Death of a Bar Band
If there's one band that could single-handedly prove Racket's belief in a Houston Press Music Award jinx, it's the Hollisters. They harvested a bushel-basket of our awards in the mid- to late '90s (and dared to boast that fact on their Web site). Then, after a typically blistering set at the Texicalli Grill at South by Southwest in 1999, the band signed with national label Hightone and toured coast to coast and across the pond.
The critics took note. Writing in the pages of the alt-country journal No Depression, former Houston Chronicle critic Rick Mitchell called the Hollisters "the most promising hillbilly rock band -- if not the best band, period -- to come out of the nation's fourth-largest city in this decade." If there were an award for Houston album of the '90s, it's safe to say that the Hollisters' Land of Rhythm and Pleasure would be on the short list.
But after the time in the sun came the deluge. The Hollisters signed with Robert Earl Keen's ill-fated management company. Co-founding lead guitarist Eric Danheim left the band when his wife landed a job in Seattle with Amazon.com. In the space of a year, vocalist Mike Barfield, drummer Kevin "Snit" Fitzpatrick and Barfield's wife, Yvonne, all lost their fathers. For a while, the icy relations between Fitzpatrick and Barfield thawed as the two bandmates grieved side by side, but soon enough the chill returned and Snit was forced out or quit, depending on who you believe. The follow-up to the band's Hightone debut, Sweet Inspiration, never materialized, and of the original lineup, only Barfield and bassist Denny "Cletus Wollensak" Dale remained.
Early this year, Barfield pulled the plug on the Hollisters marquee. It's not likely, though not impossible, that we'll ever see that name in lights again. "I talk to [Danheim] on the phone every once in a while," Barfield says from his new digs in Austin. "We kinda talked about a reunion somewhere down the road. He wanted to do it just to do a few gigs, but logistically it's just so hard to get everybody together. We're both playing with other people now. It's just a lot easier said than done. If I did it, I would rather put a record out behind it, or at least reissue Land of Rhythm and Pleasure."
Barfield confesses that he's a little "burnt out" on the whole Hollisters thing, anyway, that it's past time to "move on and start something fresher." He shelved plans to release a live Hollisters album early this year. But since this is Mike Barfield we're talking about, "fresher" doesn't mean "newer." The reinvented Barfield is just as rootsy as ever, though deeper into the blues than he has been before. (He's sharing the bill with Austin blues-rockers Soapbox at the Satellite Lounge on Saturday, May 18.)
Perhaps his increased focus on the blues has come with age; it's hard to believe, but in three years, Barfield will be 50. He sounds his age when he talks about his dislike for entertainment districts. "I have had some fun at Sons of Hermann Hall, which is kinda on the edge of Deep Ellum, but playing on that main drag was just like guerrilla warfare trying to load in and load out," he says. "That's a young man's game, and they see some old motherfucker like me Three quarters of them don't give a shit about any kind of music like mine. They see some clown with a cowboy hat on and long sideburns, and they're like, 'Who's that dipshit?' "
He also sounds as crotchety as Wilford Brimley when he decries the ever-increasing sprawls of Houston and Austin, his native city and his adopted hometown, respectively. He spent his childhood days of the '50s and '60s in a then-isolated Houston suburb taking potshots at lurking alligator snapping turtles with a pellet gun and swimming in an abandoned quarry. "I hate it that it's gotten so big," he grumbles.
And in Austin, not only does the city sprawl but so do the egos and geeky obsessions therein. He's happy enough with life in the capital that he and his wife have bought their first house, but there are a few things he'd like to vent about. "One thing I do hate about Austin is that it does try to be L.A.," he says. "Some people are so caught up in trying to be retro-hip or something. They're more worried about the contents of their record collection than anything else."
Clearly Barfield is not one to take Austin as seriously as it takes itself. "I was born in Houston, and to have to hear all this phony crap where they're always slamming some other town like there's something wonderful here to get all serious about -- I just don't get it," he says. "To me, this place is pretty vanilla, when you get right down to the nut cut, they haven't had to deal with a lot of diversity."
The grousing stops when Barfield turns to the Hollisters' troubles. First, about that management deal with Mr. Keen: For a while, it looked like the Texas Uprising was going to be much more than just a summer concert tour. Keen was going to free us all from Nashville's hit factory by signing bands like Reckless Kelly and the Hollisters to management deals. And Austin would usurp Nashville as the New Jerusalem of real country. But Keen's grand design went up in smoke.
"It was Murphy's Law with us on that thing," says Barfield. "It wasn't anything malicious on his part, but he was having problems of his own."
Keen's record deal evaporated when his label Arista Austin fell victim to the great BMG consolidation/bloodletting of 2000. Keen had to invest more and more time in managing himself, and he was unable to handle business matters for the bands in his stable. In retrospect, Barfield isn't sure the Hollisters needed the kind of management that Keen envisioned for them anyway. "We already knew who we were," he says. "We didn't need somebody to package us and tell us what our image should be."
Even the best manager in the world couldn't have done much to stop the Hollisters from imploding. When Danheim moved to Seattle, the Hollisters suffered a mortal blow. Sure, they staggered on a couple of years, Rasputin-like. But the Hollisters without Eric Danheim was like The Andy Griffith Show without Don Knotts -- the most recognizable element remained, but the co-star was gone. It showed, and not just on stage.
More than a mere great guitarist, Danheim had always co-written the band's songs with Barfield. Then there was the matter of band chemistry. After Danheim left, Snit and Barfield were at each other's throats with increasing regularity. Neither will go on the record with much venom, but Barfield will admit that the two don't get along -- as did Snit in a Press article last year ["A Perfect Fitz," by Aaron Howard, April 12].
"Both bands I've been in that were well known had the same people in them for a long time -- five years for the Hollisters, about seven for the Rounders," Barfield points out. "Most bands don't stay together that long even if they have big success, and to stay together for even just two years with only regional success is almost a miracle."
And it's also nearly miraculous that the death by a thousand cuts that eventually bled the Hollisters dry didn't do the same to Barfield. He sounds invigorated about his rebirth and at last recording under his own name. "I didn't block out a bunch of time to do this thing," he says of his unreleased new CD. "I just kind of knocked it out."
He hasn't won any Houston Press music awards lately, either
In what is shaping up to be the local event of the summer, Earthwire.net has announced the tentative lineup for its Memorial Day weekend Houston Jams festival at the Last Concert Cafe. The lineup for Friday, May 31, consists of hip-hop and reggae bands including Sound Patrol, Dubtex, Counter Intelligence and Supaneil, and a DJ contest to boot. Saturday's alternative rock lineup has impeccable cred, with consummate punk survivors Poor Dumb Bastards headlining the bill. Project Grimm, Rusted Shut, C'Mon C'Mon, De Sangre and the Mindbloom grace the undercard. Also, Rabid Sports -- Earthwire's gonzo sports talk show -- holds down center stage from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. "Kingfish" Keith Collins hosts Sunday's roots rock extravaganza, with guests Jug O' Lightnin', the Texas Tallboys, Guy Schwartz & the New Jack Hippies, Opie Hendrix and E. Phillip Vallejo on hand to bellow away their blues. Should be a Memorial Day weekend to remember for those of us too broke to get outta this already sweltering swamp.
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