Musical Chairs

The Houston Astros used to be infamous for their multiplayer trades. Remember in 1994, when the 'Stros shipped Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and mullet shortstop Andujar Cedeño to the San Diego Padres for Derek "Operation Shutdown" Bell and mullet shortstop Ricky Gutierrez? In 1998, Caminiti went on to lead the Padres to the World Series and won an MVP award on the West Coast before the Astros welcomed back his crack-ravaged hulk years later. And don't even get me started on the Joe Morgan and Kenny Loftin deals…

The point to this little primer in Astros lore? In sports, history nearly always judges someone the loser in multiplayer trades. The current and former members of Houston blues guitarist Tony Vega's band, which has won multiple Houston Press Music Awards, are hoping that the same principle doesn't hold true for music.

It didn't seem odd when second guitarist/singer the Mighty Orq left the Tony Vega Band to pursue a solo career last November; his talent is huge and the band seemed to go in an entirely different direction whenever he took a turn as front man. But that departure sparked a ripple effect the likes of which the city's music scene seldom sees. The entire original lineup of the Tony Vega Band -- with the exception, of course, of Vega himself -- is gone.

First, a little background. Bassist Brock Proctor had all but retired from touring even before Orq went solo, and had been replaced -- at the suggestion of Snit's Dog & Pony Show guitarist Snit Fitzpatrick -- by Jessica Buchheit, the 2001 Press award- winner for best bassist who was then playing with Sisters Morales and also just happens to be Fitzpatrick's former Dog & Pony Show bandmate and ex-girlfriend.

After Orq's announcement, Vega anointed Austinite Sam Massey as his replacement. So far, so good. But now for the bombshells: Vega next announced that Buchheit and drummer Jeremy Pierce would be replaced by Austin roots-blues legend Preston Hubbard on bass and Snit himself on drums. To make the circle complete, Buchheit and Pierce are now backing -- you guessed it -- none other than the Mighty Orq.

And, somehow, everybody's happy about it. "It's such a cliché, but everyone's so amicable," says Vega. "We're still family."

Vega says that Proctor chose to leave because he was burned out by the demands of the band's schedule and that Orq decided to fulfill his own ambition. But the other departures were not voluntary.

"Basically, for once in my life I want to play with musicians," says Vega of the decision to replace Buchheit and Pierce with former Fabulous Thunderbird Hubbard and former Hollister Fitzpatrick. "By 'musicians,' I mean that's all they do, all they plan to do. Guys like Snit and Preston, that's what they've always done. With guys like Jeremy and other younger people, they don't know what they want to do from one year to the next. Jeremy's got a day job that he really likes, and he told me flat out that when I start touring nationally that there would be problems. And that's my resolution for this year, that I'm gonna start branching out nationally and regionally, and I need guys that can get up and go."

The decision to part ways with Buchheit was even harder. Vega has nothing but praise for the bassist, as both a person and a player, but the chance to add a guy like Hubbard to the band was just too good to pass up. "She's never done one bad thing to me. She's never done anything but her job…," Vega says, the words coming with difficulty. "But I'm at a point in my life where…I've let my personal feelings drive me for so long, to Orq, to Jeremy…These are my best friends. It was always a miracle that I was playing in a professional band with three of my best friends, and I kind of let that get the best of me over the years. Instead of making business decisions, I was making personal decisions, and for once in my life I want to take it to another level, and I'm ready for it, and I want to surround myself with… badasses." He laughs, out of the dark now and looking to the future. "I'm ready for it, and sure enough, we played the first show last Friday [January 10] with the new band and it was unbe-fucking- lievable. It was so explosive."

For his part, Snit thinks Vega has become something of a badass himself. Not that he always had that view: "I've been watching Tony for years, ever since he first came out, and I was like, 'Uhhhh, okay.' "

But now Snit is convinced that drumming in the TVB is the best gig in town, even better than leading his own band. "I first talked to Tony about a year and a half ago when I was plodding along with Snit's Dog & Pony Show," says Snit. "Don't get me wrong -- I love that band, but it was always just a side project. I mentioned to Tony then -- and Jeremy's a friend of mine too, so I'd never steal his job -- but I said to Tony that if he, Jeremy, ever wanted to leave, or if he wanted to take it to the next level, to keep me in mind."

And that proverbial next level is just where Snit sees Vega going. "It's similar to what we did with the Hollisters," he says. "We worked Houston real hard, got a little buzz going, and then people came calling from other areas and we got signed by Hightone and all that. But the thing that sealed it for me was Tony played me a recording of something that he had just done, and it just knocked me out."

Snit sees Vega's new stuff as an artistic breakthrough, a departure from his blues purist past. "It's so cool," says Snit. "I mean, I love blues, but I'd like to get to the next level with something that's original and compelling."

Blues hounds can judge for themselves when the revamped TVB appears January 24 at the Big Easy. And in March or April, Vega will release the CD Yeah You Right!, almost all of which was recorded at the Rice Village blues bar.

At that same locale, 23-year-old Orq is now holding court Tuesdays with his own brand of Dobro-heavy solo acoustic blues, and Buchheit and Pierce -- a.k.a. the Mighty Orquestra -- will back him up on February 1. Now that he has left the TVB, Orq says he'll be modifying his sound. "We're gonna be incorporating more of that kind of Delta stuff in our set," he says. "Try to change it up a little bit, sort of do an Eric Sardinas thing. Play my Dobro solo and with the band. It's a nice change of pace."

Orq, born Joshua Erik Davidson, was dubbed such long before the current Lord of the Rings craze; it was a high school friend who said he looked like one of Tolkien's foul beasts. The name stuck, Vega added the "mighty" intensifier, and Davidson doesn't care if you think he's cashing in on Middle Earth mania. Besides, as he puts it, "Orc awareness is at an all-time high." For now, Orq and band will be sticking close to home until they complete their first CD. Like Vega, Orq is pretty surprised at the way everything has worked out. "It's been an eventful couple-three months, but everyone's still friends," he says. "Wow! How'd that happen? This is the music business, right?"

It is, but 17-year music vet Snit sees it in sports terms. (Hell, confession time: Snit furnished Racket with the baseball analogy.) "I've been telling people around town this was a multiplayer trade involving about five teams," he says, adding that all the players are happy with their new gigs. Even Buchheit, who would seem to have gotten shafted the most in the deal, says the end result is hunky-dory. "Everything just kind of worked out perfectly," she says. So there's no hard feelings about losing her job to Hubbard? "What Tony did was understandable," she says. "He wasn't a jerk about it or anything. He was totally up."

Yes, they're all happy now, but you can bet the Astros organization was saying the same thing the day after the Ken Caminiti deal (Racket can just hear Bob Watson telling the press, "Derek Bell will take this team to the next level"). Hopefully everybody will go on to World Series careers, but as the sports world has shown us, somebody usually winds up with the short end of the stick.

Errata and Addendum

Time to rectify two mistakes -- one of my own, and one of somebody else's. As for the former, in the Grady Gaines CD review that appeared in these pages on January 9, yours truly misidentified the singer on "Beans and Cornbread." It was not Patrick Harris, it was Paul D. Roberts. As for the latter, Variety magazine recently trashed a Kelly Osbourne show, singling out the backing band -- whom they identified as Pure Rubbish -- for special scorn. In fact, as their manager Todd Siegelman wrote, the Houston quartet has not backed Osbourne since the spring of 2002. Pure Rubbish also announced its first local live show in quite a while: The band will play Galveston Mardi Gras on February 28.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax