Gotta love King's X. Three cats from Missouri who relocated to Houston in 1985, landed a deal with Atlantic Records a few years later, lived through that and have continued doing things their way through fads like grunge and bubblegum. The band is one of this town's richest cultural resources.
Yet King's X is not the same King's X of yesterday. The confetti from its explosion onto the national stage 15 years ago has settled some, and the group isn't quite the novelty it was back then. The band receives little to no airplay or videoplay anymore. Its albums appear on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart less often than MTV VJs say the words "guitar virtuoso." And while a King's X show may consistently pull out of the cracks those who like their rhythms crunchy and their melodies springy, the group has reached that point in its career when name recognition, a star-studded history and self-interested style might not be enough to live off.
No city may realize this phenomenon except Houston, where King's X may seem older news than a Rockets championship.
Around 1997 King's X reached its do-or-die moment. The band was still reeling from its war with Atlantic from a year earlier. Each member had begun investing more and more time into solo and side projects. And aside from the occasional blurb in musician trade magazines, not much was said about the band other than that its breakup was imminent.
King's X then released Tape Head in 1998, and its fortunes began to change. The industry, at the time, was awash in speculation over whether electronica would become the Next Big Thing in popular music and whether tours like Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, Woodstock (which King's X played in '94) and their offshoots would mark the future of touring. With no defining sound for major labels to push on buyers, and with smaller venues becoming more and more attractive with every daylong multi-act event that took place, everyday folk could actually and shamelessly listen to what they thought sounded good. King's X had unwittingly arrived (again) right on time.
Its Metal Blade debut was a critical, if not a commercial, success. As a result, each band member found a renewed interest in King's X. Touring became a priority, and the band rediscovered hot spots across Eastern Europe, in places like Dresden, Budapest and Stuttgart, and here, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. This was a band once on death's door. If there was no demand for King's X, simple logic says there would not have been an extensive tour -- or an extension.
After Tape Head's initial three tour legs were completed, a fourth was added in early summer, covering previously conquered territory, including the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland, the Chance Theater in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the Cotton Club in Atlanta. Bands don't backtrack over territory without a reason. Shows there, and at such prominent clubs, had to have been successful.
Yet Houston, which wasn't part of the first leg and was only a stop during the fourth leg, "was the worst-paying spot on the tour," according to vocalist/guitarist Ty Tabor in a recent phone conversation. The gig he's talking about took place on August 16 at Numbers, where only a few hundred loyalists turned out. The band played for the door, and by some accounts, the door didn't swing open very often.
Bad timing, inadequate promotion, the band's declining star, and maybe a local fan base that has seen it all before could have been to blame. "Sometimes bands in their hometowns aren't considered as big as they are outside their hometowns," says Kenny Cordray, manager of Evans Music City, which helped promote the show by cramming two month's worth of publicity work into a couple of weeks.
No one can shake a finger at area booking agents for not throwing cash at King's X. With no buzz, the trio must've looked like Ulysses dragging his sorry butt home to Athens to the folks at Pace/SFX and Numbers, the only two operations compatible with the band's sound and size. The group's gig at Numbers was thrown together in a couple of days (by Tabor himself), and only after Tabor called the Numbers booking agent and agreed to play for the door. "In two or three years," says the Numbers agent, who didn't want to reveal his name, "I've only seen about two or three bands play for the door; that's national touring acts!"
Numbers's agreeing to the show was so charitable you could almost hear "We Are the World" playing in the background when it happened. The club had no reason to open its doors to the band. "If we got the same turnout and didn't agree for the door," the club source says, "we would've lost a fortune." Tabor apparently thought the Tape Head tour was going so well that, of all the places, the band's home base would have been just another stand-'em-up, knock-'em-down booking. Tabor says: "Numbers is easily a sell-out, if it gets picked up in time."
SFX, the area's dominant booking agency, which would normally handle a show by a local rock band of King's X's stature, seemed interested in bringing the band to town, according to Tabor. But, he says, the company offered his band a fifth of what the trio would normally make on such a show. Jeff Messina of SFX doesn't confirm this. He says SFX stayed far away from King's X primarily because the band had a prior relationship with Numbers (for whom SFX also handles some booking duties). The club and King's X do go way back. Additionally, Messina says: "There's little money there. Not enough to influence us to take the gig away from [Numbers]."
King's X isn't looking for pity. The band, as mentioned above, does okay on the road and in record stores with or without Houston's help. All that this talented band's poor reception here indicates is a lack of support for homegrown talent-done-good, or that a talented band's once potent appeal in Space City may be dying. Or both. We should be lucky King's X still considers Houston home. The band plays Numbers again, this fall. Don't say you haven't heard.
After the column last week, in which good ole ex-Houstonian Cory Morrow was made to seem like Amplified's personal dart board, scores of angry e-mails came in, featuring that magic word in the subject titles: Yankee.
And then some.
Morrow himself would probably have been appalled at the veiled racial and ethnicity-slandering made on his behalf. Sure, free speech is great, but if Texans can't tolerate rap music, rappers or Italian-Americans, how Texan are they?
Morrow also might not have liked the pigheaded logic of some of the letter writers. Some wrote that since they grew up here, they and they alone could therefore be authorities on Texas music. Yet something tells Amplified that a country crooner like Jerry Jeff Walker -- born Yankee in Oneonta, New York, in 1942 -- probably knows a helluva lot more about "Texas music" than a majority of folk born under the Lone Star flag, including a decent chunk of Morrow's fans.
Stevie Ray, Guy Clark, Leadbelly, ZZ Top, the Dixie Chicks, Geto Boys, Tish Hinojosa, Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt and many others we don't have the space to mention here are Texas music. They're all confident, reckless adventurists, and they're all from our great big backyard. Cory Morrow is a fantastic songwriter and performer; he's just too self-conscious and predictable for what Amplified looks for in his Texas artists.