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Austin by the Lake

Susan Voelz and Michael Hall: Texas transplants

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Shortly after singer-songwriter Michael Hall moved to Chicago from Austin, he was booked in a New York club for the CMJ music conference. Hearing that the Chicago quartet Dolly Varden was playing the conference as well, he called up Varden principal Steve Dawson and asked if the band would back him in New York--and at an upcoming solo Chicago show as well. "Uh, sure," Dawson said. Later he asked Hall why he'd called them. "That's how we do it in Austin," Hall replied.

In coming years Chicago is going to be seeing a lot more action like that, particularly since Hall and Poi Dog Pondering violinist Susan Voelz have successfully transplanted Austin's much loved "hoot nights" to Chicago. The first, mounted at Schubas just before Christmas, though put together with just a few days' planning, turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable concert experience. Built around a theme, hoots are slightly more organized than open mikes. Chicago's debut hoot had "Santa Versus Satan" as its theme. Hall treated a surprisingly large crowd to his terrific "Merry Christmas From Mars," Syd Straw warbled "The Christmas Twist" and the Pretenders' touching Christmas song "2000 Miles," Poi Dog multi-instrumentalist Dave Crawford led an all-star aggregation on a furious, funny medley of the chorus "Gloria in excelsis Deo" and Van Morrison's "Gloria," and Dag Juhlin fronted a rousing recitation of Bruce Springsteen's take on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Colors was the theme for hoot number two, just a few weeks ago. Highlights: Dolly Varden's Dawson and Diane Christiansen belting out "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," Voelz's take on the oldie "Red Rubber Ball," and Jason & Alison's run at "Raspberry Beret."

This is just the latest manifestation in an ongoing musical admiration society between Chicago and Austin. Many Austin stalwarts--Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Alejandro Escovedo most promi-nently--are supported in Chicago as almost nowhere else. Bands constantly shuttle between the two cities; friendships forged at the South by Southwest conference each March keep clubs like Lounge Ax and FitzGerald's booking Austin bands. The connection even includes writers: former Sun-Times pop critic Don McLeese is now the rock writer for the Austin American-Statesman, and one of Austin's most infamous scribes--bad boy Michael Corcoran of the weekly Chronicle--spent several years writing in Chicago before returning to Texas. Bands regularly transplant themselves from one city to the other: Al Jourgensen now hangs out in Austin with the Butthole Surfers, and Chicago has seen an influx of Austin musicians. Among them are Poi Dog Pondering's Frank Orrall, followed by the band's two other core members, Crawford and Voelz, and now Hall.

If the hoot night is a quintessential Austin event, Hall may be the quintessential Austin artist. He began his career as a journalist, but over the last ten years he's concentrated on recording. His coursing, pop-flecked songs largely defined the Wild Seeds' three albums. On his three solo records--the latest one is Adequate Desire--he shows himself to be by turns a forlorn and humorous songwriter. He's also an enthusiastic participant in the Austin scene--the chief host of the hoot nights and a contributor, with Escovedo and the Silos' Walter Salas-Humara, to the all-star Setters. He came to Chicago late last year with his girlfriend, a social worker. "This is a good city for pathologies," he notes dryly.

"The main difference between Chicago and Austin," he reflects, "is that Austin is a city of musicians, while Chicago is a city of bands, and there's not as much interplay between them. In Austin there's a whole subpopulation of people who play in each others' bands. Susan's a perfect example."

Voelz was born in Wisconsin, but went to music school in Bloomington, Indiana, and gradually made her way south, first to New Orleans and then to Austin. She was playing with Escovedo in a club one night when a new band in town called Poi Dog Pondering opened for them. Her dramatic violin work is now one of the band's most distinctive assets. Orrall has lived in Chicago for more than two years: that eventually brought Voelz north as well. She also still regularly plays with Escovedo, will be backing Arc Angel Charlie Sexton on his spring solo tour, and is completing her second solo album for local Pravda records.

Once here, both Hall and Voelz longed for the camaraderie found in Austin. Transplanting the hoot was Voelz's idea, Hall says: "She kept saying, 'We should do this, we should do this!' And she was right."

"I didn't care that much about the hoot night itself, but when I moved here I didn't know anybody here in Chicago besides the Poi people," says Voelz. "I started to know people in Austin after I went to Michael's hoot nights. I just thought, instead of waiting two years for it to happen, we could just do it and use it to meet people."

Thus started what is suddenly the best musical singles scene in town. The third hoot night, this Wednesday at 10 PM at Schubas, has been dubbed "Monkees Versus Beatles." Expect the contributors from the first ones and some new ones. Hall and Voelz found a willing collaborator in Schubas booker Anastasia Davies, who's kept the cover cheap ($3, with no guest list). Hoot night protocol gives the door to the players. "It's a really great feeling to have $5 in your pocket at the end of the night," says Hall. "At least you know that your beers have been paid for."

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

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