Hot Country Punksters

In Austin, the obsessively self-referential city that calls itself "The Live Music Capital of the World," there is an unwritten book of frequently apocryphal notions about its music scene. One of the major fancies that turns out to be true is that it's a place where most anyone with the gumption to get on stage can be heard. A corollary to that presumption is that it can lead to bigger things -- a local rep, an audience and maybe even a record deal -- although this tends to be unusual.

But for The Damnations TX, Austin has been everything that legend suggests. Singing and songwriting sisters Deborah Kelly (guitar) and Amy Boone (bass) have rapidly risen in just a few years from enthusiastic amateurs to club-packing Sire Records pros.

Kelly says their success has "always been a big surprise and kind of a mystery." "I see a lot of good music in Austin," she says. "I don't know what it's like to be out there in the audience seeing us, but I guess there's something appealing there."

Modest words for an act that has succeeded at one of the hardest musical tasks in Austin: actually getting an audience. Even the Capital City's alt-pop hitmaker Fastball was playing to only a handful of fans after releasing its first major label album. With a plethora of clubs and enough aspiring musicians to populate a small city, Austin on most any night has an embarrassment of, well, if not riches then at least original music offerings. It's common to catch a band with a buzz and find oneself in sparse company.

Yet The Damnations TX was a strong local draw well before it recorded its debut, Half Mad Moon, which comes out February 16. And it's not just that the band has found an audience, but rather, it actually has fans -- enthusiastic followers who crowd the front of the stage, zealously doing a slightly spastic jig that Kelly calls "the get the bug off me dance."

Yes, Damnations TX shows in Austin have become a hoedown-cum-revival for the younger set, succeeding where so many Austin acts have failed: in not just sparking that ephemeral buzz, but actually generating real excitement. With an attack that's more polished country-punk than the currently common and often mundane stylings that fall under the rubric of alternative country, the band plays with adrenally charged elan. Backing up that enthusiastic approach are songs with smarts and heart, the bittersweet vocal harmonies of Kelly and Boone and wiry electrified picking by guitarist Rob Bernard, onetime member of the Dallas-based Picket Line Coyotes and Austin rockers Prescott Curlywolf.

Although their approach has a distinctly Texan-roots music stamp, Kelly and Boone actually grew up in the heart of the upstate New York rust and truck-farm belts. The progeny of a civil engineer father and schoolteacher mother, they were weaned on everything from Bob Dylan to Stax and Motown soul. But within the circumscribed horizons of the upstate hills, there was little to do but "drive out to the cornfields and drink and smoke pot," as Kelly recalls.

(As to why these sisters of the same parents have different last names, Deborah explains, "I changed mine to Kelly because we have Kellys on my mom's side and Kellys on my dad's side. I just wanted to have that name instead of Boone, y'know, Debbie Boone. The joke got to be annoying after a while.")

After their parents divorced, first Kelly and then Boone followed their mother to Santa Fe, New Mexico. "When I was in New Mexico, I kinda thought of music as a fun thing to do, and I was thinking more of going to college," Kelly explains. "But college is kinda expensive. And after things started working out playing music, things started shifting the other way, and I started thinking that maybe college was the thing that was unrealistic, and music was maybe a little more realistic."

"We always messed around with [music]," Boone says, "but didn't feel the songs were good enough to show around publicly."

Recalls Kelly: "I had a boyfriend in Santa Fe who hung out with some musicians in Austin, people that kinda went back and forth and talked a lot about Austin. I was ready to leave New Mexico and go somewhere on my own. I liked it instantly. I came here just to check it out and stayed a year. I liked the fact that it was a college town and a music town through and through with lots of different clubs and all different kinds of clubs. I had a punk rock band when I first came down. It was real inspiring to be in Austin, so I just stayed."

Boone soon followed her sister. "She was loving Austin, so I came down to visit her here and really liked it."  

The sisters first ventured into public performing at open mike nights at Chicago House, a now long-gone performance space. But it was only after Kelly started bartending at the Electric Lounge, an indie-scene rock club, that she saw her dreams become tangible. "It was really a great way to meet other musicians," she notes. "I would talk to the musicians; they would sit at the bar and drink their beers."

The sisters eventually put together an all-girl lineup that debuted at the venerable Hole in the Wall. At the time, Boone had been playing bass for only a month. "I played other instruments, so I picked up bass pretty quickly," she says.

Their moniker -- originally just The Damnations -- came out of a think-tank session one evening at happy hour and created a glitch when Half Mad Moon was originally scheduled for release last fall. Suddenly all these other bands with "Damnation" in their names started cropping up (though "none of them are The Damnations," Kelly notes). Hence the additional appellation TX, which in the act's lexicon makes its new name "Damnations, T-X," not "Damnations, Texas."

