Ruffled Feathers

When the Dixie Chicks take the Astrodome stage at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on February 12, it will be only their second full concert since 2000. While part of that hiatus can be explained by marriages and childbirths, the main reason is far more complex and much nastier.

The Chicks and their label Sony are litigating. Big time.

The opening salvo, at least in public, was fired by Dixie Chick Emily Robison. In a July profile on 60 Minutes II, Dan Rather estimated that the group must have grossed over $200 million, based on the 17 million copies sold of the group's two Sony releases, Wide Open Spaces and Fly. "You're depressing me, because we see so little of that," Robison said with a laugh. "Even before we got our deal, everyone said, 'Don't ever expect to make money with records. Records are a promotional tool that you use to be able to do live shows and make money elsewhere.' "

Then vocalist Natalie Maines Pasdar chimed in with an unfortunately phrased lament: "I don't even have a million dollars in the bank," she whined. "Tell me where this money goes. I have no idea." While many ex-Enron employees would like to have the answer to Pasdar's querulous query, and it's hard to feel sorry for someone who is likely almost a millionaire, the sassy singer still has a good point. If she truly has banked only less than one-half of 1 percent of the group's earnings, where did the rest of that money go? Robison put forth a theory: "I'll just say that Sony Nashville has remodeled their new building," she said. "They remodeled on that."

Less than a week after the 60 Minutes II interview, Sony Records sued the Chicks for breach of contract, alleging the trio was trying to leave the label. The suit claims that the Chicks owe Sony five more albums, from which Sony says they could reasonably expect to earn $100 million.

Music Row was atwitter. Nobody could recall a major label suing its biggest star. But the plot was soon to thicken immensely. In late August, the Chicks countersued for $4 million they said Sony owed them. While that itself was not so surprising, the language in the suit was unprecedented in Nashville. Sony stands accused of "systematic thievery," "fraudulent accounting gimmicks" and racketeering. In a statement, the Chicks declare that "We refuse to sit back and silently endorse this behavior simply because this is a 'standard' practice at Sony. This is about people keeping their word." (If it's about words kept, the Chicks are in trouble. After all, they did sign the contract, and it did have a clause that said they could not get out of it even if Sony's books are proven to have been cooked.)

One "standard practice" clause the Chicks and other bands are battling to remove is the musicians' exemption from a California labor code that caps entertainment contracts at seven years. The labor code law was written when a suit filed by Olivia de Havilland about 50 years ago ended the Hollywood studio system. In 1987, recording industry lobbyists won the right to have, again, as "standard practice," artists deliver seven albums to their label, no matter how long it takes. Since labels generally allow at most only one album every two years from any given artist, such contracts generally take well over a decade to fulfill.

With this suit, the Chicks have joined the growing ranks of artists challenging the very foundations of the way the music business is run. The Chicks attended but did not testify at hearings in the California Senate last September wherein Courtney Love, LeAnn Rimes and Don Henley testified against the majors.

The California senators heard some startling revelations. Rimes testified about her contract with Nashville's Curb Records, which she signed at her parents' instigation when she was all of 12 years old. Rimes, now 19, told the Senate she is bound to deliver Curb an album every other year until she is 36. She also revealed that her deal bars her from living in any state save Texas or Tennessee.

While residencies in said (not-so-incidentally right-to-work) states may be good for nurturing a country singer's soul, this is not Stalin's Soviet Union and Curb Records is not the Central Committee for Music Planning and the Exhortation of the Proletariat.

To fund their drive against the major labels, the Chicks will join a Live Aid-sized roster of artists (No Doubt, the Offspring, Weezer, Trisha Yearwood, Beck, Eddie Vedder, Mike Ness, Billy Joel, Stevie Nicks, the Eagles, John Fogerty, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam, among others) for the Concert for Artists' Rights in four Los Angeles venues on February 26.

There is a delicious irony or two involved with the Concert for Artists' Rights. First, there is the whole concept of you and me paying damn good money to a bunch of people richer and better-looking than us to fund their legal drive against the even bigger fish at their labels. This isn't a benefit for starving Ethiopian kids or cash-strapped family farmers. But then some of the people in the lineup have brought us all a lot more joy than a chartered 747 full of major-label bean counters ever could, so pick your poison.

Then there's the fact that the artists will all be in L.A. for the Grammy ceremony at the label's expense. In effect, the labels are flying these artists to L.A., where they will plot the demise of the same labels. These artists are biting the hand that feeds them. It also happens to be the one that picks their pockets.

Continuing last week's Houston Press Music Awards jinx theme, it bears remembering that at one time the showcase was held in Shepherd Plaza, and to say that since those days that strip has fallen on hard times is an understatement of Enronian proportions.

The plaza's reputation as Houston's "it" spot evaporated sometime in 1997 or '98. Cabo, 8., and the Voodoo Lounge have all moved or bitten the dust. One of the most recent casualties was the strip's sole live music venue, the fisherman-friendly Live Bait, which closed sometime around the Great Flood of 2001.

Sort of.

About the time Shepherd Plaza's clientele was abandoning the strip in droves for NoDo's charms, a Houston institution nearby on Morningside just north of the Southwest Freeway also had a sad date with destiny. Dennis Marshman's Boat Yard was yet another victim of the curse of boomtime Houston; it just had too much character to last.

The Boat Yard was aptly named. Several rusting hulls littered the premises. It also had the feel of somebody's backyard. Every Saturday over there was like being at a laid-back barbecue out in the country, the mid-rise office buildings nearby and the always-heavy traffic zipping past on 59 notwithstanding. There was even a one-hole whiffle-golf course on the premises. There was also live music -- blues, country, rock and roll -- all the time. The Boat Yard was easily one of the most attitude-free spots between Dowling Street and Highway 6.

Early in 1998 the Boat Yard went the way of all Houston landmarks: It was bulldozed to build a parking lot. But Marshman wasn't going to go away that easily. He considered reopening in Instant Karma's old spot, but the owners of the building moved the area that housed the pool room to the building next door in the strip center.

Re-enter Live Bait. Marshman took the place over early in 2001, and it renamed the Boat House, or the Boat Yard, or something. You can't tell. That's because the sign outside still says Live Bait. Inside, a flyer clarifies things: "Welcome to the Boat Yard disguised as Live Bait."

The BYDALB is very much a work in progress. The tiles on top of the bar are just slapped on there with nothing to affix them in place. It's plain to see that the tall, silver-maned Marshman is trying to build as he goes, but that indefinable friendly Boat Yard vibe is back, even if the old boats and whiffle-golf course are gone.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Horn-rimmed hordes take note: Local indie "Glitterati" rock band Hidden Speaker, which is more of Evan Dickson's solo project these days, will unveil its new EP, The May Collection, at an in-store at Cactus Records on February 8. Brazilian guitar virtuosos Sergio and Odair Assad will play their fusion of Brazilian and Spanish classical guitar on February 8 at the Wortham…Everyone knows that Robert Earl Keen has a rowdy element among his droves of fans, but few were as boisterous as Randal Hafdahl, a 49-year-old Dallas handyman who was convicted of murdering an off-duty Amarillo cop in an acid- and whiskey-drenched rage in 1985 and executed on January 31. On his way to the Gurney of No Return, and even as the drugs took effect, Hafdahl bellowed, "The road goes on forever and the party never ends! Let's rock 'n' roll! Let's go, warden. Me and you, all of us. Remember Wet Willie…We have a party to go to." Keen was out of state and unaware of Hafdahl's last words at press time, as was Wet Willie vocalist Jimmy Hall. Hafdahl was unavailable for comment permanently.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax