Hoots and Horrors

Planning Your Hootenanny

Though the modern day Hoot Night may be a direct descendent of the old-time hootenanny, would-be hoot organizers should stand warned of one aspect wherein the two are practically polar opposites. Where the hootenanny was largely an offhand, sometimes spontaneous collection of singers and songs, today's Hoot Nights are all about planning, without which an evening can easily turn into unmitigated disaster. An unplanned/unmoderated Hoot can result in a dozen bands all boring the audience by playing the same damn song; hold a Jethro Tull Hoot without strict supervision and you'll end up with several ear-splitting hours worth of "Aqualung." Also, as I found out upon hosting my one and only hoot night, when things run late and bands get bumped, tempers tend to flare really high.

My hoot was hosted by my Not Daniel Johnston persona, and is remembered variously as "Not Austin Music Night," "Austin Does Austin," and "Incest Night," and I assembled it with care and pride. There were numerous high points, from the sparkling Randy "Biscuit" Turner, resplendent in full Roman centurion garb, proclaiming the lyrics to the Pocket FishRmen's "Amy Carter" off a papyrus scroll to the majestic "Mike Hall sings Ed Hall" segment, where the lines "The Armadillo, Raul's/In those days there were no fools" proved to be perfectly suited to the sound of Hall's hearty acoustic folk-rock. What there wasn't, though, was enough time to accommodate all the acts that had dedicated themselves to the night as eagerly as I had.

Thus, I nearly ended up getting decked by a furious hooter who didn't get his turn when Brad First declared the night over around 2:15am. That moment, however, paled in comparison to the roomwide hatred aimed at Javelin Boot that night. After their own reasonably brief set, consisting of Rank & File's eponymous theme song and the True Believers/Reivers mishmash "Freight Train Rain Won't Help You When It's Over," the band remained onstage to back up Wammo for an incredibly complex -- and incredibly long -- Daniel Johnston/Butthole Surfers medley.

While the general audience stood in awe of the twisting melodies, often mixing lyrics from one of Johnston's songs with the music of one of the Buttholes' and vice versa, the other waiting acts saw only what appeared to be a band that had already had their time being joined by a guest vocalist and continuing to play. Not only were most of them furious, they stayed furious, and it took a long while before the Boot shook the resulting stigma of being a band who didn't know when they'd worn out their welcome.

Javelin Boot also found out the hard way what curses can befall those who are too good at a Hoot Night. A full-blown performance of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" at a "Seventies Night" at the old Texas Tavern back around a decade ago "is still the highlight of our 18-year career -- unfortunately," sighs Dan O'Neill. "People's jaws were dropping -- this was before Wayne's World, remember -- and they were all saying `They're not really gonna do it!'"

But do it they did, in its entirety. After the feat, with current Buick MacKane member Dave Fairchild providing the fourth harmony, one ravenous Queen fan gushed to the band that "Man, even Queen didn't do the opera part live!" Hunter Darby offers this one sentence warning to Hoot Night organizers: "If you don't want to be blown off the stage, don't invite Javelin Boot."

There's more than one way to get blown off the stage at a Hoot Night, however, as veteran Alejandro Escovedo tells it: "There was a Neil Young Hoot and I was playing pool upstairs at the Cannibal Club, and I was winning a lot of games. Every time I won a game, I'd get a couple shots of Maker's Mark or whatever. I kept trying to go downstairs, thinking I was pacing myself -- not knowing I was getting totally shit-faced drunk. I could barely make it down the stairs when my name was called. I got up and I was totally out of tune and just fed back the whole time through the two songs -- I think. Then I fell off the stage. I think I got carried off to the emergency room somewhere. I didn't get invited back to too many Hoot Nights."

Virgin Machine found a way to add insult to injury at a Madonna hoot night at Chances; use undependable props. Unsatisfied by simply performing "True Blue" with vocalist Kasey Jo Smith tied to a chair (in honor of a similar act allegedly perpetrated upon Ms. Ciccone by Sean Penn), the band brought out a rollaway bed for "Like a Virgin" to simulate the writhing scene from that song's video. "As we picked up speed," recalls drummer Terri Lord, "Kasey started jumping up and down on the bed and it folded up on her." The resultant collapse started a domino effect that knocked over several guitars belonging to other bands waiting to play.

Of course, the unexpected isn't necessarily a bad thing. After the Cannibal Club's Hoots had fallen into a clique mentality -- with the same bands playing week after week -- the notion that then-Back Room denizens Pariah had been "allowed" to play the Sex Pistols vs. Clash Night was met with much derision. In the end, notes Darby, "They ended up doing the best Pistols," elevating the show over what had become something of a rote event. When Darby's own band the Wannabes decided it was time to make a statement about the dead end Hoots were headed down, however, the response was less than enthusiastic. The 'bes showed up at a Beatles Hoot and, feigning innocence, launched into "Rockin' in the Free World," the current hit by well-known non-Beatle Neil Young. "That didn't go over too well," Darby recalls in something of an understatement.

Sometimes, though, even the forces of nature aren't enough to knock down a good Hoot Night. Witness last Sunday, when Paul Minor put on a Rolling Stones' "Rock and Roll Circus" tribute at the Hole in the Wall (see "Live Shots"). With only one actual invited band (the ARC Welders) performing amid a night of mostly rotating members of regular Sunday night Free-for-All attendees, Minor admits that the show was "more of a jam, really," and it may have been exempt from the attendant problems that have befallen many a true Hoot.

Still, with iced-over roads and shivery climes that had closed down most of the city's businesses, nobody expected much of a crowd. Instead, the warm insides of the Hole were filled with a just-short-of-uncomfortable sea of toasty, happy people, grooving along to the tunes of the Stones in an evening that probably reached its peak with a rousing "Jumping Jack Flash" featuring members of Sincola, the Superego, Fastball, and the Gourds. One and all learned a valuable life lesson that night: When the rains and snows come, and all around is darkness and frozen waste, sometimes the only way to keep your head above water is to give a Hoot.

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