Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
Especially when locals are barely getting it together sometimes
Free Week discoveries should hinge on fresh local talent ready to enter the Austin music mainstream. This year's revelation, early into January's annual DIY club convergence, took the form of two personal homegrown favorites – Free Week stars over the past couple of years – calling it quits instead.
The Preservation's announcement arrived via a Jan. 3 text from its drummer Josh Wienholt ("next Friday will be our last"). Bobby Jealousy's news came later that same evening at Hotel Vegas, after Sabrina Ellis' new band Sweet Spirit played in place of her departed hard-pop crew. "I'm optimistic," she reported post-performance.
Ellis has every right to be. Fronting Sweet Spirit, a throwback rock & roll unit, she's hit on something worth pursuing with the newborn sextet. Backed by guitarist Andrew Cashen, her bandmate in the ever-ferocious A Giant Dog, and Bobby Jealousy keyboardist Jake Knight, plus members of Megabig, Ellis' latest venture bottles her former band's off-kilter elements into something more straightforward that appears to have worked immediately. Sweet Spirit played their fourth show this past Saturday.
The Preservation's last waltz went down on Free Week's second Friday, carrying with it a palpable sense of relief from among its principals. The usually spirited pop fivepiece didn't seem exactly jazzed to be playing at Stubb's, and eschewed calls for a second encore. Wrapped up, they split to an afterparty where someone had baked a cake.
In the weeks since, I can't help thinking neither band should've faded so quickly.
Certainly the walls ran red with writing in both instances. Ellis juggling two bands and Bobby Jealousy's ever-changing lineup relegated it to a stop/start proposition despite a pair of full-lengths. The Preservation's ubiquitous local gigging and lengthy tours up the Pacific coastline – a region managers consider to hold only four markets (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle) – kept them out of the studio even though their 2011 debut LP clamored for a follow-up. Sans new music, and with multi-instrumentalist Andy Bianculli's insistence on producing a solo album when the band hadn't published more than five new songs since its LP, forward momentum felt more like stasis. Two hopefuls that played 2013's Austin City Limits Music Festival are now extinct in 2014.
Bands split all the time. In most cases, their members return. Miss garage heroes the Strange Boys? There's Living Grateful. What about the Carrots? Check Yellow Fever, Deep Time, and Party Girl. Or Tele Novella for Agent Ribbons. And Empty Markets for Cruddy. Even the Belleville Outfit retains its legacy in Phoebe Hunt. This city's music scene turns over like a new car battery.
That's good. New bands beget new ambitions and hopefully new ideas. And in Austin's matrix of live music venues, those same new outfits are what bring new crowds out to sample the buzz. All bands are products of scenes – specific to them, and sometimes reserved to them. Think of any club and a half-dozen regulars performing there will come to mind. Then there are those locals that transcend a particular scene and become a cottage industry. Bob Schneider, a guy who never has to leave these city limits, remains the idealization of this.
Getting comfortable here stands to reason. Even Austin's pre-Live Music Capital slogan – "The Velvet Rut" – has faded. Neighborhood scenes thrived throughout our burg long before the Continental Club opened in the Fifties. Today, micro ATX labels like Pau Wau and Raw Paw, and institutionalized gatherings including the Grand's Sunday parties with Burger City Rock N Roll, nurture and house homegrown talent. Before its October shutdown, Club de Ville was building a family bound as tight as Beerland's. The Lost Well descends directly from hallowed Sixth Street watering hole Lovejoys.
Consider the White Horse, a Gen X answer to landmark local honky-tonk the Broken Spoke. Parents two-step on South Lamar in the latter, while their kids shuffle on East Sixth at the former. The rise of the nearby Hotel Vegas stems from UT-area hangout Spider House, whose booker Jason McNeely ditched midtown for Downtown and took his bands and friends with him. Even he can't fill a room every time out, however. Booker or band, you can only hope for memorable shows.
If a good time's solely what you're after, then that Wednesday record release makes perfect sense. Your friends won't have to battle weekend traffic, and will probably enjoy the midweek intimacy. And tour send-offs with a tiny cover charge designed for inclusiveness will get you at least as far as Slaughter Lane on your way out of town. Don't forget singles release shows, the musical equivalent of a photographer holding an opening because he took a picture. The Preservation were masters of that last one.
Come to think of it, one band that played its marquee local show on a weekday is American Sharks, who hit a Wednesday at Hotel Vegas so hard that Chronicle Music news maven Kevin Curtin wrote it up that week in his column. That was the same gig for which bassist Mike Hardin announced they'd signed to The End Records and would release their long-shelved debut on the New York label. Since then, the band's taken themselves out of the local scene almost completely, returning twice with the Sword and playing once more at Hotel Vegas that first Saturday of Free Week. Their absence speaks volumes, and mirrors the in-scene inactivity of Black Joe Lewis, Mike & the Moonpies, Shakey Graves, and Shearwater to name a handful.
Obviously there's no single template for achieving sustainability playing music, but the road to stalling out remains well marked. Around here, it's called supersaturating the market – ensuring that three shows will draw 30 people when one could draw 110. In a town that loves a favor, that's a lot to ask.
On KUTX the other night, Hard Proof Afrobeat saxophonist Jason Frey came on to promote February's MapJam. In the spot, he discussed memorable gigs and let on that the greatest show his funky big band ever played was on Lady Bird Lake summer 2010.
"That was the first gig where I was looking out and it wasn't just our friends in a crowd."
In 2012, American Sharks drummer Nick Cornetti hosted three parties on boat barges around Lake Travis, each pimping bands that had recently released music on his local label Pau Wau, then did it again last July with four more acts. Sounds like a good time, right? A 2008 boat show was actually the first time I heard about White Denim. Even Bill Callahan's down with the concept; in September, he threw a boat party on Lady Bird Lake to promote his latest album, Dream River.
No, let's not all go out and climb aboard a boat, all right? Remember how the Octopus Project hit originally, with rocket balloons and art installations? And don't forget Brownout's four-week covers residency at Frank last fall. Those kids in Wild Child were bold, too, booking the Moody that second ACL Friday when the Parish would've been much easier.
Fortune favors the bold and the inventive. Fans remember those who boast collective courage and chutzpah. I've attended upwards of 1,500 shows since moving to Austin in 2007, and the ones I remember felt like moments: East Cameron Folkcore renting out the Scottish Rite Theater to release For Sale, and Spoon running a full weekend outside at Stubb's.
Years from now, I'll look back on the Preservation and many others with the same reverence that earlier generations had for the Asylum Street Spankers or the Chumps. I won't remember any nights, and I'll bear only the faintest memory of songs played that never made their way to wax. But I'll still miss them, and all that maybe could've been had they played 75 shows instead of 150 and none of them on Wednesday.