and Sargent's previous groups include Blacktop, King Sound Quartet, and Sleazy Mancini. The band's collective history may not account for much in Dallas, but in countries such as Sweden and Holland, it's enough to refer to the band as a supergroup. And for once, this is an instance where the term doesn't ring hollow, if only because The Gospel Swingers are every bit as talented as the word implies.
Savage Records thinks so, and it hasn't properly heard the band yet. The Swedish record label has already tapped the band to record a single, even though it has had access to only two of the four-track demos the group has made available for download on its Web site. Of course, Savage Records isn't taking as big a risk as it might seem. Thanks to their stints in Fireworks and Blacktop, Merlick and Sargent are rock stars in Sweden, where bands such as The Hellacopters have sparked a rock-and-roll resurgence, and they're even bigger names in Holland. Sargent is more mystified by that fact than anyone else.
"Blacktop was Number Two on the pop charts in Holland," Sargent says, chuckling slightly at the absurdity. "Seriously. It edged out Pearl Jam. Over there, they're like, whatever. They have no barometer for what label is popular. They just get it all and sort it out amongst themselves. They don't rely on the radio to tell them what to listen to. It was in Billboard, which is pretty impressive. It's rigged, really, by people that are DJs and record chains. I'm pretty sure that's how it got on there, but still, it's like, 'Man, I need to go to Holland.' Fireworks and Blacktop and King Sound Quartet are much more popular overseas than they ever were here." He pauses, then delivers the inevitable punch line. "Our ultimate goal is to play in Japan."
The members of the band agree that they probably wouldn't be playing anywhere had they not recruited Holloway, who turns every Gospel Swingers show into a tent revival. The group formed last February, but it wasn't until Holloway joined a few months later that it really began to take shape. Adkins and Sargent began playing together early last year, participating in a one-off recording project in New York with another ex-Blacktop member, Mick Collins, and Speedball Baby's Matt Verta Ray. When the duo returned to Dallas, they asked Merlick and Luna to join in.
All four had wanted to be in a band together for some time, but they had never quite gotten around to it. They've been friends for years, occasionally playing on the same bills together with their respective groups. Sargent and Luna even dated for a while, which helps explain why they were never in the same band. "Not a really good idea," Sargent says, laughing.
But things weren't really working out, mostly because of the singer that The Gospel Swingers had initially hired on.
"He was a really good singer, but he sang too well," Sargent says. "See, that's the problem. Like when you get a guitar player that plays too well, they do a lot more than they have to. The rest of us are confident that we're pretty good at what we do, but we're not, technically, incredibly proficient. That's not a goal. That's not anything we aspire to be. It has more to do with songwriting than technical ability. This guy was really good, but he was incredibly fashion conscious."
"Kind of flamboyant," Adkins continues.
"He could be in musicals," adds Luna. "He had a good voice."
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"He had a kind of Jim Morrison, arena-rock sounding voice," Sargent says. "I mean, he was a great singer, but he just didn't fit. He didn't really get what we were trying to do. So we parted ways with him, rather uncomfortably, and we were trying to audition people, but we were auditioning our friends. We wrote a song with Quincy at his first rehearsal. He was just natural. It wasn't that he was this incredible singer. It's just that he just had a lot of soul. And he got it."
In the next few months, everyone else will have more chances to get it. In addition to the Savage Records release, the band has another single planned, a split with Jet Screamer, as well as a full-length due out later this year, possibly on In The Red Records, one of the most respected garage-rock labels in the country. But don't let the labels and bands associated with The Gospel Swingers make too much of an impression. It's the easiest definition of the band, but it might not be the correct one.
"The thing that I like the most about this band, aside from the fact that we're all really good friends from way back, is that everybody has a broader musical sense than just what we're doing," Sargent says. "Nobody in this band is like, 'I'm only into this, this, and this.' Everybody is really all over the place in their musical interests. Most of the time, they coincide with each other, but sometimes they don't, and it's really valuable. We didn't set out to sound like anybody. It was just a group of people that like a lot of different types of music got together to try to do something different. And I think we have."
He's preaching to the choir.