Sire Records

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Damnations TX Bring Banjo to the Masses

                                                If there's a running tally somewhere of the
                                                world's all-time best second-hand purchases,
                                                add this one to the list: Not too long ago,
                                               Damnations TX singer/bassist Amy Boone
                                               walked into an Austin pawnshop and plunked
                                               down around $70 for a second-hand Washburn

                                               "It was probably my rent money, but it was
                                               cheap!" Boone says of the purchase, though it
                                               was hardly money down the drain. That old
                                               banjo would ultimately prove to be one of the
                                               most defining elements of her fledgling band's
                                               sound, second only to the sweet harmonies
                                               Boone shares with her sister and co-band
                                               leader Deborah Kelly. Boone's contribution
                                               on banjo is limited to the initial purchase,
                                               however; it's guitarist Rob Bernard's spirited
                                               plucking that drives the Damnations live and
                                               on their Sire debut, Half Mad Moon.

                                               "I envisioned the banjo being in the band, but I
                                               was still new on bass and had enough of a
                                               challenge just to keep getting better at that,"
                                               Boone says. "So, I invited Rob over, made him
                                               some coffee to tantalize him, and asked,
                                               'What do you think about playing banjo?' He
                                               said, 'Uh, I'll give it a try.' So he sat in my
                                               house and I strung out a bunch of folk songs
                                               and he learned all the chords."

                                               The prominence of banjo, mandolin and the
                                               aforementioned sisterly harmonies betrays the
                                               group's love of traditional bluegrass, country
                                               and folk music, but there's more than enough
                                               rock in the mix to lend the Damnations
                                               pseudo-punk cred -- or at least to rub
                                               traditionalists the wrong way. "There are so
                                               many bluegrass and country purists that
                                               would probably want to ring our neck," laughs
                                               Boone. "We basically stick to rock venues
                                               that can handle the crossover type of thing."

                                               Half Mad Moon still begs to be filed under
                                               alt-country, but it stands apart from the crowd
                                               of lonesome Son Volt and Whiskeytown
                                               imitators by virtue of its buoyant, infectious
                                               energy. They're not above a haunting melody
                                               or double-edged lyric, but by and large the
                                               Damnations' spin on the No Depression
                                               aesthetic actually steers clear of depression.
                                               When the sisters sing of love's "hellish kind of
                                               heaven" in the album's stand-out title track,
                                               painting a grim scene of a rotting relationship
                                               with the line, "It's been a long time let's have
                                               ourselves a quarrel/Let's go sit upon our drunk
                                               and lazy laurels," they do so over an insanely
                                               sprightly Appalachian jig that demands a fervid
                                               dance. It's a compelling approach that comes
                                               off even better in their anything-but-lazy live
                                               show, making the Damnations the best
                                               Yankee-born Texas act since Jerry Jeff Walker
                                               ditched his New York folkie schtick for
                                               Austin's outlaw boho in the early Seventies.
                                               Boone and Kelly, you see, were born in
                                               Schoharie, N.Y., and didn't move to Austin
                                               until some ten years ago.

                                               "We saw a lot of bluegrass as kids growing up
                                               in upstate New York," explains Boone, noting
                                               that most of their Texas fans don't seem too
                                               bothered by the Yankee thing. "It's not like we
                                               came from Brooklyn and moved here or
                                               anything. We grew up in a town ten times
                                               smaller than this one. I guess people here
                                               have accepted that we took the country
                                               instead of the Yank part, and threw the Yank
                                               part out."

                                               Both sisters are now proud to call Austin
                                               home, though their Lone Star allegiance has
                                               nothing to do with the "TX" at the end of their
                                               band name. That, alas, was a reluctant
                                               concession to avoid confusion with all the
                                               other damned bands flaunting the same name
                                               or variations thereof. "We shouldn't have been
                                               surprised to hear that there were other bands,
                                               because it's actually a generic name," says
                                               Kelly. "But once you get used to a name, it's
                                               your identity. We tried to change it for a week
                                               and it didn't work. It's pretty traumatic for a
                                               band to have to change its name."

                                               Were any formal challenges ever issued to the
                                               other name-holders?

                                               "Actually," laughs Kelly, "I wanted to get a
                                               hold of one of them and have them come to
                                               our record release party to do a song with us,
                                               because it'd be fun to put them in front of our
                                               fans and then go, 'We want to kick this band's
                                               ass!' But I don't think we would win, because I
                                               saw a picture of them in a magazine and they
                                               just look so gnarly and full on ... what you'd
                                               expect a band called Damnations to look like.
                                               *Nothing* like us."

                                               RICHARD SKANSE (February 19, 1999)