Learning Curve

If the Orphans play silly and stupid better than any band in Houston, maybe it's because they're not acting. Newborn babes to the business of rock and roll, they're like all infants. They crave attention, positive reinforcement, direction -- coddling, if you will. What isn't babylike, though, is the band's thirst for professional advice.

"How do we do it?" asks Greg Vann, the band's lead singer and rhythm guitarist, when told that the Orphans ought to be shopping their new CD, Homecoming, to labels in Texas and elsewhere.

Vann's unabashed neediness could incite a herd of sympathetic music writers to eschew better judgment and surrender their Rolodexes for a week just to give the Orphans a head start. If any group deserves a career boost, it's this vigorous quartet, and not because they've been through an inordinate amount of hard times (they haven't). They deserve a boost simply because they're good -- that good.

It's your standard-issue Houston Saturday in early August, oppressively humid with a sun so lethal it seems to evaporate any potential for cooling cloud cover. Wisely, the Orphans have parked themselves in the shade, at a picnic table outside the West Alabama Ice House for a beer-fueled siesta. Less than a week before, the band was down the road at Cydney's, braving the elements on another stifling afternoon, one that, unlike today's, carried a slight promise of rain. Storm clouds formed a billowy backdrop as the Orphans began their brief set on an outdoor stage at the Press' Music Awards Showcase. The storm never arrived as the group poured it on, blazing through a selection of songs. Dripping with perspiration, the Orphans wound up the proceedings with "11:59," a rough-hewed, propulsive number whose lyrics detail a death-row inmate's final minute before electrocution. Despite the dire sentiments, the crowd loved it, and the Orphans soaked up every ounce of applause.

Back at the West Alabama Ice House, I reference that sweltering afternoon and cut short the career counseling in favor of praise. I tell the band that I think Homecoming is the best thing to come out of a Houston studio in recent memory. The brawny production lunges from the speakers, demanding respect. David Bruce Farne's cement-solid drumming enjoys all the dominance in the mix that it deserves, while Rodney Skinner's guitar punches through the wall of sound for solos with a wonderful, echoey texture. My superlatives are met with mildly stunned looks from the Orphans. They're not sure they agree, but decide to think on it over another round of beers.

The Orphans are a bundle of intriguing contradictions. On-stage, they carry themselves with the controlled charisma of pros, despite having little collective performing experience. Off-stage, they often give the appearance of shallow, city-bred lady-killers. But given five minutes of quality time, the Orphans convince you that they're as unassuming a bunch of guys as you'd ever want to bring home to mom.

The band announces its distaste for bad attitudes and inflated egos on Homecoming's catchy leadoff track, "Farmer Ted," about a designer-label-conscious womanizer whose "head's so big, it terrifies me." Homecoming was recorded over seven days in February, and after mixing and mastering, it ran the group $7,500. Vann cringes when he mentions the CD's price tag, which is hefty by local standards. He adds that he isn't all that happy with his singing on Homecoming. Sure, it could have been more polished in spots, with more range and fewer missed high notes. But then, how much fun would that be? Part Joey Ramone's mumbled indifference, part Tom Petty's nasal whine, part boy-next-door awkwardness, Vann's vocals are the perfect complement to the Orphans' music, which brings to mind the Clash and the Del Fuegos, albeit with a thick East Texas drawl.

"The Gin Blossoms with more hair on their balls, is what somebody called us," laughs Skinner.

Not far off the mark.

Vann credits the Orphans' easygoing nature to a suburban upbringing in Cypress. Three of the band's four members -- Vann, Skinner and bassist Rusty Guess -- were raised there, largely untainted as teenagers by the trendy temptations of Montrose or the Richmond Strip. "Go one mile down the street from where we grew up, and that's where the cows are," says Guess.

Make no mistake, all three, who are now in their late twenties, had their MTV. But they also foraged for enough key classic-rock nutrients to provide a well-balanced musical adolescence. All of the Orphans are into the Rolling Stones and the Clash, and when teased with the contention that they lifted the chorus from the latter's "Jail Guitar Doors" for their own "Farmer Ted," they feign ignorance while still taking the accusation as a compliment.

"Rodney used to be a Led Zeppelin freak back in high school," says Vann. "I used to go over there, and he'd have his guitar plugged into this turntable, with the speakers blaring. My whole life revolved around trying to go to a party, and Rodney was more concerned about getting the guitar part to this or that song right. But the sound was so shitty that you couldn't even tell what was what."

Until the Orphans, Vann viewed writing songs as a sideline. But following a few years in college and a stay in Dallas, he decided to get serious. Returning to Cypress, he called on Skinner to help beef up his tunes. Vann, a drummer in high school, began what would be a short tenure behind the set, and Guess, another childhood friend, was brought in on bass.

Farne is the Orphans' wild card. An Army brat who spent most of his youth in Hawaii, the 32-year-old drummer is the band's elder statesman. After spending his post-high school years playing resorts with various cover bands, he took off for Los Angeles, where he settled into Orange County, working days and moonlighting as a musician.

By 1994, Farne says, he felt he had run his course in California, so he joined his older sister in Houston. A classified ad was his introduction to the Orphans.

"I was here a few months and living in Sugar Land, and the only people I could find to play with were in these lame country bands," Farne recalls. "Somebody brought me this ad saying something about recording an album in three weeks and needing a drummer."

At the time, the Orphans were desperate. They were working in a home studio and couldn't find anyone to keep a beat. As it turns out, Farne's seasoned chops and levelheaded outlook were just what the band needed. "I lied about my age to get the gig," Farne admits. He went on to seal his spot with the Orphans by becoming Vann's brother-in-law, marrying his bandmate's sister after a brief courtship.

That initial recording session didn't result in anything usable, but with help from their friends in the Southern Backtones, the Orphans landed their first live gig at PJ's Sports Bar in May of last year. That was followed by shows at the Blue Iguana, Mary Jane's and the Urban Art Bar. Soon, the Orphans were playing stages all over town.

Despite regular work in Houston, the Orphans -- aside from Farne -- still call Cypress home. They all endure day jobs to get by; Vann sells advertising for a local publication, Guess is a maintenance worker for the Cypress-Fairbanks school district, Farne drives a forklift and Skinner, if he hadn't recently been laid off, would be working at an engineering firm. Not exactly a cutting-edge rock lifestyle, but suburban living has its benefits.

"If we've got a gig next month, great," says Vann. "If not, we'll just float down the river."

The Orphans recently struck up a working relationship with Sonic Sensations, the outfit that handles bookings for area staples such as Horseshoe and Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds, so the shows are coming more frequently now. But the band is being careful not to overplay its welcome on the nightclub circuit. Since its drawing power is still unreliable, a few live shows a month feels like enough.

Come to think of it, says Vann, the Orphans could use some advice on developing a fan base -- and the questions begin anew. How do they build a larger audience in a city with a low tolerance for new music? (No simple answer.) Would it help to change their name? (No, but they might want to claim rights to it -- that is, if somebody else hasn't already.) Should they find a manager with local, regional and national connections? (Definitely, but it won't be easy.)

Vann and the others give my replies some serious, if brief, thought, and then return to their beers, their camaraderie and their unruffled outlook. The Orphans may not be sure where to go, but they appear more than capable of enjoying the trip. Lord knows, they're not ashamed to stop for directions.

The Orphans open for Spot Wednesday, August 21, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Tickets are $1.07, 21 and up; $5, 18-20. Doors open at 7 p.m. For info, call 225-0500.

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Hobart Rowland