Music News & Reviews

The Band of Heathens is turning listeners into believers

By any measure, it was an especially active winter Saturday in Lexington.

Everything began with a fresh coat of snow, about 5 inches worth. Then, in the waning hours of the afternoon, the University of Kentucky Wildcats dismantled Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena, with LeBron James in the crowd. The evening also saw one of the premiere jazz men of the day, Joe Lovano, blasting out the bop at the Singletary Center for Arts.

For a cold, gray Saturday in late January 2010, Lexington was hopping.

But there was one final celebration left before the clock clicked into Sunday. Down in the Distillery District, The Band of Heathens introduced themselves to the city at Buster's Billiards and Backroom. Talk about the end of a (literally) cool day.

As the pride of Austin, Texas, the Heathens were coming off a fruitful second half of 2009. The band had taped installments of two famed TV concert series (the hometown-based Austin City Limits on a split with bill with Elvis Costello, and Germany's Rockpalast), had released an extraordinary new album (One Foot in the Ether) and had been nominated for an emerging-artist award from the Americana Music Association.

In short, it was about time Lexington caught up with the Heathens. The band returns this week, little more than a year later, to fortify its Kentucky fan base a little more.

"It continues to be a good time for us," said Colin Brooks, one the band's three primary songwriters. "We're seeing this bigger kind of middle-class growth of musicians — the ones that aren't completely starving but also aren't rolling in these literal piles of money. There's this middle ground now where you know you're not going to make a million dollars. But you may well earn a comfortable living by doing what you really love to do and doing it on your own terms.

"Now we may not be approaching middle-class income yet — I don't even know what that is — but we're certainly making a living with this, and that's a beautiful thing."

For Brooks, becoming a Heathen meant viewing the musically fertile Austin scene as "a destination." He spent his youth in Michigan and Ohio, but several Austin artists became almost unconscious inspirations.

"Some of the very first things I listened to when I got serious about guitar were Stevie Ray Vaughan records," Brooks said, "And I remember hearing Townes Van Zandt songs when I was very young and being completely enamored with them even though I didn't know who Townes was at the time.

"So slowly, the case was being built for moving to Austin. It was becoming a magnet. All of us in the band have similar stories."

Indeed they did. As Brooks was plotting a move to Texas, so were songsmiths Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist, who moved to Austin to take up a Wednesday night residency at the downtown club Momo's. In somewhat fortuitous fashion, Brooks also was part of the mid-week showcases. The three artists were booked to play as solo acts. An alliance as The Band of Heathens was knocking at the door.

"We were kicking around doing sideman work and doing whatever it took to pay the bills — you know, pounding nails, cutting grass, slinging hash. But when we found ourselves at the same club on Wednesdays and started singing together, everything took on a life of its own. We were like a bullet out of a gun."

A string of independent concert recordings — in particular, 2006's Live from Momo's — chronicled some of that initial loose energy. But it took One Foot in the Ether to present a fully realized, roots-driven assemblage of original songs.

L.A. County Blues sounds just weathered enough in its boozy harmonies to recall the sort of neo-country charm that flowed generously out of Austin decades earlier. Miss Ohio, though, emphasizes songcraft by underscoring everyday moral dilemmas ("she wants to do right, just not right now") with a pining guitar line that gives such subtle unrest a Texas-size emotional jolt.

The Band of Heathens will take a further step out of the ether this spring with the release of a new album, Top Hat Crown and the Clapmaster's Son. A preview song from that record, Free Again, which uses last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a catalyst for societal collapse, was made available as a free download on the band's Web site, Bandofheathens.com, last summer.

"We just keep finding more and more people," Brooks said. "And more and more people keep finding us. Given the kinds of jobs we have, you can't ask for much more than that."

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