Spice Girls

Country is a flavor, not the main ingredient, of the Damnations TX's sound.

The Matrix
Amy Boone better start getting to bed earlier or start scheduling her interviews later. "I'm still in my pajamas," Boone says at noon Central Time. "I was up until 5:30, and I had to do an interview earlier today, so I haven't had a chance to get moving."

That's the way it goes, when your band is the hottest commodity on the Americana music scene, and you're about to embark on the first tour since the release of your major-label CD. Everyone wants to know how the national attention has affected the Damnations TX, an act that's been a cult legend in Austin, Texas, for years.

"I'm not going to spend all afternoon like this," she adds. "It's too nice a day down here--sunshine and in the mid-70s. I want to go running later, and I'd like to do it without worrying about passing out from the heat."

By Friday, maybe Boone can run around Cleveland without worrying about pneumonia. That's when the Damnations TX will open for the Tragically Hip at the Agora. It won't be the Damnations' initial visit to Cleveland, but it will be the first since Austin's Band Most Likely to Succeed released its critically acclaimed Half Mad Moon album.

"I'm looking forward to going back to Cleveland," Boone says. "On the first two tours, we had no product to sell. We played the Agora with Cake, so we had to try to please a lot of Cake fans who did not know who we were. Now I guess we'll be opening for a lot of fans there to see Tragically Hip who never heard of us."

If they read a lot of entertainment pages they should have heard of the Damnations TX. Critics have taken to the band with enthusiasm, praising the heartfelt harmonies of Boone and her sister/bandmate Deborah Kelly and the skilled picking of multi-instrumentalist Rob Bernard. The group has gotten almost universal thumbs-up, leaving only what to call the music open to debate. Are the sisters country, rock, alt-country, country-rock, cowpunk, or just songwriters doing what feels right?

"I don't know why so many people call us country," Boone says. "I think of country music more as a flavor, or a spice, rather than the main ingredient. It would be more accurate to say we're eclectic."

The eclecticism comes from having grown up in a family where music came from all angles. The parents of Amy and Deborah loved music and had a record collection that included Bob Dylan, Motown groups, Johnny Cash, and the British Invasion bands. The girls in their formative years got into post-punk groups like X and the Minutemen.

"We don't want to mislead or disappoint anyone," Boone says. "That could happen if people think we're country and have never heard the album. We rock much more in concert. We hope no one goes to shows thinking they'll hear a down-home country band."

The Damnations TX have been described as a garage band with Carter Family- or Everly Brothers-style harmonies. The ratio of country to rock rises and falls with individual songs. "Our sound is all based on the songwriting," Boone says. "We write a song and say, 'Now, how should we approach this?' The song determines the style. In that way, I guess we're singer/songwriters."

The most country of the Damnations TX songs are "Kansas," fueled by Bernard's clawhammer banjo playing, and the bluegrass-influenced "Spit 'n' Tears." On the rock side are "Unholy Train" and "Black Widow," a tune about a stolen amplifier.

Amy and Deborah grew up in Schoharie, New York, a town of barely a thousand people in the rolling hills between Albany and Cooperstown. Deborah was the first to relocate to Austin--strictly for musical reasons, as the Texas capital has become a magnet for eclectic artists, the way Nashville is to country. Open-microphone nights at the clubs gave the sisters courage to form the Damnations in 1994 (the TX address was added later, for copyright reasons). They settled on a solid lineup with Bernard, a Shreveport, Louisiana native, and drummer Keith Langford, who has since left the band to join the Gourds. The Damnations TX will have Rey Washam, a veteran of Austin punk groups, doing the drumming at the Agora.

"Austin is a great city," Boone says, "provided you don't have to be a student. Actually, we love the UT [University of Texas] students. The students were the ones who first came to our shows and spread the word about us."

So did the press, especially when it got its hands on Live Set, an in-the-studio recording made at a radio station. "We only pressed a thousand copies of that record," Boone says. "It was just to be for our hardcore fans. But somehow reporters got it and reviewed it. They liked it, which was good, but it doesn't sound like us. There's a steel guitar player on it, and the steel guitar dominates the whole thing."

Still, the record was snatched up in no time, and, according to Boone, "some people tell us they like it better than Half Mad Moon." It did a lot to create a buzz about the band being one that would break away from Austin to national recognition. That came officially when the debut CD was released in March.

"I was braced for the worst," Boone says. "I'm a pessimistic person by nature, so I prepared myself for everyone hating the CD. But [the positive notice] has been so unreal. I mean, to get a write-up like we did in People magazine and USA Today, it's just been mind-blowing."

The Damnations TX, opening for the Tragically Hip. 8 p.m., Friday, May 7, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue, $17.50 ($20 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.

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