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.
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 80s metal bands like Iron Maiden. In a 30-minute set, the only lyric I understand is "Gather round 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.
Before we get started, let me extend apologies to the bands I couldn't catch: Get So, Lady of the Lake, Major Issues, Mojo Preston, Silver Arrows and the Theatre Fire. I wish there had been two of me last week. Of course, I would have gotten twice as many parking tickets. Monday, 9:30 p.m., the Balcony Club Going to the Balcony Club is like slipping into silk stockings and heels. It's a club for grown-ups--the kind of neighborhood spot Jack Kerouac might like, full of drunks and jazz and ribbons of smoke, a place whose very walls seem to reek of good times and folly.
My first invite came from Greg Ray Jazz Group, a quartet consisting of veteran jazz musicians from other Balcony Club bands. The saxophonist is confident in his solos, guitarist Ray is understated and organic, and the rhythm section is intuitive. They're tight without being showy, strong without being overpowering. Like so many jazz musicians, they are used to playing in the background, which seems to be the case tonight. At the bar, a drunk sings Mister Mister's "Broken Wings" to the waitress. A couple curled up in the corner finish their cocktails and leave.
Kids grow up with moonstruck fantasies about being a lifetime musician. The babes, the cash, the glory. But I suspect the reality is closer to this--a slow Monday night in an empty bar, playing mostly for yourself.
Tuesday, 6:15 p.m., the Inwood Theatre "Come by the Inwood any Tuesday or Wednesday between selling tickets and see me break a lot of musical rules!" writes Tom Hendricks by e-mail. A ticket-taker by trade, Hendricks has spent his downtime for the past six years serenading passers-by outside the Inwood.
When I arrive, Hendricks is inside his booth, cradling the beat-up '64 Silvertone he calls "his pet dog Guitar." He has propped an ancient Ross Systems amp in the round glass opening, giving his simple strums a tin-can quality, like 1950s radio. He offers a cover of the Hollies' "Bus Stop" and then hands me a copy of his monthly music zine Musea, which makes the rather alarming claim that he has written more than 5,000 poems, 70 original film scripts, one board game and 1,230 songs. The lyrics to one toss-off I heard, though, are simply "la-la-la." I love eccentrics, especially those who fill an otherwise drab afternoon with campfire music. But as far as I can tell, the only rules Hendricks is breaking are in the employee handbook.
"The people at the Inwood don't mind you doing this?" I ask.
"They kind of like weird things," he says. And Tom Hendricks fills the bill.
7 p.m., Sambuca A few weeks ago, walking through Deep Ellum, I was surprised by a notice hanging in the window of Sambuca: "MOVING. New location on McKinney opens next week."
Could it be? The jazz club that spread swank to the suburbs was closing shop in its downtown, and original, location? Just one more unsettling sign that people perceive Deep Ellum as dangerous, a place for punks and pickpockets. A few days later, when a gold-leaf invite turned up in my mailbox, I decided to squeeze the Sambuca fete into my band schedule--after all, I was invited, and honey, I never turn down a free crab cake.
Housed in the former location of Salve!, the new Sambuca is a breathtaking 9,000 square feet, almost triple the size of the downtown spot. It's decorated with opium-den decadence and typical Dallas overcompensation. Wasn't this supposed to be a music club? That's what I remember about Sambuca in the early '90s, when my high school girlfriends and I snuck in wearing black and enough makeup to pass for 21. It's the first place I saw a really tremendous saxophonist, and I can still remember how he held the whole smoky place in his sway. But they've traded culture and music for valet parking and society types. Music is wallpaper here, a mere fixture, like a sconce or a red-velvet drape. And because I'm sitting outside on the patio, it's not until I get up to leave that I realize a jazz band is playing, Shanghai 5. I stop for a moment to enjoy the music, which is probably more than most people did.
9 p.m., Poor Davids Pub Maren Morris is out past her curfew. A mere 14 years old, she opened tonight's 15th annual singer-songwriter competition at Poor David's with a handful of original tunes. Wearing an orange baseball cap with her T-shirt and jeans, she glides through her set like a pro, with an effortless twang to her voice.
"God, I hate kids today," mutters the guy beside me. "What were you doing when you were 14?"
