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Nice Guy, Nice Songs

From 4-H to Miss Molly, Hadden Sayers keeps aiming for the next plateau

Hadden Sayers is a nice guy. He calls one day to tell me that the Hadden Sayers Band has recently played a Fort Worth gig opening for Austin semi-guitar-star Chris Duarte. Seems the Star-Telegram had a reviewer at the show who dug his poison pen deep into Duarte's Stevie Ray redux, but saved glowing praise for Sayers' solid performance. It's the kind of clip most performers -- especially the competitive crop of blues-based guitarists/frontmen aspiring to Vaughan's vacant throne -- would shove up near the front of their press kits, claiming top slot in the guit-slinger pecking order. Two days later I get Sayers' press kit carrying the clip up front all right, but he's blacked out Duarte's name every time it appeared in the article. "I just didn't want anyone to think I was putting him down," Sayers says.

Not the attitude of which cutting contests are made, but Sayers fails to fit more than a few Texas guitar-slinger molds. First of all, he's not from Austin (though he's played there), but Houston, by way of College Station, Sugar Land, Plano and, originally, Lufkin. The only youthful apprenticeships Sayers served were with the Sugar Land 4-H/FFA clique and their bronco-busting charges. Like anyone who's ever strapped on an electric guitar, he's got nothing but admiration for Vaughan, but his own rock pantheon builds to a pinnacle with John Mellencamp sitting on top. And though he can look the part, fronting his own blues-based rock band from his stance behind a battered vintage Strat, he's really not a guitar slinger at all, but more a songwriter and singer who just so happens to be not at all shy about spicing his Southern rock with some tasty, and tasteful, guitar picking. "The most important thing you can do," Sayers says, "is write as good a song as you can and then go out and build an audience." It's not an earth-shakingly fresh prescription for success, but its very simplicity might be the key. It's already opened more than a few doors for the year-and-a-half-old band.

The 27-year-old Sayers' high school musical idols were Billy Gibbons (via ZZ Top's Fandango LP) and KISS (his high school air guitar tellingly modeled after Paul Stanley's rhythm, not Ace Frehley's lead flash). Aside from some Jerry Jeff Walker tunes that he'd picked out on an old acoustic, Sayers didn't start really playing until a 4-H scholarship took him to school at Texas A&M, where he spent too much time with farm animals, started work on his eventual journalism degree and found himself saddled with more free time than he knew what to do with. He bought his first electric, sought out the local musicians and helped form two bands -- the Kerouacs and the Killtones -- that made small inroads into the limited College Station circuit.

After graduation, Sayers took his guitar to Austin, where he ended up doing about nine months on the road playing with Silent Partners, a collection of veteran blues players who had once backed B.B. King. The time on the road was educational in ways musical and otherwise, and Sayers, ever the nice guy, leans across the table to pause the tape recorder while he dishes dirt on certain habits of certain band members that opened his eyes to some of the seamier aspects of life on the road. So Sayers moved back to Houston for a real job to help pay off the credit card debts that every university student piles up, and ended up at a downtown oil trading company working the nine-to-five. But the guitar didn't stay in its case for long.

"The day I got the job," he recalls, "[Miss] Molly's manager called and said they were looking for a guitarist, did I want to come down and audition? Initially I said no, I'd just gotten this job." Miss Molly manager Dickie Malone eventually coaxed him into trying out, and Sayers joined Molly's band, first as a guitarist, then increasingly as a songwriter as well. His playing and his songs (where he's credited as Had Binion) both make substantial appearances on Molly's two albums.

At the same time, the Fabulous Satellite Lounge was just opening its doors with a concept that included a house band, briefly called Planet X, that included Sayers and future Sayers band member Barbara Donaho (formerly with Houston bands the Dishes and the Judys).

The credit cards got paid off quick between the three gigs, but Sayers stayed with Molly as a Whip on and off for three years, not least because of the opportunity to play beside guitar legend and sometime Whip Bert Wills, of whom Sayers is a great admirer.

