A Waco Brother Branches Out

If you can’t wait for the next Waco Brothers album, you’re in luck: the debut from Dean Schlabowske’s band Dollar Store is out this week on Bloodshot, and it’s full of the twangy hooks, working-man lyrics, and charismatic vocals he brings to the Wacos. But if you’re hoping to hear what the singer and guitarist had in mind for the group’s first outing, you’ll have to wait for the second one. “This record isn’t really what I envisioned the band to be,” he says.

Schlabowske’s vision of Dollar Store developed as the Wacos were settling into a relatively low-impact routine. More than a decade after he and Jon Langford founded the raucous sextet, they make a record every year or two but don’t play out as often as they once did. Drummer Steve Goulding lives in New York now, and Langford keeps famously busy with the Mekons, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, exhibitions of his paintings, and countless other projects (a solo album, The Fame of Lofty Deeds, is due out in April). Schlabowske found himself with a backlog of songs and an itch to do his own thing–as you might expect from someone who’s best known for being Waco Brother No. 2. The Milwaukee native had spent the early 90s playing noisy postpunk in the trio Wreck, and now he began to think about forming a new band that was similarly raw and stripped-down. He knew he wanted Waco Alan Doughty on bass, and when drummer Joe Camarillo (of the Hushdrops) started sitting in on local Wacos gigs Goulding couldn’t make, Schlabowske thought he had most of the players he needed.

The sound he was hearing in his head would take a second guitarist to pull off live, though, and he was initially reluctant to make a record without the whole band in place. But ultimately, he says, “I just figured I’d put it out there and worry about the live thing later,” and Dollar Store went into the studio as a trio last spring. Without that other guitar, however, something was missing from the tracks. They wound up filling the gaps with overdubs by Jon Rauhouse on pedal steel, banjo, and Hawaiian guitar and John Rice on fiddle, mandolin, and lap steel. Dave Alvin of the Blasters and German rockabilly guitarist Tex Schmidt also dropped by to take a couple of solos each. The final product isn’t quite the departure Schlabowske was aiming for: though the songs are fiercer and more driving than anything he’s done till now, the combination of punk-band energy and screaming steel guitar recalls, well, the Waco Brothers.

Just after they finished the album Schmidt (who’s married to Bloodshot co-owner Nan Warshaw) signed on as a permanent member, and now with Dollar Store just turning up in the racks Schlabowske already seems more excited about the follow-up: “I’m chomping at the bit to make the second record,” he says. “Crazy Horse playing Hank Williams produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is kind of how I’d like it to turn out. But I don’t think that it’ll necessarily ever come to that, because I kind of lay back and let the other musicians do what they do best. What are you gonna do with Alan?” (Doughty’s insistent, hyperactive style earns him the credit “lead bass” on the CD booklet.) “You just wind him up and let him go.”

Dollar Store participated in benefits for Bloodshot labelmate Alejandro Escovedo last summer and played at CMJ in October, but Schlabowske says he’s been waiting for the album to come out to get serious about booking live dates. While he’s eager to take the act onstage, Schlabowske’s pretty busy himself: he works full-time as a wine buyer at Sam’s and helps his wife, Margo Breznik, do the books at Wicked, a candle and housewares shop she runs in Ukrainian Village. He expects Dollar Store will make short weekend jaunts around the midwest–like the “territory bands” of the 20s and 30s that would tour regularly in their own regions–and he says he’s not looking for anything more. The local record-release show is Thursday, February 12, at Schubas.

“When Jon and I started the Wacos,” he says, “we were both in bands that were kind of having a miserable experience with the music business, and the idea was, ‘Let’s get together a group of people that just want to play music and avoid the business in any way, shape, or form,'” he says. “That’s the same philosophy I wanted to keep going with Dollar Store. We’re doing it because it’s fun, and we’re not going to poison it by having any expectations. One of the jokes has been ‘It’s Dollar Store. Everything’s done on the cheap, and everything’s done to make money.'”

Fresh Flamenco

On Monday, February 9, Instituto Cervantes’s Flamenco 2004 festival continues with a concert by guitarist Gerardo Nunez. One of the most important figures in Spain’s nuevo flamenco movement, Nunez combines the fiery Gypsy style with the improvisational gusto and tonal plushness of jazz and has collaborated with jazz masters like Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez. His fusion recordings are somewhat glib and antiseptic, a la Al DiMeola, but in this rare local performance Nunez will perform in a more traditional mode, joined by the upstart vocalist Antonio Alvarez, aka Pitingo. Although the 23-year-old Pitingo has yet to release a commercial recording, I’m mighty impressed by the four demo tracks I’ve heard. In contrast to the throaty, booming vocals of most male flamenco singers, his voice seems diminutive and sweet, but he’s got a sure-footed way with improvised phrasing and his almost feminine-sounding vibrato cuts wonderfully through the percussive guitar accompaniment. This free show starts at 7 PM at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall.

The Last Postscript

Back in April 1996 I had no idea that I’d be able to write in this space every week for nearly eight years and rarely have to revisit a subject. As impressed as I was then with the breadth of the Chicago music scene, I didn’t really comprehend or appreciate the depth and vitality I marvel at now. It’s the work, stories, and ideas of the city’s musicians that have kept me plugging away all this time, and I know there’s enough stuff out there for another eight years. But, although I’ll miss it, I’ve decided to stop. Beginning next week Bob Mehr will take over for me here. I’ll still be writing for the paper, on music and other topics, but it’s time to give the beat to someone else. I’d like to note my gratitude to editors Alison True, Jim Shapiro, and especially Kiki Yablon, but most of all to the regular readers of Post No Bills–particularly those inspired to write letters, positive or negative, and offer their commentary in return.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.