Female singer-songwriters always get a bad rap, with their corny sincerity and dear-diary lyrics, but it's nice to sit down and listen to an artist who can just plain sing. Female performers tend toward one of two camps: those, like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, who can sing but not write; and those, like Liz Phair and Courtney Love, who can write but not sing. Rare is the woman who manages both. (Aimee Mann comes to mind.) So even though the six contestants at the singer-songwriter competition--including Tracie Merchant and Sharon Bosquet--offered more than a few cringe-inducing moments, I thank them for their voices. With that said, who wouldn't gag upon hearing the line, by Lynn Adler, "It was on that carousel of love that I grabbed that diamond ring"? The four-letter critique in my notebook reads: YUCK!
In the end, the judges pick the right winners: Runner-up is Josh Weathers, a likable fellow with a pageboy cap who offers some of the night's only up-tempo numbers and finishes one with the refreshing explanation "So that song's about a soap opera." The night's winner is Kristy Kruger, a longtime Dallas fixture who plays every other Wednesday at Club Dada. Alternating between guitar and piano, with a little harmonica thrown in, Kruger's set is like low-rent Tori Amos, serious-minded and sometimes impressive. And though I didn't care for a ham-handed song about Afghanistan ("In God's name we kill, and in God's name we trust/Oh, Mommy, I'm hoping God gives a damn about us"), she was unquestionably the most talented singer-songwriter of the bunch.
"I'm always amazed that our finals are lightly attended," says owner David Card. "Sara Hickman played here when she was starting out, and so did the Dixie Chicks." But unlike Austin, which practically gold-plates its singer-songwriters, Dallas is iffy on the crunchy folk scene. The people who like it don't go to Deep Ellum. And the people who go to Deep Ellum don't like it.
Not surprisingly, Poor David's is moving to South Lamar Street, beside the new Gilley's, in two months.
Wednesday, 10:30 p.m., the Elbow Room Bassist Clay Pendergrass is the former sideman to Davíd Garza and Vibrolux and (poor thing) Jackopierce. Future Sound is his band, a trio of solid jazz musicians who incorporate loops and samples into the live mix. It's a clever idea, fusing the disciplined but somewhat stale art of jazz with the exciting but scattershot conventions of electronica.
Except tonight, it's not working. Throughout the set, Pendergrass is preoccupied in front of his Apple laptop, playing with the distraction of a man talking to his wife during the big game. The band loses the groove it had going and, eventually, its critic.
11:45 p.m., I-30 to Denton The drive to Denton is a 40-minute snoozer of white lines and snarled construction. In a perfect world, there would be a supersonic portal device--some serious Star Trek snazziness--connecting the two cities. In an OK world, there'd be a lousy train. In my world tonight, it's just me and the road, baby, and I'm struggling. I'm determined to catch Silver Arrows, a band I've seen and enjoyed before, but my vision is starting to blur, those white lines before me veering off to infinity. I slap myself awake, but after a truck swerves past and I veer close to the ominous concrete embankment, I make the decision to turn back, along with a personal vow: No more pasta for dinner.
Thursday, 10:30 p.m., Curtain Club The day after his band's show at the Curtain Club, Dreamt lead singer Christian Dille e-mails me: "I watched a videotape of the show and must apologize for my out-of-tune guitar that was turned up too loud during the portion you saw," he writes. Dille doesn't mention the band's other problem--namely, they suck--although he does point out it was the group's third show. I'm always surprised when beginners submit to such scrutiny; it took me years to convince myself I had the talent for publication. And even now, some days at 4 a.m., I wonder. Yet every day I get e-mails from amateurs, clamoring for attention.
This story disproves the anecdote I'm about to share, but it somehow seems relevant. When I or my colleagues do those panels about alternative weeklies at South by Southwest, it's always full of the same people--the go-getters armed with guerrilla publicity tactics, business cards and one question asked 10 different ways: "How can I get in your paper?"
There's only one answer: Be good. Friday, 7 p.m., AllGood Cafe Max Stalling is a tall, thin man with a smile so honest he could sell a bicycle to a buffalo. His Friday-night happy-hour show is standing room only, with every table at the AllGood cluttered with beer bottles and half-eaten queso.
Stalling is the performer I most looked forward to seeing. He has a strong fan base and three CDs (Comfort in the Curves, Wide Afternoon, One of the Ways) that each sell well, unusual for any singer-songwriter. After a tongue-in-cheek story I wrote about the Dallas Observer Music Awards last month, one fan (who turned out to be a band member's girlfriend) wrote a furious letter to the editor in defense of Stalling, a string of all-cap frustrations in which she managed to misconstrue pretty much the entire piece. I was so busy that I didn't append an editor's note explaining that I never accused Max Stalling of cheating. I only accused Max Stalling of rocking.
