Free Week Shakeups & Breakups

Finding new life amidst last calls minutes from your doorstep

Sabrina Ellis leading her new band, Sweet Spirit, at Red 7 Monday night, Jan. 6.
Sabrina Ellis leading her new band, Sweet Spirit, at Red 7 Monday night, Jan. 6. (by Shelley Hiam)

Convenience. Is there anything that boasts more convenience than Free Week? Friday night, I awoke at 10:30pm, got into my car in Hyde Park seven minutes before the hour, and parked outside Hotel Vegas at 11.

I was there to see Sweet Spirit, a new band comprised of Sabrina Ellis and A Giant Dog bandmate Andrew Cashen, though I hadn’t known their name when I arrived. This was their first show – on the fourth day of bandhood. News spread on Facebook:

“Bobby Jealousy is not playing second-to-last tonight. Come early, 11pm sharp, Free Week!”

The announcement rang true because Bobby Jealousy, the band Ellis fronted with her husband, Superpop ringleader Seth Gibbs, called it quits. They played their last show last month. Happily, Ellis remains a frontwoman with enough draw that her name alone is worth four score fans in a 160-person venue. The East Sixth joint was packed.

First notable about the new band: Ellis’ pants. She’s hardly wears them onstage, opting instead for leotards, booty shorts, and stomping around like she owns the place. Friday, she wore dark jeans with a big, black and white Seventies-style blouse. And a guitar.

You don’t need to hear any Bandcamp recordings to make sense of the symbolism in Ellis’ amended getup and axe. Sweet Spirit marks new territory, and after only four days it already works. Backed by Cashen, Bobby Jealously keyboardist Jake Knight, the bassist and drummer from Megabig, and a second guitarist, Ellis reigned in a full-bodied, sometimes Laurel Canyon-ized take on garage music. Bobby Jealousy pop strapped with A Giant Dog’s rowdier bark.

Cashen included, everyone in the group follows Ellis, a surprising development, because for the first time she’s not flying off the walls. She’s reserved, standing in one place while singing. Actually, “She’s shaking,” relayed Chronicle photographer Shelley Hiam after taking some snapshots. Like a wild poet that’s found some words she wants you to hear.

Afterward, I high-tailed it on over to Beerland for the OBN III’s, passing along word of Sweet Spirit to a few writers, then reinforced that first impression on Monday when I learned they’d play again that night at Red 7. We reconvened in the back of the venue and watched a half-hour of original material – fresh stuff, warm, with reverberating organs, and a big family of guitars.

“I’m really optimistic about it,” Ellis told me Friday at Hotel Vegas. She promised there’d be a number of shows in the near future.

I thought about Sweet Spirit throughout the weekend because of a text message I received Friday afternoon telling me that the Preservation are breaking up. The text came from Josh Wienholt, their drummer, and I’d expected it for some time. The locals went on a three-month layoff after the Austin City Limits Music Festival, with an unsure return plan around December. This Friday at Stubb’s, they play their final show.

The Preservation wasn’t my favorite band, but they lay claim to a few of my favorite bandmembers. Wienholt grew up across town from me in Baltimore, and we’ve become friends since relocating here, bonding over our distance from home and reveling in shared traditions. Because of that, members of his band have become buddies of mine – people I see and hug and share drinks alongside when I’m out.

They’re the same folks that I watched onstage night after night for a four-month stretch last year. I spent an overwhelming amount of my spring and early summer in the company of the tight pop unit and their loved ones. Things were familiar and quite constant. I’d start to see the same regulars at their shows, then see them around town, realizing that we had mutual friends in other places. The circle grew tighter.

It’s not fair to assume with any authority why a band breaks up, but if I can hypothesize for a moment, I’d guess the Preservation’s breaking up has something to do with finding themselves sitting stagnant after two years of touring and no new LPs to promote. They took a reasonable amount of time readying another run in the wake of October 2011’s Two Sisters, telling us last March that they’d been readying an EP.

Instead of releasing that EP, the band opted to shill singles, releasing two on Bandcamp before quietly compiling the four new songs onto a digital EP in June. The singles wrought release shows in April and June but failed to summon the excitement of an album. By that point, the Preservation had largely emptied the tank. Andy Bianculli, one of the band’s two chief songwriters, began work on a solo album. From this vantage point, the writing was on the wall. They’ll be missed by many. They could spark a crowd.

Here at the paper, we often discuss proximity and what that allows Austin’s music scene and not other cities. The phenomenon applies in two contexts. Literally, you can see some of the finest musicians seven minutes from your door step. The other semblance of proximity is that the musicians you see at night are the same ones you see toiling about town each day. Maybe they’re drinking coffee beside you or bussing your table at a restaurant, or they’re lounging three towels over at Barton Springs on a Saturday.

That proximity can be an unwelcome guest when you consider that a blasé attitude brought on by common familiarity likely contributed to the breakup of a band that brought us real joy. Yet it registers inversely in the face of a second weekend of Free Week. Mere minutes from your domicile, there’s a local act you’ve never heard of playing to a full house for no money.

Bands forever come and go and fade in and out of obscurity, but bands are also always there for us – so long as we do our part to let them.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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Free Week, Bobby Jealousy, the Preservation, Sweet Spirit, Sabrina Ellis, Andrew Cashen, Josh Wienholt, Andy Bianculli, Jake Knight, Two Sisters

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