The Fabulous Satellite Lounge can be a decidedly unfabulous forum for any opening act, let alone a local upstart with an embryonic fan base. The Washington Avenue club's cavernous interior has a way of making a decent-sized crowd look minuscule, which happened to be the case when the Houston band Alice's Tin Pony took the stage on a recent balmy Friday night.
If lead singer Alana Waters had engaged in a little stage diving from her perch, she would, no doubt, have met the Satellite's cement floor with a resounding splat. A crowd of 150 or so hugged the curves of the Satellite's vast bar as if clinging to the edges of a life raft, leaving a sea of dead space between the band and its audience. You could hardly have blamed Waters for contemplating something as drastic as a forward plunge. It might at least have engendered some response. And a reaction, any reaction, would have livened the stagnant atmosphere. But instead of leaping, she took another route to jolt the crowd.
"This song is for my daughter, who is four today," said Waters as her band eased into a rather subdued original called "Look Down on the Sky." "Which means my cesarean scar is also four years old."
Badum bum. A nice effort, but the payoff was little more than a tiny window of silence immediately after the dedication. Shaking off the indifference, Alice's Tin Pony decided to do what a lot of bands do when the crowd would rather drink than listen: They started playing for themselves. Twirling off into their own unique orbits, Waters and her bandmates fell out of sync frequently while still managing to stay at least partially on course. Bassist Patrick Higgins and drummer Chris Doss established a steady pulse with mildly funky overtones, an elastic yet dead-on groove that allowed the rest of the group the freedom to drift ever so slightly. Perhaps most adrift was violinist Chenoa Farrell-Sovinsky. An orphaned image standing to the left of Doss, she seemed at one with unexplained forces, her eyes half-open, her lanky body bobbing and weaving in place as she brandished her bow and ran it across her instrument's strings in curious fits of inspiration.
By contrast, Tin Pony co-founder Matt Schulte appeared firmly grounded, his attention rarely straying from his guitar. Equally focused but a little less intense was Sunjay Arya, who made his speedy transition from acoustic guitar to keyboards look effortless. Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Waters struggled with her dual role of group mediator and band diva. Dressed in a tight brown tank top and loose-fitting drawstring pants, Waters appeared to be an intriguing, if somewhat uncomfortable, union of a thinner Ricki Lake and a less mysterious Natalie Merchant. She negotiated her on-stage turf with the tentative gait of a person unsure of the space she's been allotted. She seemed most comfortable playing the doting mother figure, seeing to her associates' every need, making sure they were playing together nicely, her voice soothing them and keeping them in line. Everywhere around her were signs of a young, somewhat tentative outfit that hadn't yet found its equilibrium. And there she stood in the middle, figuratively if not literally, trying to mold their various parts into something approximating a musical whole. And reminding them if they worked hard, and worked well, they wouldn't always be an opening act. And that the next time around, the crowd might even listen.
Actually, in the last few months people have been listening to Alice's Tin Pony, and more than a few of them have been delighted at what they've heard. Most eloquent among Tin Pony's high-profile admirers is KTBZ DJ David Sadof, who's been known to babble "absolutely incredible" and other choice superlatives in close proximity to the band's name on and off the air. Of course, some of the harder-nosed around town have been happy to dismiss Alice's Tin Pony as dorky and spineless. And yes, with its dreamy, unobtrusive style, poetic sentiments and mildly pretentious undertones, Alice's Tin Pony might be a hint too cuddly and refined for its own good. Tracks on the group's sole CD to date, Hate Book, are listed as "chapters," and the band's flowery press bio is an embarrassment best left undiscussed. Scrape together $100,000 or so for a slick video, and the group might even have a shot at airplay on VH-1. Not that they wouldn't jump at the chance.
"I have no problem with being an adult-contemporary band," says Waters. "As long as we get to do our art the way we want to."
After all, Natalie Merchant is an adult-contemporary sort, and Waters's similarity to the former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs is more than just visual. Her silky-sensitive rendering of Tin Pony's finest song, "The Day After," can't help but recall Merchant's work; it's the sort of lush folk/pop merger that was taken to its most commercial extreme nearly a decade ago by 10,000 Maniacs on the multiplatinum In My Tribe.
While Waters's debt to Merchant is as plain as day, the singer is cagey enough to mock the influence without actually denying it. She admits to being "concerned about the long-term ramifications of the comparison." Indeed, though there are times -- not just on "The Day After," but also on Tin Pony originals such as "Mary Lou" and "Godplay" -- that the uncanny kinship between the two feels natural and unconscious, there are others when it verges, ever so politely, on what could easily be construed as shallow imitation.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say that In My Tribe wasn't one of my favorite albums of all time," Waters admits. "But the first person I ever wanted to sing like was [Martha Davis] from the Motels. Her and Chrissie Hynde."
And like the Pretenders, the Motels and any number of rock acts led by a headstrong female, there's never any doubt whose ass is in the saddle when it come to Alice's Tin Pony. Waters's hands are all over Hate Book, from the picture of her daughter on its cover to the rigidly introspective lyrics within. While the music is Schulte's doing, with occasional help from Arya, the words are culled from a journal Waters has maintained for years. Schulte affectionately calls it Waters's "pretty hate book," hence the CD's title. As you might expect, Hate Book takes a thorough inventory of that intimate document, in which death, disease, child abuse and torn relationships are among the personal tragedies rubbing elbows with constructive bouts of self-analysis and the occasional ray of hope.
It's a reflection of all the living that Waters has packed into her 26 years. A child of divorce, the Houston native moved to New York at age 16. With her father living in Minnesota and relations with her mother in Houston strained, Waters thought she'd be better off as an emancipated minor, and apparently no one convinced her otherwise. She decided on New York by flipping a coin during geography class.
"[The choice] was between L.A. and New York," she recalls. "New York won, so at lunch break that day, I packed up and took off."
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Sleeping in her car for the first month, Waters was eventually able to carve out a meager living working various jobs. She made pizzas for a popular Italian restaurant chain on Long Island, drove a limousine, spun records at a Manhattan nightclub and dabbled in singing with a few bands. But her personal life was far from idyllic, and at 20, after a particularly harsh breakup with a boyfriend, she headed home to Texas. Not long after arriving in Houston, Waters fell in love; marriage and a daughter, Autumn, soon followed. "I was in labor for three days. I went into convulsions," says Waters matter-of-factly about Autumn's birth, which she just barely survived. "It's an interesting story, really."
Then, sometime later, Waters split with her husband. It was an amicable break, she says, and since then she's found Alice's Tin Pony to fill the time her daughter doesn't. The band came about when Waters met Schulte through an ad in a local music publication; they'd seen each other around from time to time, but never clicked onto the idea that they'd work well as a team. The ad-induced meeting changed that, and the pair began writing together almost immediately. Arya -- whose hit-and-miss presence on the local music scene goes back to high school, where he played in a band with David Rice -- was recruited a bit later. It was this core trio that convened at Houston's Sound Lab studio in June 1996 to record Hate Book with original members Page Delon on bass and Patrick Murphy on drums. By the time Hate Book was ready for release, Delon and Murphy were out of the picture, and the band had found new members in Doss, Higgins and Farrell-Sovinsky.
And now, with lineup set, CD ready to plug and a little buzz started, all Alice's Tin Pony has to do is play. And hope they can find an audience that will listen.
Alice's Tin Pony performs with Toy Subs at 9 p.m. Thursday, April 10, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $8. For info, call 869-