Austin’s Band of Heathens lives to play live
September 5, 2008
ASPEN ” Austin, Texas feels so strongly about its claim as the live music capital of the world that, in 1991, the city council adopted the tag as its official slogan. And if the current city leaders decided to add an image of a band to that motto, they would do well to consider the Band of Heathens.
The quintet was born onstage ” at Momo’s, one of the numerous music venues that line Austin’s Sixth Street. The five-piece group is earning a fast reputation for stellar live performances; having played a couple of gigs over the last two years in Carbondale, they move upvalley this week to make their Belly Up debut, on Wednesday, Sept. 10. (Confirming the enthusiasm that has greeted their downvalley performances, I received a handful of calls from fans, and even a local relative of singer-guitarist Gordy Quist, urging me to cover the Aspen date.)
Solidifying their credentials as a live act, the Band of Heathens made their first recording a live one. When it came time for a follow-up, they returned to the stage for another concert document, this time packaging the CD with a DVD.
The group put its reputation as a live entity in slight jeopardy in May, when they finally offered proof that they had spent time in a studio. “The Band of Heathens” was made at The Zone ” a recording studio, not a club, in Dripping Springs, Tex., in the Hill Country just west of Austin. But rather than endangering the band’s status, the album seems to have expanded it. The rootsy style of “The Band of Heathens” recalls another Band ” the plain old Band, which made its home in the former musical gathering spot of Woodstock, N.Y. ” only with an extra measure of Southern country grease. The album has reached number one on the Americana Radio Chart, only the second independently released album to achieve the distinction.
A big part of the reason it took the Band of Heathens ” singer-songwriters Ed Jurdi, Quist and Colin Brooks, bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman ” so long to release a studio CD is that they were busy. Playing gigs, naturally. The group started recording “The Band of Heathens” in mid-2007, but their time in the studio was interrupted by spells of touring. In total, they spent just two weeks of studio time on the album ” and much of that time was used not splicing tape and adding effects, but playing like a band.
Among those who recognized the benefits of simply letting the Band of Heathens play was Ray Wylie Hubbard, the Texas music icon who produced the album. “His approach was, just set up live and cut live and capture that vibe that we do live anyway,” said Quist. “So it wasn’t totally foreign, the way we approached being in a studio. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, ProTools, cut and paste.'”
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Quist, a 28-year-old product of suburban Houston and Dartmouth College, met his fellow Heathens on the stage of Momo’s. He, Jurdi and Brooks all led their own bands in the regular Wednesday night gigs at the 350-seat club. The three would sit in during one another’s sets.
“And when the other guys would sit in, it would elevate things,” said Quist. “We would think, there’s something special here. The bands just kind of morphed into one band. And the crowds just kept getting bigger.”
The band released “Live From Momo’s” in 2006, and the CD/DVD package “Live at Antone’s” in January of this year. In between, they earned the 2007 Best New Band honor at the Austin Music Awards. Somewhere along the way, they decided to put their individual projects on the back burner.
“This is our main gig now, and the solo stuff are the side projects,” said Quist. “We’re all shocked and surprised.”