By William Michael Smith
By Jef With One F
By Craig Hlavaty
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No disrespect to the drummer (Gabriel Alaniz for a while now), but the three other members of Umbrella Man and their instruments make three legs of an almost-perfect Texas musical triangle: Namesake upright bassist Nick Gaitan brings wood-slapping swamp pop and rockabilly; standing steel guitarist Bart Maloney supplies honky-tonk swing and swooning Santo & Johnny pop; and acordeonista Robert Rodriguez of Los Pistoleros de Tejas tosses in Cajun and conjunto.
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Gaitan's lyrics are just as evocative. Recorded at Houston's historic SugarHill Studios, Umbrella Man's first album in three years, Bridges and Bayous, is long on local lore: "Hurricane Song," "El Barrio del Alacrán" and "Dead End Saints" are steeped in neighborhood history, both recent and distant. Gaitan wrote the Pogues-like "Sunken Ships" after the BP spill and reworked "Beautiful Fools" and "Juana" from his days in Houston ska-punk institution Los Skarnales.
Disclosure: Gaitan is my neighbor on "The Island," the suite of apartments above the Continental Club, and a hell of a nice guy. But don't take my word for it. As of July, he's also outlaw legend Billy Joe Shaver's road bassist once again, as well as Local Musician of the Year in the 2010 Houston Press Music Awards and a repeat winner for Best Bassist (including last year).
Gaitan took a few minutes last week to go over Bridges and Bayous while waiting on an inspection sticker. Later he was planning a little shopping at Value Village on the Eastside before heading to an Umbrella Man gig at San Antonio's Conjunto Festival.
Chatter: The first song on the CD is called "210 on My Phone." Did something happen in San Antonio?
Nick Gaitan: Nah, just San Antonio has always been a part of my musical life. I've had good things and bad things happen there, just like anywhere else. When I wrote that song, I was driving to the D&W Lounge over here in Houston, crossing the tracks, and it was raining like hell. The way I heard the song, it put me in a San Antonio mood.
C: "Holding My Breath Is Making Me Blue" could almost be a Freddy Fender song.
NG: Yeah. It kind of calls [up] the swamp pop and Texas soul kind of stuff. People dance sweet to it, like we're playing a Freddy Fender song, or a Cookie & the Cupcakes song, or any old Lloyd Price. That's what I was going for. When I wrote that one there, I was coming home from off the road, coming to see my girl. It hits right in the swamp pop vein, the traditional format. I was just rolling with it.
C: How did you rework the Los Skarnales songs?
NG: "Juana" was more of a roaring samba-type deal, and what we have now is more of a cumbia. I wanted to work that in. "Beautiful Fools," what we have there is no traditional drum kit per se, but our friend Chapy Luna — who's an awesome percussionist — playing timbales, claves, congas a bit, and all kinds of other stuff. What I wanted to hear, and what I ended up hearing, was this dark sort of danzón noir.
C: Did you write "Hurricane Song" about Ike?
NG: I sure did. I was coming back from Europe and landed at Love Field in Dallas. Then I got a ride to Austin, and was trying to reach my family so we could all be together. No point in staying far away when everybody was together over here.
I called my buddy James Brown, and he drove I-10 west to 71 to go get me, and we were the only ones on I-10 east when it was about to go down. I got here about 7 or 8 at night, just hanging with my family, and about midnight the lights go out.
C: Why did you call the record Bridges and Bayous?
NG: We're surrounded by bayous. We move from one side to the other as we grow up, we start moving around the city, we move around with our families, people move out of the house and move on. I was focusing on a city in motion, where bridges and bayous are part of our lives.
Also, there's a figurative element there — time passes, you cross bridges, some get burned whether you mean to or not.
Umbrella Man killed it in the studio. I was just listening to the final disc on my flight out to LA, and I was reminded what a great mix of influences and sound UM has. This is Houston music at it's best. Unified diversity! Congratulations to the band, and thanks to HP for supporting what is fast becoming one of the most beloved bands in the city.
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