Which he does. Stalling's songs blast along on a two-lane highway of slick guitar and bass. Crowd favorite "I-35" name-checks the cities along that great scar of an interstate, and it deserves to be a classic, or at least a traveling mix-tape classic.
"We're rollin' now," Stalling tells the audience, the dimples in his cheeks showing. "Anything you got in mind?"
Loosened up by booze, the crowd starts shouting out song titles. Someone hands him a napkin with the words "Running Buddy," and he launches into a good-natured tune about losing a pal to true love in San Antonio.
"We're doing all the heartbreak songs tonight," he says. "Well, that figures, it's about 45 percent of my material." I'd venture more like 80 percent. The crowd, dotted with baseball caps and not-so-natural blondes, sings along and starts to two-step in the crowded aisle. At the end of the evening, Stalling returns for an encore. He raises his arm to wave goodbye and accidentally sticks it into the ceiling fan. Did we mention he's tall?
Friday, 11 p.m., Barley House It's 20 minutes into Rahim Quazi's set at the Barley House when I'm forced to pull myself away. Too bad. He didn't invite me, but I'm glad I caught his set. Quazi, of the band OHNO, makes smart, poppy tunes comfy as a featherbed. Speaking of, I'm getting sleepy again. I swear, sometimes the hardest part of this job is just staying awake. Back in college, the moon could beat me to bed, and I'd hardly bat an eye. Now, pushing 30, a midnight show can feel like running underwater. But I'm determined to make it to the Graffiti Rock Room for Major Issues, a band who tagged its invite with the promise of being "Dallas' best-kept secret." No kidding. The Graffiti Room's secret is so water-tight that no one at the bar has ever heard of it.
I stop by my apartment to look it up online. With 20 minutes to kill, I sit down on my bed and think about what to do. You know what's sometimes a nice way to prepare for a late night of standing up? Lying down. You know what's nicer? When a sweet, orange kitty cat pads its way across the bed and on your belly to keep you company, and it's so soothing, the way the cat breathes, the way his eyes close--slowly, slowly. The gentle rhythm of his purr. It makes me so calm, lying here. It makes me so, so, so...
2 a.m., awaking in my bed DAMMIT!!!!!!!!!!
Saturday, 6:30 p.m., Mayfest at Trinity Park Back when my older brother and I read Circus magazine every week, the music of AC/DC was rather shocking. My mother, whose musical tastes run toward Bach and early Beatles, didn't quite know what to make of the cock-rock that is "Hell's Bells." So what am I to make of Mayfest, a family festival whose main-stage attraction is an AC/DC cover band, Back in Black?
All around me, hundreds of adults and children sit in the audience, nodding contentedly and tapping their feet. Near the back, a middle-aged woman in jogging pants points to the stage emphatically with every word. "I'm on the hiiiiiighway to hell," she sings, slapping her hands with delight. The band, for the record, sounds exactly like AC/DC, full of screech and power chords, and they even look like them, too, although younger and not quite so ugly. Meanwhile, parents sit with their kids, nodding their heads and mouthing the lyrics. "Hey, Satan! Paid my dues/Playin' in a rockin' band."
A friend who teaches guitar to teens was telling me recently that parents today aren't afraid of rock and roll like ours were. They grew up on the stuff. Once a sure-fire path to rebellion, rock music is now something parents encourage their kids to pursue. They see it as a viable art form. And hey, it's a lot cooler than the piccolo.
Saturday, 10 p.m., Across the Street Bar "Happy birthday, Ian!" yells a group of girls, collapsing into giggles.
Ian McRoy is onstage with a mike and an acoustic guitar, playing his own birthday party. His grin stretches for miles. He starts out his set with David Gray's frat-boy ballad "Babylon," so you can probably guess the kind of singer-songwriter McRoy is. He's a nice, sensitive guy who writes rather limp songs about love lost and love found and not being able to fight the feeling and whoa, whoa, whoa. He has a pleasant voice that sometimes reaches a little too far. But to paraphrase Leslie Gore, it's his party, and he'll crack if he wants to.
After each song, McRoy seems genuinely surprised to hear applause. "Now I know you're drunk," he tells the crowd. It's one of the many endearing things about Ian McRoy--not a great talent but still interesting enough to earn a small fan base. One girl in the audience knows all his songs, and she sings along happily. It's quite sweet, actually. Maybe there really is someone for everybody.
