Sad Vacation

Big Holiday wades its way through tragedy with some cleansing folk-pop

The last few weeks have been anything but a vacation for Big Holiday's Lisa Novak. So as it turned out, an interview request was the best news she'd had in a while. Aside from offering the promise of recognition for her neglected Houston band, the phone call also offered a measure of relief in what it didn't say: "I'm sorry." In early December, Novak's husband was killed in a car accident while driving home from a hunting trip in Shiner.

Concentrating on her band and its recent spate of minor successes -- in particular, a November trip to the regional semifinals of Ticketmaster's 1995 showcase for unsigned talent -- has helped Novak stabilize things some. Without Big Holiday, she confides, who knows what she'd be doing to maintain her sanity? A hairdresser for more than a decade who owns a salon on Richmond Avenue, Novak had long toyed with the idea of starting a band, but until the summer of 1993, she couldn't bring herself to take the initiative. Now, two and a half years later, she's fronting and managing Big Holiday, an amiable quintet of thirtysomethings with a luminous folk-rock sound that's about as untrendy as the group's collective background, which is entrenched in the '70s and '80s.

"We're older, so we're not going to fool ourselves into thinking we can attract a much younger crowd," says bassist Mark Ferguson, who often relies on his kids for new-music updates. "We have a more meticulous sound, and I hope people will appreciate that."

Big Holiday's tight, atmosphere-dependent vignettes and Novak's unadorned delivery beg comparison to the contemporary sounds of Natalie Merchant and the Sundays. But the band's preferences lean toward the baby-boomer vinyl they grew up on, and for the most part still listen to. When asked for influences, they're not ashamed to throw out Queen, Boston and -- God help us -- Toto in the same sentence as such safe standbys as the Byrds, the Beatles and Cheap Trick. Reverence for those less celebrated icons of music past shows up on the ten-song cassette Big Holiday, though almost never to a fault. The group recorded the tape over a year long stretch from 1994 to 1995 at Houston's Sound Arts Recording Studio. With little cash and considerable skill, producer David Eaton and the band coaxed from the studio a richly textured low-budget work that snatches juicy tips in taste and technique from the '70s and '80s while avoiding most of those decades' tedious self-indulgences. It's a cultured retro-modern sound that hardly ever makes you cringe from sour recollection.

Strong as it is, that tape was all the band had to go on at first, since initially no one thought of backing up Big Holiday's pop prettiness with live shows. Until last summer, Big Holiday was essentially Novak, guitarist Vince Martin and assorted friends, which seemed fine at the time for everyone involved. Novak, for one, was shy about her talent, and it had taken all her courage to call Martin, a friend of a friend, after holding on to his phone number for, she says, "like a year." The two clicked immediately, and Martin -- though more confident at the time in his full-on rock material -- passed Novak a tape of some subdued, folkish stuff he'd dabbled with over the years. She took it home and went to work putting words to his music. Thus began the Big Holiday standouts "Lately," "I Wait" and "Carrie," modest lyrical jaunts that mask some pretty painful insecurities with cunning word games and matter-of-fact reflections on life.

Martin originally recruited his pals specifically for the recording of Big Holiday, and nothing more. But when Eaton suggested that the band play some live shows to support the tape, Martin drafted them into the group as legitimate members.

Whether they feel comfortable admitting it or not, the guys in Big Holiday have been kicking around the Houston music scene for years; a few were semi-retired from music before Big Holiday, and none are particularly keen on giving out much detail on their backgrounds. In truth, they're a little embarrassed, as if talking about it will make them appear unhip -- which, to an extent, they are. In the '80s and early '90s, Martin worked with the local progressive rock bands Premiere and Alias. He's also spent a lot of time fooling around in the studio. Mark Ferguson played with Martin in Premiere, along with other assorted Top 40 bands, even working the hotel lounge circuit for a while. Drummer Greg Whitmire, who may have the hippest resume, played in a few '80s New Wave outfits and, more recently, with the Barbara Pennington Band. The last to join, guitarist Steve Greenwell, is a veteran of some little-known party bands.

Big Holiday's less than distinguished lineage is, in a way, an asset. The band isn't under any illusions that success comes swiftly, or even at all. Live bookings are picking up after word got out about Big Holiday's impressive showing at the Ticketmaster showcase in San Antonio, but Novak says the band is still searching for its niche. Their mild-mannered stage personalities, conservative songs and upper-thirties median age are scoring few points with the youngsters, and they aren't growing blues roots to please the old-timers. But one thing's for sure: they're organized. And a little organization can go a long way, though judging from Big Holiday's tacky computer-enhanced graphics, the band could do well to chill out on the Compaq.

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