Veterans of the Toadies and Rev. Horton Heat hook up and make arena-rock without apology
Vaden Todd Lewis and Tim DeLaughter don't have much in common artistically.
As the leader of the Toadies, Lewis specialized in dark, spleen-venting assaults like "I Come From the Water" and the surprise 1995 hit "Possum Kingdom." As the leader of Tripping Daisy, DeLaughter patented a kind of whimsical, child-like giddiness.
But Lewis and DeLaughter, the two most dominant figures on Dallas' music scene over the last decade, have experienced strangely similar career trajectories. Both of them became Metroplex club phenomena in the early '90s, and they broke nationwide at the same time (when Tripping Daisy hosted MTV's 120 Minutes in 1995, one of the videos they introduced was "Possum Kingdom"). Both of them failed to connect with indifferently marketed follow-ups and saw their bands crumble under the most painful circumstances (Tripping Daisy guitarist Wes Berggren died of an accidental drug overdose in 1999, while Toadies bassist Lisa Umbarger bolted the band in 2001 in the face of intolerable group animosity).
Lewis and DeLaughter were wary about jumping back into the business, but in both cases external forces pulled them in. A friend of DeLaughter's booked his yet-unformed band to a gig, and he responded by quickly pulling together the Polyphonic Spree. In Lewis' case, a demo he'd made with ex-Reverend Horton Heat drummer Taz Bentley as the Burden Brothers (for the song "Beautiful Night") unexpectedly started attracting major radio airplay. With little time for internal debates, Lewis needed to decide if he could stomach another leap into the music industry mosh pit.
"I felt I'd gotten kind of shafted, not by the business, but by some people in the business, and some personal friends that didn't stick by me when things were really hairy," Lewis recalls. "I just thought, 'Screw it, I'm getting out of this. I've done what I can do, I'll just go do something else.' It was several months of having that feeling. Eventually, people asked me what I was doing, because my friends and family were curious. I was feeling out my options, and after a while, I just felt that I should be doing music. It's just in me. I didn't really feel happy doing anything else, and I couldn't picture myself doing anything else."
What's most striking about the divergent musical paths that Lewis and DeLaughter took after their groups folded is that each of them plunged headlong into areas that had previously only been implied. DeLaughter took his sunny utopianism to church with the Polyphonic Spree, a vocal and instrumental ensemble with more than 20 members. Lewis, by contrast, let loose his strutting arena-rock inner-beast with the Burden Brothers.
Nearly 15 years earlier, when the Toadies coalesced in Fort Worth around the nucleus of Sound Warehouse employees Lewis, Umbarger, and Charles Mooney III, they sounded like a Lone Star answer to the Pixies. Over the years, they arrived at a post-Nirvana brand of punk that appealed to metalheads. But when they let their indie-rock guard down enough to encore a show with Rod Stewart's "Hot Legs" or record a brutal version of Cheap Trick's "Auf Wiedersehen," you could sense Lewis' weakness for old-school rock.
That sensibility came to the fore in 2001 when Lewis hooked up with Bentley, an old friend with whom he'd wanted to collaborate for years.
The record they made, Buried In Your Black Heart, was conceived under the most pressurized situations. Initially, Lewis and Bentley planned to simply make their music available over the internet, and let interested listeners find them. But with airplay building, they hunkered down in the studio - without a settled band lineup - and completed a full-length disc in the span of a month. "It was insane how quickly it happened," Lewis says.
"The upshot is that we'd try ideas and we didn't have time to brood over them, and say, 'I don't know if that's going to work or not.' Everything was pretty snap, which was excellent because we ended up keeping a lot of things that we were totally experimenting on. I think that makes for a really good record."
It's an album made by once-burned graybeards thrilled at the possibility of another chance, and you can hear it in the spontaneous combustion of the disc's best tracks. Nobody does vocal menace quite like Lewis, so even a song of assurance to his infant daughter, the new single "Shadow," feels a bit ominous. But his plentiful, unironic "whoos" suggest that he's never had so much fun playing the shirtless, tattooed rock frontman. When the group kicks into a harmonized guitar solo right out of the Brian May playbook for "You're So God Damn Beautiful," you can practically see Lewis and Bentley falling over in hysterics.
By pure coincidence, the Burden Brothers played their first "official" gig at South By Southwest in 2002, the same year that DeLaughter's Polyphonic Spree took the Austin confab by storm. Lewis and Bentley eventually settled on a lineup that included GWAR bassist Casey Orr, and guitarists Corey Rozzoni and Casey Hess.
"This is a whole different experience from the Toadies," Lewis says. "It's hard to even compare the two. The Toadies started off as us-against-the-world, and that's pretty much the way it stayed. This is pretty much, 'We're in the world, and we're going to go have a good time and try to enjoy it.' It's totally different and it's a gas." •