Bedeviled Hams

As the old notion goes, for every overzealous female fan -- whom you may know in technical terms as a "groupie" -- there is an envious male fan or critic, deafened (or should we say blinded) to a band's music by those ladies down in front of the stage. The huge crowd of women at Reckless Kelly's show at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge earlier this year was either a blessing or a curse, depending on your perception. Fans are going to spend money to see a group of handsome men on stage. That's the good part. The bad: These types of fans will stay loyal until the next group of hunks rolls around. Music doesn't matter.

Fact of the matter is, Reckless Kelly can play. Cody Braun's sweet fiddle and brother Willy Braun's honeyed rasp mesh as well as the harmonies of Don and Phil Everly. The rhythm work of drummer Jay Nazz, bassist Chris Schelske and guitarist Dave Abeyta has the East-West yin-yang thing down pat. The band's originals aren't quite there yet, at least lyrically, but the group strives for a sound Nashville gave up on when it sent Faith Hill to Lipstick and Eyeliner Application Seminar 101 and Brooks & Dunn to Dave's Western Wear Emporium: country-rock. (Or is it rock-country?)

Hip, jaded Austinites have clasped the band and its trademark self-styled "hick rock" to their spinach enchilada-eating hearts. Awards from local media have been showered upon the band, and clubs in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston scramble to roll out the welcome mat whenever the Reckless Kelly van appears on the horizon. The band has just gone big time with its recent, nationally distributed album, and Texas superstar Robert Earl Keen is the band's manager. Reckless Kelly's got a fresh album on the vine and is just waiting to be picked up by a major label.

Yet there's still that beauty "problem," which the band sees more as an image issue. First off, the band likes the road-worn tough-guy look. Ever since fleeing its manager in Oregon four years ago, Reckless Kelly has outhustled its competitors in the Austin alt-country/rock scene. When the outfit isn't on the road, it lives by the Ernie Banks philosophy -- "It's a great day. Let's play two." (Gigs, that is.) The band's versatility makes it twice as easy to get a gig, but twice as hard to get a major-label deal. Labels of both country and rock genres just don't trust country-rockers.

This is where the reckless ones might want to pause, take a deep breath and consider all options -- or not act so recklessly.

Since the band falls somewhere between rock and country, it rules out Nashville ("We won't sign on a Nashville label," says drummer Nazz flatly). The band's history indicates a wide-ranging palette that will be hard for A&R folk to categorize and market. "Coming up we did a lot of western swing, yodeling, cowboy music, western music," says Cody Braun. And Willy Braun adds: "Lot of western music, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers." The other band members also bring their influences into the fold: Nazz's jam bands, Schelske's grunge and Abeyta's jazz and rock.

The band takes its name from Ned "Reckless" Kelly, the Jesse James of Victorian Australia, a (take your pick) wrongly accused folk hero or common horse thief. Kelly and his crudely armored gang, after committing numerous outback misdeeds, went down in a shoot-out with a trainload of cops. A major component of Australian iconography is the image of the outlaw Kelly, who fancied himself an adventurer of sorts, clad in an ill-fitting breastplate made from a plowshare and with an equally wonky iron bucket on his head, brandishing two pistols and blazing merrily away. Reckless Kelly the band swears that there is nothing much to its invocation of the outlaw's name, that the band members merely liked the moniker for its poetry and perhaps vaguely for its fighting spirit. But a band's name has to mean something. Never is it so arbitrary.

Like Ned, the band at this point would seemingly rather perish than sacrifice its ideals. Nashville would eagerly snap up this bunch of good-looking twentysomethings -- and sure as shit Music City would also exasperate these guys with nonstop image-doctoring and incessant publicity schooling. There are also some serious outback roots in this band, albeit American-style. The brothers Braun grew up at the end of a six-mile driveway in Idaho's Sawtooth Range, where they were homeschooled, potty-trained in an outhouse and encouraged to play music with their parents from toddlerdom on. And like Ned, the band combines a ruthless anti-authoritarianism with a willingness to be silly.

And let's face it, it's as patently silly for country-rockers to mix in covers of AC/DC's "Shook Me All Night Long" and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" as it was for good ole Ned to shoot at the cops with a rusty bucket on his head; yet for both bandit and band, dignity is found in chutzpah. For Kelly the bandit, his death was the birth of an Aussie legend, despite his Ed Woodian getup. For Kelly the band, the ambitious, oddly chosen covers are equally heroic, though on a less significant scale. Love 'em or hate 'em, you got to give 'em both points for their huevos.

Live, this is not a band given to interminable solos. At the Satellite gig, no member of the band soloed too long, nor did the front men fancy themselves as superstars; nothing to indicate "Cody Braun with Reckless Kelly" or "Willy Braun with Reckless Kelly" incarnations of the band were present. The five egos in this outfit seemed to be balanced precisely, and rather than coming away thinking "What a great guitar player" or "Outta sight fiddler," you're impressed most not by what each one does but by what each does as one. Their turnarounds and bridges were tight, unpredictable and engineered with breathtaking skill.

Offstage, the band members seem just as much in sync with each other as they are on, and don't really seem to give a damn what the labels -- those of New York, L.A. or Nashville -- may think. These five performers have reached the crossroads, and unlike Robert Johnson, they probably won't be peddling their souls. Neither to Nashville nor the devil, who may or may not be working for the same parent company. But there is no question that if Reckless Kelly had to make the choice between Downstairs or Tennessee, Old Scratch would have to make room for five more souls.

Reckless Kelly performs Saturday, July 15, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. For more information, call (713)862-7580.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax