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Angel of Unrelenting Good Will

Sara Hickman's one hell of a singer, but she's just too good-hearted. Plus: Leaving Wonderland, and KLOL goes "classic."

Sara Hickman, by the evidence of her showcase at Rockefeller's on Tuesday, December 28, does all things well. Maybe just a little bit too well. The Houston native and one-time Elektra recording artist writes complex songs that place her in a pleasing somewhere between folk songstress and pop diva, sings them in a slinky and soaring voice to her own accomplished guitar accompaniment, and bathes the entire procedure in a wash of charm and bubbly storytelling. The less-than-full-house crowd, filled with family and friends and, according to a giddy Hickman, the first boy she ever kissed, was eating out of her palm.

You could say that Hickman is in the midst of a comeback. Elektra picked up and re-released her 1989 debut, Equal Scary People, released the follow-up Shortstop, and carried Hickman through the recording of Necessary Angels before deciding to drop her, leaving the album's finished masters in limbo.

Hickman launched a campaign to raise money from friends and fans to buy the masters back, and according to what she told me Tuesday, she recently became the first artist to purchase her own shelved album back from her ex-label. Necessary Angels should be released sometime this year.

The show started off wonderfully, with Hickman's sheer talent overwhelming everything else. There were moments of guileless charm throughout -- like the time Hickman accompanied herself with a vocal trumpet imitation -- that left the crowd slackjawed. But as the set progressed, and as Hickman revealed more and more of what she's good at, wonder started to give way to some feeling less charitable. Hickman, you see, is very much the supporter of causes -- animal rights, education, AIDS, anti-death penalty, Romanian orphanages, etc., etc. -- and as the set wore on, a theme developed, and then became oppressive, and that theme was Hickman's own good-heartedness. The first song -- written (we were told) in "honor" of one less privileged

-- was fine, but as more and more songs "honored" the unfortunate, I started to get the sense that there are two sorts of characters in Hickman's world: victims of one sort or another who don't have everything, and Hickman, who has enough left over to give. I, seemingly alone among the appreciative crowd, grew tired of the too-obvious good will, and when Hickman told the story of befriending a homeless woman in a dumpster in Dallas's Deep Ellum and giving her a toaster oven and an electric blanket, I had to wonder just where Hickman thought the poor thing was going to plug her gifts in.

Bad News from Good People: Little Screamin' Kenny Blanchet, guitarist for Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys, has left the band.

"It's really depressing," says Carolyn. "He's the rock and roll, and he does all the funny things." Both Wonderland and Blanchet say the split was amicable. Blanchet, who at 44 holds a multi-decade age advantage over the band's four other members, and who has toured with groups including John Kay's Steppenwolf, says he just didn't want to put himself through the rigors of the road again. New York's William Morris Agency, among others, has recently been in contact with Wonderland about booking a tour.

"It's not so much age as attitude," Blanchet said. "They've got the time and the inclination to do that, and they really should do it. I see it happening, the agencies are calling them. But I've already done that for 25 years of my life. I always want to be connected with them as a songwriter. I just don't want to cause them any snags."

eanwhile, the Monkeys are busy fielding offers from the touring agencies and working on a new recording to be finished in January for SXSW shopping. And no, they're not looking to replace Blanchet. "When you talk to him," said Wonderland, "tell him we've always got a spot for him in the band."

If you've been listening to KLOL lately, you may have noticed a new slant sneaking into the rock station's self-promo spots. DJs now close their breaks with the fence-straddling tagline: "The best classic rock, the best new rock -- 101 KLOL."

Wait a minute. Doesn't Houston already have a classic-rock station?
KLOL program director Ted Edwards says the new slogan doesn't reflect any real change in the station's programming, just a re-definition of the station for the audience. "The ratio of the music ["classic" rock to "new" rock] hasn't changed at all."

What has changed is the radio climate, and with two new rock stations entering the Houston market in the past two years (Z-Rock and the Arrow), KLOL found it necessary to home in a little tighter on its market. "We're a product, and just like any product, sometimes you redefine the product or come up with a new slogan," Edwards says. "The market's changing, and when the market changes, you re-examine what you're doing."

Still, it seems odd that the 23-year-old station, after years of avoiding the "classic rock" name in favor of a rowdier contemporary image, should start calling a spade a spade. Could the new slogan indicate a demographic shift, or a response to a bulging boomer market serviced by Z-Rock?

Says Edwards: "The bull's-eye center of our audience is 25 to 34, and that hasn't changed. Leaders act, don't react, and we feel like this is an action, not a reaction." Okey dokey.

 
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