Sunday, 8:15 p.m., The Red Blood Club Deep Ellum is eerily vacant save a couple of skate punks, who trail me into the Red Blood Club, a scruffy warehouse tucked behind Crescent City Café on Commerce Street. They last two songs; I last three.
A Foot Ahead is a quartet of young, good-looking boys who hop around onstage and sing rote blasts of power-punk layered with '80s synth. Maybe it's the former high school teacher in me, but I find myself torn between wanting to encourage them and wanting to critique them. I mean, they're kids; of course they're green. But the truth is they're not good, and they could be one day.
So here's a word of advice, boys: The bassist should sing more, and the keyboardist should sing less.
Now, carry on.
9 p.m., Lakewood Bar & Grill It's drunk o'clock at the LBG, where the only audience watching Dan Walker is five men at the bar. ("Watching" isn't exactly the word.) Red candles flicker on empty tables, and I sit at a booth near the back under a banner that reads, "Congrats Graduate." For days, I'll find confetti in my purse and notebook.
"Any requests?" Walker asks.
Walker is a serviceable musician, a flip-flops-and-baseball-cap kinda guy with a Jack Johnson sound. He intersperses ample covers with tepid originals. It's fun, but that can be a trap; what pleases the audience is often not what pleases the performer. A few years ago, I saw Jon Brion play at Spaceland in Los Angeles. A producer extraordinaire who's worked with Macy Gray and Fiona Apple, Brion is also a songwriter whose music is far more challenging than the radio-ready pop he helps create. Anyway, as part of Brion's act he plays covers. Like, he'll play the most crushing version of Air Supply's "All Out of Love" you've ever heard, just ripping it from adult-contemporary hell and reinventing the sucker on the spot, building each instrument part individually, so the song is sort of born before your eyes. Of course, Brion plays his own music, too, but the people at Spaceland weren't listening to that part. They just kept yelling out kitschy songs to cover. "Don't Stop Believing," "Heartbreaker," "Come Sail Away." I forget which song he did that night, but it was less inspired than usual. Afterward, when I spoke with him, he just seemed depressed.
Seeing Dan Walker at the LBG, I can see why. "Any requests?" he asks.
"There is a house in New Orleans," one drunk begins to sing.
"Yeah, I know that one," Walker says, smiling. He launches into Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly" instead.
10 p.m., Club Dada Sometimes I think the real music experts in this town are the ones checking IDs at the door, the ones fiddling with knobs in the dark corners, the ones pouring drinks behind the bar. Unlike me, they can't escape when the music gets awful. They're stuck.
So when I show up at Club Dada for my last scheduled show only to discover I got the night wrong--a closing catastrophe to my week--I listen to Tom Prejean, who runs the club's open-mike night.
"Stick around for Carrie Minirth," he says. "She started playing here a year ago. And already she's chiseled on the Mount Rushmore of my mind." Man, what a compliment.
Minirth is small and pretty, with the cheekbones and arched eyebrows of a young Katharine Hepburn. She's yet another songstress with a guitar, but her music has disturbing twists. "I put all my eggs in one basket," she sings in a dark Betty Boop voice, "I'm walking to my casket."
"Play 'The Traveling Song'!" says the bartender when she's finished.
"Oh, you like that one?" she asks shyly.
"Carrie, I like all your songs. "
So do I. It's funny how you just know talent when you see it.
It's a nice change of pace, because earlier that evening, photographer Mark Graham and I were there enduring a painful hard-rock show, talking about how depressing live music can be. The empty houses, the smattering of applause. I told Mark, "I just want to shake some of these people and say, 'Why? Why do you do this?'"
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That's when some kid named Jeff Somers got up on the stage. I wasn't even paying attention, really, but I saw him out of the corner of my eye--hunched over his guitar, trucker cap tugged down low over his eyes. And then I heard him. A voice full of character and anxiety, atypical chords, a shade of bluegrass in his fingerpicking. It started to drag my attention away from the conversation I was having. Suddenly, I wasn't interested in distraction. I wanted to hear his songs.
"This song doesn't have a name," he says nervously, "but it's got lyrics." His music sounds like Conor Oberst, or John Darnielle, with a shaky voice that would be almost painful to listen to if it weren't so damn compelling. And I realize this kid has answered my question: This is why. This is the reason people keep playing, the reason I keep sitting around in the clubs, enduring the mediocrity and the noise. Sure, it's unpredictable. But every once in a while, maybe when you're not looking, something amazing happens.
"Thanks," he says to the crowd. He bites the edge of his thumb. "You're pretty nice to a first-timer like myself."
No, thank you.