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Playing Possum... Like any great band, Possum Dixon sounds like something, but damned if you can place it. With a chilly anti-image just rock and roll enough to keep part of their audience somewhat at ease, and just odd enough to keep another part more on their toes, the Los Angeles quartet takes coffeehouse hip and plants it on a nightclub stage next to a noisy stack of dinged-up amplifiers.

Possum Dixon, which performs Thursday at the Urban Art Bar, began in the late 1980s, back when coffee sipperies possessed a little more spunk and personality than their chain-oriented descendants. "I worked at this place where we tried to make it look like the set of one of John Waters' early movies; we really tried to make the place cater to our personalities," singer/bassist Rob Zabrecky recalls. "Now, [in the newer coffeehouses] you just want to get a cup of coffee and split."

Long before Middle America had ever heard of Starbucks, Zabrecky and guitarist Celso Chavez -- frustrated with their trend-hopping contemporaries along the Hollywood Strip -- took a more intimate and whimsical route via L.A.'s burgeoning caffeine subculture. From the start, music seemed like the logical option, says Zabrecky, who, at the time, was stamping mail in a dead-end office job, while Chavez (it's rumored) was making a living as a one-man taxi service driving strippers to private shows.

Those two sides of city life -- the monotonous and the seedy -- come into play on the band's latest release, Star Maps, which tears down the Southern California myth with a finality reminiscent of L.A.-bashing works such as X's Los Angeles and the Eagles' Hotel California -- though in a context and style more akin to the tense intellect of the Velvet Underground and early Talking Heads. The CD's dense guitars and often overwhelming atmospherics make it hard to imagine what Possum Dixon might have sounded like in a coffeehouse setting. But even back then, Zabrecky says, the group wasn't your typical quiet evening's entertainment.

"It was the same kind of feel -- it's just that now the instruments are different," Zabrecky says. "It wasn't like we were sitting on stools, smoking pot and wearing tie-dyes, though we did have some songs on our first album that were more stripped down."

In the good old days, Possum Dixon shows often resembled unruly jam sessions, with friends and members of the audience joining the group whenever the spirit moved them. In fact, second guitarist Robert O'Sullivan's first informal audition for the band happened in front of an audience at one such gig. "Robert had been a good friend for a long time," says Zabrecky. "He really liked what we were doing, and, at the time, not a lot of people did."

These days, Possum Dixon (Chavez named the band after murder suspect James "Possum" Dixon, whom he saw profiled on America's Most Wanted) has expanded its fan base well beyond its close circle of buddies, touring mercilessly since 1993 to keep the band buzz going strong. With so much road experience in its immediate past, Possum Dixon has eased up a little on the audience participation segment of its show. But the group still makes the occasional effort to smudge the dividing line between spectator and rock star. "We like to blow things way out of proportion sometimes," says Zabrecky. "That fun element is gone in a lot of rock music today."

Bang the drum slowly... Veteran drummer Orville Strickland, an influential and highly regarded member of the Houston rock scene for many years, passed away February 1. He was 44 years old. Among the many bands that featured Strickland on the kit were the Cold Cuts, Dr. Rockitt, the Blasting Caps, Ezra Charles and the Works, Theresa James and the Cheaters, the Hightailers, Ronnie Hall and the Green Onions and Jerry Lightfoot and the Essentials. He was a member of Musician's Local 65 for more than a quarter of a century. "Orville was playing with Big Sweet at Love Street in 1967, before he graduated from Westbury High School," says Tommy Dar Dar of the Sheetrockers. "I think playing drums was the only job he ever had."

A memorial jam was held February 8 for Strickland at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar. He's survived by his parents, Tom and Doris Null of Oklahoma City, his sister Pamela Null of Boulder, and his longtime friend Deliah Stafford of Houston.

Conference bound... The coveted -- and rather short -- list of Houston talent chosen to perform at the 1996 South by Southwest Music and Media Conference is now public knowledge. The final 11 are Clover, the Jinkies, Carleen Anderson, Texas Johnny Brown, Flamin' Hellcats, Iain Matthews, Sentir, Sisters Morales, the Suspects, Eric Taylor and ZZ Top. The playing begins in Austin on March 14 and runs through March 17.

Meanwhile, local singer/songwriters Trish Murphy, Shake Russell, Jack Saunders, Alaina Richardson, Anne Lockhart and Hillary Arwen have hauled themselves north to Washington, D.C., for the currently under way 1996 North American Folk Alliance Conference. Their performances will be broadcast live Thursday night at McGonigel's Mucky Duck.

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