But about this time last year, the songbook of tunes Sayers was writing began to outstrip the available slots in Molly's repertoire and Sayers decided to take a shot at his own band, making an amicable split with the Whips. Donaho came on board as rhythm guitarist and backing vocalist, Molly bassist Charlie Knight followed Sayers, and Beat Temple drummer Chris Axelrad and Hightailers percussionist Paolo handled the rhythm until some nine months ago, when Axelrad bowed out and Sayers' old A&M bandmate John Hamilton moved to Houston to fill the skins slot.

The Hadden Sayers Band put together a four-song demo tape and started playing any place in town that would have them, leading to a small following and an invite to last year's South by Southwest, where a showcase at Babe's led to regular Austin engagements. That's when Sayers really grabbed the ball and ran, taking the band out on the road, all over Texas and the Southeast, where he's played most of the 150 dates the band has so far logged. And demo tapes and a forthcoming CD aside, live is where the Hadden Sayers Band happens. It's a solid Southern rock groove that the band maintains, even if it's not so obvious as to invite Allman Brothers comparisons, and it leaves plenty of room for Sayers to steer the tunes in different directions and stretch out on jam-oriented solos. Sayers is obviously the frontman with his long red hair and Renaissance Rock Star fashion sense, but he doesn't let his solos hog the stage and he works hard to inject some real crowd-pleasing soul into his vocals. In other words, he's not a dick about it.

It's that combination of modesty and ability -- along with some good-time kick-ass rock songs -- that got Sayers voted "Best New Act" by readers in last year's Houston Press Music Awards; and that feedback, along with successful road tours and the preliminary sniffings of a handful of record labels, inevitably led Sayers to the next step, an honest-to-God CD, even though he says he had to dig back into the available plastic credit to fund the thing.

It's called The Hadden Sayers Band, and it's 11 songs (including new versions of the four previously released on tape) that lay down the first substantial brick in what Sayers' hopes will grow to be a long recording road.

"When you get a CD, what you're getting is the state of the band as of six months ago, or whenever the thing was recorded," Sayers says, explaining the impossibility of getting a full representation of the band on plastic, "but these are the songs that are the core of what we've been doing live, what people have seen us play, and that's what I wanted to get down for this first one."

He did a good job, punching up older standouts such as "Pray for Rain" and "Money Man" and adding new stock to the same standard with "Big Shot," "Down and Out (Of My Mind)" and "Kristi Don't Care." Miss Molly and Carolyn Wonderland both take advantage of standout cameos as background vocalists. There's a ballad, "Standing in My Field," broadening the formula, and if Sayers restrains his live pyrotechnics for the sake of the recorded song, that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of shining moments for six string fans, like the honky-tonky riff that carries "Big Shot" and the dose of solos scattered liberally throughout. The disc, recorded at Houston's Digital Studios, sounds a hell of a lot better than the demo, and it proves that Sayers can write at least half an album's worth of memorable songs and never embarrass himself with the others.

But it's not what Sayers would consider the definitive statement by any means. As he's suggested, the band is working itself into what he describes as a more melodic direction, and that material won't make it to disc until it's been properly road-tested. What he's after -- and what, if he finds it, could turn out to be the element that takes Sayers to the next plateau -- is his own unmistakable sound. Sayers can sing, but he doesn't have the distinctiveness that years can bring, and he can play all hell out of that Strat, but he hasn't yet struck on anything he'd call a trademark sound. He goes back to the Mellencamp idolatry: "Man, when you hear a John Mellencamp song on the radio, you know it's Mellencamp. It's just that sound, it doesn't matter if you do the same thing over and over, like Tom Petty -- it doesn't matter because it all sounds like Tom Petty.

"A friend of mine calls it the 'Tide box theory': when you go buy that box of Tide and rip that tab open, there's damn well gonna be white powder in there. You know what you're gonna get, every time. That's what I'm aspiring to."

Powdered soap isn't the image most hot young guitar slingers would employ to describe the fruits of their musical toil, but Hadden Sayers isn't most hot young guitar slingers, and hey, you kinda know what he means.

The Hadden Sayers Band celebrates the release of its eponymous CD with a release party at 9:30 p.m., Saturday, January 28 at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Tickets cost $5. Call 869-COOL for info.

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