Highway 10 Revisited

"Al Stewart Singing Syd Barrett's Bob Dylan's Blues."
This beast of a song came to Mikael Martin in a waking dream, its cluttered title a radio DJ's nightmare -- eight words strung together in a sequence inadvertently designed to tie your tongue in knots. Still, if you wanted to sum up a band's influences and intent in a single song, this one is the closest you're likely to get to the reverential spirit of Martin's True Infidels.

"To me, it's a really important tune," says Martin, singer, guitarist and songwriter for the San Antonio quartet. "It took a little while for me to realize that it was more than just a simple little poem. It's about how rock and roll borrows from itself -- its incestuous nature."

Though it pains him slightly to admit it, Martin does a great Al Stewart imitation. And as for Syd Barrett, the drug-crazed former leader of Pink Floyd who dropped off the face of the earth in 1968, he has always struck Martin as a fascinating character study.

"I read that Syd Barrett had written a song called 'Bob Dylan's Blues,' which no one can find a recording of. I thought, 'Wow, wouldn't that have sounded cool,' " recalls Martin, further explaining the origins of the song in question. "And if there is anyone who I'd want to hear singing Syd Barrett's 'Bob Dylan's Blues,' it would be Al Stewart."

At first, Martin says, it was all he could do to stop singing the song in Stewart's voice. But as the tune began to take on an identity of its own, he realized he had something significant on his hands. It fueled the creative upswing that spawned the rest of Waiting on Angels, True Infidels' latest self-released CD. Short and sweet, "Al Stewart Singing E" is a discreetly masterful two-minute-27-second spurt of mood, melody and seemingly drug-induced verse that commences with the curious line, "Telephone ringing / I woke to answer my shoe." On it, Martin's vocals (as on all of Waiting on Angels) are hoarse, nasal and speckled with mannerisms and quirks much like Dylan's, though with a lofty range old Bob could never quite manage. His singing is slightly overburdened, maybe, but it's gripping nonetheless. The same can be said for the bulk of Waiting on Angels. Released late last summer, the CD is intelligent, passionately delivered and filler-free. With a little luck, it could carry True Infidels far beyond the Texas state line.

"When I listen to the album, I honestly don't think that I sound that much like Dylan," contends Martin, whose throatier moments also bring to mind the BoDeans' Sammy Llanas. "The phrasing, the harmonica playing, the acoustic guitar strumming -- I really can't help that."

At the same time that he pledges an undying allegiance to his idols, Martin defends True Infidels' more derivative qualities. And while he talks of more modern influences such as the Waterboys and Nick Cave, Martin has long had a section of his bedroom dedicated to an ever-evolving collection of Dylan vinyl, CDs, videos, books and other memorabilia. "I've spent a lot of money," he says. "Probably the one thing that made the most impact on my life was Dylan."

Another of Martin's teenage passions was the Grateful Dead. "Not to the point where I followed them around all over the place. And I bathe regularly," he chuckles. Martin makes up for his leaving the Dead out of "Al Stewart Singing E" by dedicating Waiting on Angels to the late Jerry Garcia.

And what of the Rolling Stones, yet another Martin favorite whose "Dead Flowers" the True Infidels often include in their shows? Actually, you'll hear little that hints at the Glimmer Twins' gritty, blues-based swagger in the True Infidels' smooth, easy-spirited style. But you can hear the group's distinct fondness for the Band circa Music from Big Pink, Blood on the Tracks-era Bob Dylan and the crisp, tasteful guitar lines of early Dire Straits.

"When I would get into someone's music, I'd really do it all the way," says Martin. "I would learn exactly what they were doing and how they do it. Then, somehow or another, it filters into your own style."

True Infidels' rootsy folk rock comfort zone leaves a good bit of distance between them and the acts that typically pull in the crowds around San Antonio, a city big on heavy metal, Tejano, country and covers.

"I don't think our music is influenced by our location at all," says Martin. "The one thing I feel proud about is that we've never really changed our direction. Maybe that's stubborn, but it's also staying true to the music you love."

Now in his early thirties (he won't give his exact age for fear of dating himself), Martin grew up in San Antonio the youngest of five children. Dad had a good career working for Kelly Air Force Base, and Martin says his childhood was, for the most part, stable and uneventful. He started getting serious about music in high school, first assembling a band called Mickey Free (named after an Indian scout), which performed true-to-the-original versions of Dylan, Stones and Dead tunes. The first incarnation of True Infidels came along in 1984. Martin snagged the band's name from Infidels, Dylan's 1983 release, then added the "True" to the front upon learning that a Canadian band was already calling itself the Infidels. The current lineup includes drummer Tom Cortez, bassist/vocalist Randy Garibay Jr. and guitarist George Batista.

Despite assorted personnel changes (aside from Martin, Cortez is the only original member left), the True Infidels hung tough over the years, performing in the sterile restaurants and nightclubs along the Riverwalk and various smoke-choked dives further off the beaten path. Eventually, they amassed enough funds to finance a debut CD, 1994's Babel, a much fussed-over affair with a staid, antiseptic quality that hardly hints at the group's energy live, or the leap in song quality that came with Waiting on Angels. Martin's writing has matured significantly since the group's first release -- his initial tendency to lapse into cliche replaced by a world-weary grace as intriguing as it is mysterious. And the music has come a long way, too -- far enough, in fact, to catch the attention of a few major labels, though no deals have yet been signed. Meanwhile, Martin says, Waiting on Angels is selling well enough in Texas to pay off the loan the band needed to record it.

But even with two CDs of strong originals, a hard-won San Antonio following and a slow, steady increase in popularity around Texas, True Infidels still find themselves on-stage playing other people's music much of the time. For now, it's a necessary evil that Martin says the True Infidels are forced to accept if they want to survive as a full-time operation -- unless, that is, they move to Austin, an unappealing option after a stable 12 years in the same city.

"There's really only a couple of rooms [in San Antonio] where you can go and just play your own stuff. It's been tough, because we want to be playing all originals," Martin admits. "We get a lot of flack from some of the younger bands [for playing covers], but they get up in the morning, go to work and then sometime in the evening they decide to go out and play, whereas we have no choice. This is our job -- we play all week long and at a lot of the clubs we play four hours [a night]."

That's why True Infidels try to escape the Alamo City and head north and east as often as possible. In cities where original music is a more common commodity, the True Infidels can take the stage as an opening act and easily whip off a 45-minute block of their own material. At least that's been the case in Houston: after working years to squeeze themselves into a regular spot on the Texas touring circuit, the Infidels are finally seeing signs of a following here.

In town last month for a show with the Subdudes at Rockefeller's, the True Infidels played to a surprisingly receptive audience and seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, with wide smiles and good-natured jokes all around. The largely acoustic set was tight, tuneful and (with the exception of a harmonica that just wouldn't stay put on its stand) well-executed, with Martin relishing his role as the band's charismatic frontman. "We're seriously thinking about adopting this city as our second home," Martin says.

There's good reason for that, he adds. In Houston, audiences have been willing to focus on the band's original material. "It's really liberating to come to a town and not have everyone calling out for other people's songs," Martin says. "The Al Stewart/Rolling Stones thing gets old after a while."

True Infidels perform at 9 p.m. Thursday, April 11, with Trish Murphy at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $5. For info, call 869-

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Hobart Rowland