Two-drink minimum

The band plays in the corner--near the front door, just a few feet away from the bar. Sometimes, when the music is quiet enough, they can hear a patron place a drink order even if it's whispered to the bartender; the gurgling of the cappucino machine, the plops of ice into tall cocktails, and the ka-ching of the cash register are so audible they even seem like instruments in this rather laconic and funky mix of music.

Such is the way it sounds every Monday night when the Enablers play the Balcony Club, the cozy nightspot that's as long as it is dark. The music--loping and lazy, a soft and ingenious blend of surf and spaghetti-western and '60s pop turned down and toned down for the late cocktail hour--permeates the background, the quiet spots filled in by patrons' chit-chat, and everyone is happy with the arrangement. This is what Neal Caldwell, Bart Chaney, and Chris Dirkx had in mind when they set up shop here a few months ago--to provide a background music over which people could talk comfortably, the unobtrusive soundtrack to a dozen conversations.

"We wanted to do something that was real low-key that people could come and listen to if they wanted to and talk over," says Caldwell, who plays the organ and provides the hypnotic melody. "It always had to have a groove, a rhythm thing going...The main thing was a cocktaily thing."

"We wanted to provide some ambience," adds Chaney, the band's bass player. "You could listen to it if you wanted to. When you pay attention to it, it's interesting, but if you don't want to pay attention to it, it's background--like those [Brian] Eno ambient records. A lot of times, when you go out to see a band, it's almost like watchin' a movie. They command all your attention, they take all the air space.

"You can't have a conversation with the person next to you without shouting, just like you can't talk during a movie. So we wanted to do something so people could talk to each other while the music's going on. We provide the soundtrack."

But it's the great irony of the Enablers' music that it is actually so arresting. It's not the sort of ironic and self-obsessed lounge sound that is inexplicably the trend among the ironic and self-obsessed, but something much more complex--a cross between the work of Italian soundtrack composers Nino Rota (La Dolce Vita) and Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), surf-rock guitarist Dick Dale, and funk.

Mark Griffin--best known as MC 900 Ft Jesus, an occasional member of the Enablers, and an old friend and colleague of Caldwell, Dirkx, and Chaney's--describes the band as "this real comatose feeling that's sort of a cross between Bedhead and Sly and the Family Stone."

"It's really odd even playing trumpet with this band because it's such a loud instrument," he says. "It's hard to play quiet enough to sort of blend with it because everybody's really toned down. It's a challenge especially after being in live shows on tour [as MC 900 Ft Jesus] and being in this big loud band all year long, but it's also a relief.

"I mean, I can sit in that chair and say something in a normal tone of voice to Chris while we're playing a tune, and he will hear me perfectly. It feels so easy on the ears."

On Wednesdays, when the band plays its regular gigs at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, the Enablers actually become the centerpiece of attention instead of the distraction. When they performed June 14, Chaney, Caldwell, and Dirkx (the band's drummer) were joined by Griffin on trumpet and Phil Bush on guitar, and within the bunker-like confines of the MAC's lobby, where the music bounded off walls and concrete floors, the Enablers sounded like a huge band--the textures deep and thick, the laconic becoming more frenetic. (Even better, the applause of the six people in attendance was magnified to sound like the clapping of 600.)

During a set list that included excerpts from La Dolce Vita's soundtrack, the title song from Never on Sunday, the Frank and Nancy Sinatra chestnut "Somethin' Stupid," and some unnamed originals, the Enablers were all over the place--sometimes sounding like King Crimson doing surf, sometimes like old pop radio gone Caribbean, art-rock gone new-wave gone mad.

"One person said we're the band that's always two drinks ahead of everyone else," Dirkx says. "I don't know what that means, but it's interesting."

Though the Enablers have existed for just a little more than a year--and only since May with its current full-time line-up of Caldwell, Chaney, and Dirkx--they are all veterans of a local music new-wave and punk scene that has not existed for more than a decade, one that thrived in places like the Hot Klub, D.J.'s, and Magnolia's. Caldwell is perhaps best known as the bassist-lead singer with NCM, which also featured his brother Randy on drums and David Hill on guitar. Dirkx was the drummer for Bobby Soxx and the Teenage Queers and then the Telefones (with his own brothers Jerry and Steve); and Griffin played with the Telefones, replacing sax player Will Clay.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky