Damnations / Hazeldine – Stubb’s (Austin, TX)
Taking the stage on the first certifiably oppressive night of the summer — earlier, Central Texas experienced its first 100-degree day of 1998 — in Stubb’s downstairs dungeon of a music hall, the Damnations proceeded to reel off song after song of the stomp and glory that has made this Austin band so special over the last couple years. Before an enthusiastic crowd that seemed to hang onto the band’s every nuance, the Damnations ran through their entire repertoire (so they said) in an epic 100-minute set that left little but exhaustion and sore feet in its wake.
Though the Damnations have been breaking in a new drummer — Chris Deaner, formerly a member of Austin punk aggregate the Adults, has replaced Keith Langford, who’s now with the Gourds — the band has lost no momentum with the change. Seemingly poised for the next step — a summer tour to be followed by the September release of Half Mad Moon, their Sire/Watermelon debut produced by John Croslin — the band expertly balanced the aggressive jagged edge of Rob Bernard’s stringwork (guitar and banjo) with the weathered harmonies of sisters Amy Boone and Deborah Kelly.
During the revved-up bluegrass numbers, the spirits of both Chuck Berry and Bill Monroe seem to hover just over the bandstand, right about where Bernard was stationed, stage left. During those times, as on the trad “John Hardy” and a number of like-minded originals, the band locks into an otherworldly groove where the rhythms feel just right, the dancers at the lip of the stage are a blur, and you wish the song would go on forever. At other times, on the quieter numbers, there’s those mournful, Appalachian underpinnings, especially when Boone and Kelly zero in on the precision and timing of their phrasing — a quality of singing that Greil Marcus describes in his book Invisible Republic as “saying everything while seeming to say nothing.”
One of the disarming things about the Damnations is their complete lack of ironic pose, as if their indelibly crafted songs and sound are just part of the American fabric, part of life. There’s no nod-and-wink, no in-jokes, no self-serious aggrandizement, ultra-hip attitude, or pseudo-autobiographical shtick. Always there’s a palpable respect for the song, whether it’s the dark vision of originals such as “Unholy Train” and “Commercial Zone Blues” or their impeccably chosen covers.
The songs fly by in a rush of musico-geographical flashpoints: Memphis, Nashville, Greenwich Village, Bristol. Here, a Carter Family song; there, one by Tom Waits (a magnificently rendered “Heart of Saturday Night”); the traditional “Copper Kettle” and X’s “We’re Desperate”, a punk touchstone, were in the set, along with a show-stopping, heart-pumping take on Lucinda Williams’ “Happy Woman Blues”. Late in the night, the band indulged in a little Music City cornpone when Austin singer-songwriter Damon Bramblett ambled onstage to play Johnny Cash to Kelly’s June Carter on the ’60s hit “Jackson”.
Albuquerque quintet Hazeldine, whose tight harmonies, rootsy influences, and dual female lead singers parallel the Damnations in some respects, played an hour-long opening set. While the artistry and sincerity of songwriters Shawn Barton and Tonya Lamm is evident — the band’s Polydor debut is tentatively set for release this fall — Hazeldine’s samey tempos and melancholy stylings (with occasionally noisier guitar flourishes) prevented them from catching fire until late in the set, when a brooding song called “Crush On Chrysanthemum” seemed finally to awaken the band’s hidden dynamics.