Playback: Jon Pettis Rising

One man's life touches so many others

Present arms: (l-r) Matthew Downs, James Taylor, Jesse Moore, Blue Mongeon, and Gene Griffin with a photo of Pettis
Present arms: (l-r) Matthew Downs, James Taylor, Jesse Moore, Blue Mongeon, and Gene Griffin with a photo of Pettis (Photo by John Anderson)

Last Thursday, Jesse Moore woke in the middle of the night and eased his mind by listening to the songs of a friend. Jon Pettis had passed five years to the day, and his death's anniversary carries ghosts.

"I hate to have to remember it," says the East Cameron Folkcore singer.

On Oct. 9, 2009, Moore rose to the sound of screaming from next door.

"Fire had engulfed the house. There were people on the roof trying to help others down from the second floor. Everyone was running around in hysterics," he recalls. "I thought I'd seen Jon outside. When we realized he wasn't, we started running around looking for ways to get into the house, but there was no way in.

"It felt like a fuckin' dream. Still does."

Pettis, 28, died of smoke inhalation. A power strip had started an electrical fire in his room.

A good-hearted singer-songwriter whose music combined a classical training on horns and love of folk music, Pettis co-fronted the gritty, soulful Bankrupt & the Borrowers with Moore, Blue Mongeon, and James Taylor.

"He had an amazing voice that could take you on this journey from a whisper to a scream," remembers Taylor.

The group launched locally in May 2007 and the following year released its only album, Beers on the Bible. Pettis passed away days before the group's biggest break, opening for Seattle garage-punk legacy the Murder City Devils. Three weeks later, the band was laid to rest with a final performance at Fun Fun Fun Fest.

Bankrupt & the Borrowers lived in a tight-knit neighborhood east of Cameron Road, full of slacker musicians without cars who barbecued daily, drank nightly, and played music constantly. Among the East Cameron associates: Clyde & Clem's Whiskey Business, the Bread, Idle Kids, Bridge Farmers, and Old Pony.

"For so many of us, Jon's death was this awakening that we needed to do something with our lives," says Taylor, now a co-owner of Holy Mountain. "I know he'd be proud of what we're doing."

Holy Mountain reunites the old neighborhood on Saturday, when the clan gathers to celebrate Pettis. East Cameron Folkcore – Moore, Mongeon, and Taylor's heavy, Pettis-influenced orchestra – dust off Bankrupt songs. They're joined by Whiskey Business, Possessed by Paul James, Ben Ballinger, Otis the Destroyer, Bridge Farmers, Old Pony, Mrs. Glass, and Greg Loftus.

"We're gonna sing his songs we used to sing together," Moore declares. "The mourning years are over. It's time to celebrate."

Songs for the Deaf

Texas School for the Deaf alum Russell Harvard signing for Quiet Company
Texas School for the Deaf alum Russell Harvard signing for Quiet Company (Photo by Kevin Curtin)

I heard the most incredible thing at a concert last Thursday: silence in a room of hundreds.

Proceedings got loud while the Shears, Riders Against the Storm, and Quiet Company played, but between songs and during set changes, you could hear a pin drop as the audience gestured in silence. This was my first concert for the deaf.

"While ACL is happening, we wanted Austin's deaf and hard-of-hearing community to have a concert experience just for them," professed LatinWorks' Norberto Zylberberg, who organized the event.

"Vibes" experimented in providing a full-immersion concert experience for the hearing-impaired of Austin – a purported live music capital that's paradoxically home to one of America's largest deaf populations per capita. The North Door was outfitted with special flooring and extra subwoofers to enhance the physical sensation of bass, and lyrics were signed by Texas School for the Deaf alum Russell Harvard, a celebrity in the hearing-impaired community whose acting credits include There Will Be Blood. The capacity crowd, largely TSD students, were given bracelets that reacted to the music with lights and vibration.

"This is my first concert," a teen named Nicholas related through a sign language interpreter. "It was cool because you feel connected to the music. I would definitely go to another."

As the last song played, I held a balloon. Its inflated membrane danced with a dynamic range of frequencies. I could differentiate a voice from a drumbeat, the small buzz electric guitar from the wide vibration of bass. That's when I understood music isn't only heard. It's felt.