The band started solidifying when Keith Langford, one of the musicians Kelly met bartending at the Electric Lounge, signed on as its drummer. He was followed by Bernard, his bandmate in Prescott Curlywolf, and a native of Shreveport whose previous band, The Picket Line Coyotes, was part of the nascent Deep Ellum scene in Dallas from 1987-90. Something of an anomaly within the prevailing New Bohemianish, neohippie trend of that time, the Coyotes was a scruffy, devil-may-care roots rock band whose hard-working reputation on the regional circuit waned after the group moved from Dallas to the River City.

Bernard came in The Damnations camp first as a fan. "I used to see them play at the Hole in the Wall," he recalls. "It was really cool. Then Keith asked me to come down and play with them. None of us really expected all this stuff to happen, of course. At that time it was a lot more informal." After Curlywolf's disappointing one-album tenure with Mercury Records, the experience rejuvenated Bernard.

"I really liked the harmonies," he says. "You can't beat their harmonies. And their songwriting. They both had something seriously good songwritingwise; they were writing great songs."

While the rise of The Damnations was powered by strong songs and zesty spirit, the bandmembers were also carried along in the slipstream of The Gourds, whose members are musical if not actual blood brothers. "It's kind of a clan, I guess," says Bernard, who played with Gourds Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith in the Coyotes and is the brother of Gourds accordionist Claude Bernard. Cementing the connection further, Langford decamped from The Damnations TX to The Gourds after playing on Half Mad Moon.

Sharing stages as well as similar musical bents, both bands captured Austin audiences with an approach that injects their roots music inspirations with a metaphorical cocktail of mescaline and methadrine, bringing energy and imagination to what's far too often a neocountry trend that in so many other cases sound rote and false.

A limited edition EP from an appearance on Austin public radio station KUT's "Live Set" show stoked the Damnations buzz. When labels started sniffing around, the group decided to record an album on its own, working with producer and ex-Reiver John Croslin, who's also helmed notable recent discs by such other Austin bands as Sixteen Deluxe and Spoon.

The result was a deal with the resurrected Sire Records, whose honcho Seymour Stein has been heavily banking on the bet that alternative country might turn out to be another lightning strike like his success with such New York mid-'70s new wave bands as Talking Heads and The Ramones. "It's hard to believe," says Kelly of their leap from the Austin clubs to the Warners-distributed label. "We figured if we signed with anyone, it would be a smaller label, and then [we'd] put out a few records and see what happens."

With Half Mad Moon bucking about in the starting gate, The Damnations TX is already facing the vagaries of the genre game that plagues so many roots acts whose music doesn't fall into today's strict market categories. "It's funny, because when we go on tour, and we pull up to the show, there's the poster saying 'The Damnations,' and there's always that little line underneath it that describes us, and it's different in every town," notes Bernard. "But in Alpine, Texas, it was 'progressive Americana,' which I kinda dug. That's my favorite one so far of labels stuck on us. As far as what I'd call it, it's just music, y'know. The album will hopefully speak for itself."  

"We're just one of those bands that's just gonna fall between the cracks no matter how they try to put us in a genre or some sort of category," says Kelly. "A lot of stuff we play isn't country...."

"I understand that there's a need for people to shovel things into a category," says Bernard. "As far as we're concerned, we have something that's not alt-country. We grab a lot more influences than that. All of us listen to a lot of different stuff, and I think it comes out in the music."

Whatever the tag, Kelly attributes their appeal to the fact that "there's a relatable, almost deceptively simple thing about our music." "It doesn't really bother me how they label us," she adds, "it just bothers me when they write, 'Austin's hottest band.' It's kinda cheesy."

"It's embarrassing," says Boone. "We're just glad nobody from Austin is there to say, 'Yeah, right.' When people start calling you Austin's hottest band, you don't know how other people are going to feel about that."

Yet during a recent stint on the road opening for Cake, The Damnations TX found it might be sparking more heat than just the appreciative reception it received from audiences. First, while playing the Bowery Ballroom in New York, the building next door caught fire. Then less than a week later, while on stage at the Agora in Cleveland, combustion happened again.

"We had all these problems with feedback, and we kept looking over at the monitor guy because it was really loud and hurting our ears, and he just threw his hands up in the air," recalls Boone.

"I was right next to him," says Kelly, "and he goes, 'I can't even deal with the soundboard right now because the system is on fire.' There was smoke pouring out from behind the curtain. Amy kinda wanders over to me nonchalantly in the middle of the song and whispers, 'Don't freak out, but backstage is on fire.'

"It was kind of weird: a second 'fire incident' while we were opening for Cake. We thought they were going to start thinking we were arsonists."

So maybe, in a way, The Damnations TX is Austin's hottest band.

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