Taking the foot-high stage at the Hideout last month, the Blacks looked more like a Halloween pageant than a musical group: front man Danny Black was dressed like a backpedaling Pentecostal preacher, drummer James Emmenegger could've been an extra on the set of Boogie Nights, and bassist Gina Black and guitarist Nora O'Connor looked like a couple flappers whose dresses had shrunk in the dryer. If you were wondering what the hell these people were doing in the same room, much less in the same band, you wouldn't have been that far from where they found themselves not four years ago. But once the music started, it was evident that they belonged together, blending influences as disparate as their costumes--roots music and hard rock, country and cabaret--with alchemical grace.
The local indie Bloodshot, which bills itself as "the home of insurgent country," recognized that rare ability earlier this year, and on Tuesday it'll release the Blacks' debut album, Dolly Horrorshow. Ironically, the best thing the deal will do for the Blacks is lump them into the same safe marketing niche as alt-country soundalikes like Marah and Richmond Fontaine. Ironically, that is, because founders Danny and Gina didn't know their Hank Williams from a hole in the ground when they started playing together in 1994.
In late '93 south sider Danny (whose real last name is McDonough; he and Gina aren't married) was still a guitarist for the unfortunately named "psychedelic hard-rock" band Cornmother. Then in his mid-20s, he'd just begun to appreciate the music of Williams, Tom Waits, and Louis Armstrong, and one night, he says, "I was onstage with them and I just thought to myself, 'This is stupid. I don't want to do this.'" Over the winter the band broke up, and he holed up in a cheap apartment in Pullman to teach himself the rudiments of drums and trumpet and write songs on a four-track recorder. In the fall he met Ann Arbor native Gina Black, an 18-year-old DePaul symphonic-music student, at a G. Love & Special Sauce show at Lounge Ax, and a few days later they played together for the first time.
"What Danny was doing seemed much more interesting than trying to bust my ass training for the Chicago Symphony," she says. "One of the things that really rubbed me the wrong way about symphonic music is that you can never hear the bass, even though they've got ten of them." By December she'd dropped out and moved in with Danny, who had just rented a new place at Cicero and Belmont, over the legendary bar Bucket-o-Sud's. "My parents were so embarrassed they gave my scholarship money back to the school," she says.
The two spent the next year working on music for a band they called the Black Family. Their mix of country, blues, gospel, rock, and show tunes wasn't always as well proportioned as it is now. "It's not like we grew up singing these songs around a campfire with our grandparents," says Gina. "It's stuff that we liked and it felt natural to play, but we didn't have anyone telling us the way to do it. I had to do a lot of detraining. Danny had to slow me down because I kept playing too many notes."
The Black Family played their first gig in late 1995 with help from Tim Krause, the drummer for the now defunct band Gringo. Gringo's manager, Mary Jones, liked what they were doing and added them to her roster; despite their lack of experience or perhaps because of it, she immediately sent them out on the road. Jones estimates that the band has done about 200 shows since then--that's a lot for a band without an album. Their penchant for playing dress-up helped them develop a following. "People always think I'm trying to get at something, but it's just fun," says Gina, who assembles, tailors, and often sews the outfits herself. "I love pretty dresses and wigs. It's like putting on a cool uniform when you play soccer. It makes being on the field more exciting."
Danny and Gina went through three more drummers, including Goodtime from the New Duncan Imperials, before finding Emmenegger--whose previous experience was limited to a long stint with an Eagles cover band called Tumbleweed--through a Reader classified ad. In December they invited O'Connor, a folkie who performs regularly at area coffeehouses and a friend of Danny's brother Kevin, who fronts the local guitar-pop band the Drapes, to sing backup on a few tunes at the Double Door. They were so pleased with the results they asked her to join full-time. "I fell in love with her right away," says Gina. "We'll look at each other from across the stage and think the exact same thing in terms of vocals."
O'Connor's harmonies and guitar accents markedly improved the band's sound, and a charming performance in Austin at this year's South by Southwest music conference improved its signing prospects. A few months later they accepted Bloodshot's offer and recorded and mixed Dolly Horrorshow in an exhausting week with producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel. They also abbreviated their name because a long-standing Irish vocal group had dibs on it, Gina explains. "They said we could change it to something like 'the Black Family Chicago,' but we didn't go for that."
The Blacks celebrate the release of the album next Saturday, September 26, with a free in-store at Tower Records on Clark at 3 PM and a Lounge Ax gig at 10 with Kelly Hogan and fellow Bloodshot artists Split Lip Rayfield. They're also one of eight bands playing at the second annual Hideout Block Party, this Saturday from 2 to 10 PM.
The colorful Chicago jazz drummer Barrett Deems died Tuesday of complications from pneumonia at Grant Hospital. He was 85, but for most of the 90s his big band held a weekly gig at the Elbo Room, and he still led them on Wednesdays at the Note. Deems was perhaps best known for playing with Louis Armstrong in the 50s, but he also worked with the Dukes of Dixieland, violinist Joe Venuti, trombonist Jack Teagarden, vibist Red Norvo, and trumpeter Muggsy Spanier. His final recording, a big-band session called Groovin' Hard, will be released October 27 on Delmark.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Blacks photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.