APD Cracks Down on dBs

So far in October, the police have issued 42 citations to Downtown businesses for violating sound ordinances. Of those, 22 have been for decibel levels, eight for music after hours, and 12 for outdoor infractions. The majority of the tickets have been related to DJs and pre-recorded music, not live bands, says Christian Malanka, operations lieutenant for APD's Downtown area command.

"They think whoever plays the music the loudest will sell the most alcohol," he reasons.

Generally, the city's sound limit is 85 dB – equatable to the volume of a garbage disposal – until midnight on weekends and earlier during the week.

"We're interested in facilitating entertainment Downtown, especially live music, but it has to be tempered to reasonable parameters to create a balance between entertainment and quality of life," says Malanka.

Barry Lewis, board member for the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, says he's pleased to see increased enforcement of sound issues, which he views as a "consistent concern" for inner-city inhabitants, a population that's swelled to about 12,000 in recent years.

"I don't believe that there are any residents that want to see live music venues hurt, but we want them to be responsible," he says, noting that businesses have had fair warning.

"The city revised the amplified sound ordinance in February 2011 and consulted with the entertainment community," he says. "Since then there've been some operators who've self-monitored and others who haven't."

So ... watch your ass or pay the fine.

Half Notes

Transmission Events, Austin-hatched promoters of Fun Fun Fun Fest and much more, expanded their reach into north Texas last week when they absorbed the Dallas-based Tactics Productions, a small but likeminded talent team that books at Three Links, Trees, and Club Dada. "We would like to look at other markets for TE as well, but at the moment, that's not our focus," says native booker Graham Williams, who acknowledges they currently do one-offs and co-promotions in San Antonio and Houston. "We want to keep building in our home of Austin with our festivals and give some time to make sure Dallas is done right. If all goes well, maybe we'll find new partners in other cities."

Stevie Ray Vaughan has received his first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination. The deceased Stratocaster savant stands amongst 15 potential inductees including Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, and N.W.A. With just five voted into Cleveland's hallowed halls, SRV's no shoo-in. As of press time, he led the statistically irrelevant fan vote section at 25%.

Skrillex surprised Barcelona with a late-night set last Sunday – just as he had the week before. The elfin producer also appeared at Kingdom on Saturday in addition to his two ACL Fest performances and Stubb's aftershow.

Jon Langford, of Mekons and Waco Brothers fame, spends the weekend in Austin for his annual art opening at Yard Dog and acoustic set. Saturday finds the Welsh Chicagoan at the White Horse where he follows the Ice Cold Singles, a group featuring Waco Bro Dean Schlabowske and Meat Purveyors Bill Anderson, Peter Stiles, and Jo Walston. Sunday, Langford holds late-afternoon mass at the Longbranch Inn with Churchwood.

Bill Petersen, keyboardist of classical rockers Invincible Czars, succumbed to a heart attack Thursday at age 48. Peterson was responsible for the group's ambitious silent film work and annual Nutcracker kids' show. "Bill was a true tone master, as much sound technician as musician," relayed guitarist Josh Robins. "Onstage, he was a showman and the driving force behind our wardrobe collection. As a composer, he wasn't prolific, but he only wrote gems. As a friend, he is irreplaceable."

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.

Support the Chronicle  

More Jon Pettis
The Sun Also Rises
The Sun Also Rises
East Cameron Folkcore endures

Doug Freeman, April 3, 2015

More Playback
Playback: You Can’t Press Pause on Life
Playback: You Can’t Press Pause on Life
A musician’s life: laid off, livestreaming, and … giving birth?

Kevin Curtin, April 24, 2020

Playback: My Top 100 Austin Records of 2018
Playback: My Top 100 Austin Records of 2018
Kevin Curtin picks his favorite local sounds of the year

Kevin Curtin, Dec. 21, 2018


Jon Pettis, Bankrupt & the Borrowers, East Cameron Folkcore, Holy Mountain, Texas School for the Deaf, LatinWorks, Russell Harvard, Transmission Events, Skrillex, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Invincible Czars, Bill Peterson

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle