Buenos Aires Virus

Continental Club dweller Glover Gill would sooner starve to death than give up playing tango. Not that guys who back Pavarotti and score Hollywood films waste away that often.

Glover Gill doesn't look like a tango lover. His forearms are heavily tattooed in green, red and purple; his hair is slicked back in a John Doe-like coif; and a metal prosthetic leg has replaced the one he lost years ago in a motorcycle wreck. Even the name isn't right -- it's a much better fit on the leader of a honky-tonk band than on a master of tango piano.

But while his look may be early-1980s L.A. punk, and his name is as Texas as mesquite-smoked brisket, the sounds he makes are puro Argentino. Early every Monday evening, just before the El Orbits' bingo party begins, he wheels his piano on a customized dolly right to the foot of the Continental Club's stage and sits down with his back to the audience. The dancing begins as he massages the first luxurious, romantic notes. Four or five couples don't stop their violently sensual moves until Gill wheels the piano back out again an hour or so later.

It's obvious from Gill's appearance -- if not the wonderful sounds he coaxes from the keys -- that he hasn't been doing this all his life. How did the one-time punk become a tango fiend? "It's an illness," Gill says instantly. We're in the back bar, but we can hear David Beebe leading the El Orbits through Stevie Wonder's "You Are The Sunshine of My Life." It's almost cheesily apt: Gill feels the same way about tango. "I always say it's a disease for which there is no cure. If you get bitten by the bug, you're fucked. I've spoken with avid dancers, and they're goners like me. I love the music so much that I'll probably starve to death."

Don't go sending him any care packages; Gill has had a pretty fair run of success in his 23 years in the music business. It all began when he dropped out of St. John's in 1979 and hitchhiked to Austin. There his Houston band One Hand Clapping broke up, and he helped form the punk group D-Day. Since then, he's played with Charlie Sexton, Bruce Robison, Alejandro Escovedo, Herschel Berry and Arthur "I am the god of hellfire" Brown. ("He has this hat that he fills with gas and used to set on fire," Gill says. "I almost got burned a couple of times. He's a hilarious and smart guy.") He even backed Luciano Pavarotti on the accordion with the Austin Lyric Opera.

He's also written and arranged strings for Ian Moore and Double Trouble, and was until recently a member of Austin Latin swing band 8 1/2 Souvenirs. That was when he contracted the tango virus. It was an accident, Gill remembers. "I was with the Souvenirs and I wrote a tango-like rumba that's on our second record," he says, pausing to sip his martini. "Then Eric Pellegrini, a chef in Austin and a friend of mine, gave me a tango record about eight or nine years ago, and it changed my life forever."

The record was tango king Astor Piazzolla's La Historia del Tango, Volume One. "It has a bunch of old tangos with more modern arrangements," Gill says. "I must have worn that CD out I listened to it so much. I'm not sure what I heard in it, but it spoke to me."

Gill spoke back. "I started writing these tangos and I presented one to the Souvenirs," he says. "We always did everything by rote since I was the only [music] reader in the group, which made it really hard to communicate. They loved the first tango and it got on the record, but this one they were like, 'Glover, this is too hard.' Our singer Juliana Sheffield said, 'Glover, what you need is five of you.' And I just went, 'Ding!' "

Gill went Sheffield two better. He recruited seven more-or-less like-minded University of Texas Music School grads and formed Tosca, an eight-piece tango orchestra that has since released four albums.

At one point in our conversation, Gill mentions that he is "horrible at self-promotion," the truth of which was revealed to Racket days later when he discovered that Gill failed to mention he had scored Richard Linklater's innovative 2001 animated film Waking Life. "Yeah, I did that," Gill allows when contacted later. "What was cool about that project was that since it was filmed very quickly with hand-held digital cameras and animated after the fact -- there were about a dozen or twenty animators working for a year on it. Since that took so long, there was no hurry to get the soundtrack plugged in. Normally the film composer waits around for the shooting to finish and then he's got just a few weeks to come up with the music and it's very, very stressful. This was just very relaxed."

But Hollywood can't hold a candle to Buenos Aires. When Gill and Tosca took their first trip to Argentina, he was intimidated, even though he says it was a "dream come true." Argentines take their tango just as seriously as they do their soccer -- maybe even a little more so. After all, Piazzolla had to go into exile because tango purists in his native land saw in his revolutionary approach to the form ample excuse to kill him. "My stuff occasionally is even more modern than that, and so I thought they could really hate us," Gill says. "We opened the show in this 2,000-seat hall, this beautiful 100-year-old hall, and I was like they could kill us. But thank goodness, they liked us, and I was just in heaven. You know, this was where the tango was born, and they liked my original music. We also did a couple of Piazzolla covers and we have two singers from down there, a man and wife who sing like birds. We got great reviews in the local papers. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."

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