Poi Dog Days
The biggest selling album by a local band at the Clark Street Tower Records during 1995 was the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The second biggest seller, however, was Pomegranate, from Poi Dog Pondering, a name that doesn't show up too much when local bands are mentioned. After four albums on Columbia, leader Frank Orrall formed Pomegranate Records last year. The group has sold 40,000 copies of its first release in stores, at shows, and through the mail. That's pretty impressive for a record produced and marketed out of a one-room Pilsen office and studio.
Right now Orrall is awaiting pressed copies of a new, companion release, Electrique Plummagram, a club-oriented, dance-mix affair that combines three remixed Pomegranate tunes with four new songs. Poi Dog is often lumped in with the so-called H.O.R.D.E. bands--Grateful Dead-style jamming outfits typified by Blues Traveler or Dave Matthews. But Poi Dog has a bit more world-music influence, somewhat offbeat Texas and Hawaii strains of hippiedom, and much less boogie. There's also Orrall's fondness for the black side of dance music, which finds its first explicit voice on the new record. The band plays three record release shows March 20, 21, and 22 at the Vic.
While running your own label is not unusual or novel, the band's size is. Poi Dog's pared-down touring ensemble is 15 strong and costs nearly $20,000 a week to keep on the road. The group makes far more from its record sales than it would were it still on a major label; Pomegranate's success keeps the group afloat. "We're still struggling in the sense that we can't make a video," reports Orrall. "The record's paying for itself, but everyone still has day jobs." Their tour audience is growing as well; they're doing two nights at the 1,000-capacity Trammps in New York at the end of the month. Their fan base's ground zero, however, remains Chicago, where last year the band sold out the Vic for four nights, selling a total of 6,000 tickets and making them arguably the biggest rock draw in Chicago after the Pumpkins.
Keeping Up With the Mekons
Fans of the Mekons in general and Jon Langford in particular will want to take note of a concert cum raffle that Langford's side band, the Waco Brothers, are hosting at Schubas Friday night. The group, a somewhat novelty-tinged but serious alternative-country outfit, is needed to play at a party held by Bloodshot Records, its label, at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin next week. Money, however, is a problem. Hence the show tonight, dubbed "Send a Waco to Camp." "It's basically a desperate attempt to raise as much money as we can," says Langford. Besides the show the group will be raffling off Waco and Mekon memorabilia. Raffle tickets are $3, two for $5, and five for $10. A few pieces are considered valuable enough to be bid on in a silent auction. There's also a bunch of gift certificates and free tickets to local record stores and clubs.
Langford, who like most of the Mekons is from Leeds, England, moved to town in 1992 to be with his wife, now an architect. He keeps pretty busy. People with more spare money they'd like to share with Langford will be interested in the opening of his first solo art show next Friday at the Eastwick Gallery, 245 W. North. Langford's distinctive paintings tend to be portraits of classic country stars seen through the warped lens of time--or "covered in historical snot," as Langford puts it. The morning after the opening he goes to Austin for 24 hours, then returns to continue work on Mekons accordion player Rico Bell's first solo album. Then there's a Mekons show in London the next week.
At the end of April Langford and the rest of the Mekons rendezvous in central Florida for a curious multimedia event called Mekons United at Lakeland's Polk Museum of Art. The show will feature art by various band members along with a sound installation of electronic music ("It's not easy listening," says Langford. "It's hard listening") and an accompanying work called Living in Sin, "a group novel in progress," as Langford has it, that takes up a large part of the exhibition's 200-page color catalog.
Tower's biggest seller for 1995 was, predictably, Hootie & the Blowfish, who moved between four and five thousand copies out of the store over the course of the year, reports sales manager Joe Kvidera. Odder are the bands that filled out the top ten: Annie Lennox at two, followed by the Dave Matthews Band, the Smashing Pumpkins, Natalie Merchant, Alanis Morissette, Blues Traveler, the Pulp Fiction sound track, Seal, and Poi Dog Pondering. The store's base is heavily yuppie with strong admixtures of H.O.R.D.E. fans and gays, as evidenced by Lennox's showing and that of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert's sound track, which came in 20th. The very hyped Beatles Anthology I came in a sad 16th....Speaking of which, Sarah Vowell passes along this tidbit from John Cage's Silence: "Artists talk a lot about freedom. So, recalling the expression 'free as a bird,' [composer] Morton Feldman went to a park one day and spent some time watching our feathered friends. When he came back, he said, 'You know? They're not free: they're fighting over bits of food.'"... The Jesus Lizard will spin records on WNUR's Airplay show on Saturday at 4 PM. 'NUR is at 89.3 FM.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.