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Chasing the Rabbit
The end of Darktown House Band marks the beginning of Bill Hoover's creative journey.

 
by tim mcmahan


 

 

 

It was a helluva way to go out.

The Darktown House Band couldn't have picked a cooler place for their Last Waltz March 11.

The 906 warehouse -- a new performance venue which only has been used two other times (for a Halloween and a New Year's party) is the kind of place where you wouldn't be surprised to see Andy Warhol sharing a bit of gossip with Truman Capote or Liza. It's 100 percent groovy, baby.

The front is a no-smoking art gallery and bar. In its center is parked an airbrush-decorated hearse with a baby alien in an oxygen chamber mounted on its roof, straight out of the X-files. Creepy artwork and sculptures sit next to blow-up furniture and various pieces of retro-stuff. Very mod. The performance space is a cavernous room with a stage in one corner. Sofas and chairs are scattered here and there along the black-painted walls and beneath large windows covered with iron bars or with mounted pieces of surrealistic artwork (all of which is for sale). Black-and-white TVs act as retro-decorations. One 12-inch set was mounted behind a car door window, another hung from the ceiling, wrapped in chain. This is clearly one of the coolest places in Omaha, located in one of the city's most barren and desolate corners.

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The stage looked like an industrial heaven. Dead computer monitors were piled up on one side, a few still flicking gray light next to spent keyboards. On the opposite wall was a golden crescent moon, set a-glow by a lamp projecting psychedelic bubbles a la 1960s Doors concert footage. Hanging from the ceiling were dozens of large, cut-out silver stars, bathed in blue light.

After The Evil 3 -- a hot 3-piece jazz combo -- finished their opening set the Darktown House Band took its place behind the stars, next to the computers in front of the crescent moon. The stage was crowded with people and instruments. Fans huddled around the front, jostled by three or four photographers and a videographer on hand to capture the moment.

Band leader/creator Bill Hoover grabbed hold of a stand-up bass, dressed in the outfit he's worn like a uniform at all the shows I've seen the band play throughout their 6-year history -- the threadbare suit jacket, the nerd-style black glasses, the Tom Waits '40's-era hat, the endearing smile.

Omaha has never seen -- nor probably ever will see again -- anything like this eclectic band, which over its history has included 20 musicians playing as many instruments. Other than Hoover, none of the original members are left. The final line-up includes Hoover on guitar and vocals, drummer Joe Kobjerowski, bassist Bunny Geist, violinist Angelina Mullikan, clarinet/trombonist Kate Williams and vocalist Rene Ledesma Hoover, who happens to be married to Bill.

Hoover's music has been compared to Tom Waits' more lively moments, and some say there's even a physical resemblance between the two, especially when Hoover wears that crazy hat. But while there might be a slight similarity between both singers' growls, Darktown House Band's sound can change by the moment, from a high-energy ragtime band to a really cool lounge act.

Maybe it was the crowd or the stage or the moment, but they never sounded better than that night.

Cut to a week earlier. Hoover talked about the band, the breakup and what's next on his musical agenda over coffee at Shock, his new "day job" taken after quitting his longtime job at Katie's, a Greek restaurant, at the beginning of the year. The change in employment was only the first after spending most of 1999 in creative suspended animation.

"1999 was a really shitty year for life in general," Hoover said. "The Y2K thing was like waiting for a rainfall of shoes. We didn't do anything -- play, record, write new songs. It was kind of a slow grinding to a halt."

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Darktown House Band's sound can change by the moment, from a high-energy ragtime band to a really cool lounge act.


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"We went from being a country band to sounding like a country band from a different country."


 

In addition to music, the Hoovers are prolific artists, usually creating as many as 50 paintings a year. "Last year, Renee and I only did six paintings," he said.

What caused the creative constipation? Hoover painted this analogy: "There's a school in Kentucky that rehabilitates greyhounds," he said. "Greyhounds are working dogs, but once they catch the rabbit, they'll never chase after it again. In 1998, we put out 'Hot Tongue and Cold Shoulder,' we had a showing of our art (at Old Market vegetarian restaurant Dazy Maze), and we'd gone on tour. It was just a blizzard of success. We got all this good work done, and then there was the inevitable letdown."

Hoover, it seemed, had caught the rabbit. He looks at "Hot Tongue…" as the ultimate Darktown CD, the culmination of the best the band could do. "I think for us to have outdone it, we would have had to start from scratch and look in a totally different direction," he said.

It wouldn't be the first time the band has changed its sound. Darktown originally started off in the Country/Western tradition. "We went from being a country band to sounding like a country band from a different country," Hoover said.

He began his musical career as an acoustic solo singer/songwriter. After going to college to "get a degree in writing," he discovered he could be more effective singing his stories in front of an audience. "It's the storytelling aspect of being on stage that I enjoy most," he said.

But he quickly found life as a solo performer limiting. "I was really anxious to not repeat myself," he said. "I had a phobia about mediocrity. So the whole idea of putting together weird, textured music, combining a trombone and cello, playing with sounds, fascinated me. Every recording we've made you couldn't tell if it was the same band, except for the name."

But changing directions this time just didn't seem in the cards. Drummer Kobjerowski said it proved to be a challenge. "I don't know if the band had creatively run its course," he said. "If we were going to keep doing it, we were going to have to take it in a different direction somewhat, and we started to. It was hard for me personally, because I wasn't sure what Bill was trying to do. It would have taken a lot of work."

 

Work that will never be completed, as Kobjerowski plans to move to Portland at the end of May. In addition to Darktown, Kobjerowski was drummer of Omaha tractor-punk rock sensations Frontier Trust, arguably one of the best bands the city has ever produced. The move is "a change of scenery," he said. "It's something I've been contemplating for the past three or four years. The timing is right. I probably will still do music either with some friends who play out there or some other people."

The loss of Kobjerowski and the ongoing hassle of scheduling around the other musicians' lives proved to be too much, and the Darktown House Band came to an end. "There was no big bad breakup thing," Hoover said. "It has always been just friends getting together and I was grateful because they were playing my songs. I think we ended on a good note. Some times bands can exist past their prime. This is a good way to go out."

The breakup appeared to be one more thing to come "grinding to a halt" in Hoover's life. But then, like a burden lifted from his shoulders, along came the millennium and a new beginning.

"When the New Year came, I quit my day job," he said. "I was shedding all the excuses of why I wasn't doing art. It's now the second month of spending eight hours a day painting, trying to be disciplined. It's a dream life, a sort of arrested adolescence of me riding my bike, staying home and painting pictures all day. That's what you do when you're a kid.

"I'm chasing the rabbit this year, trying to be musically promiscuous. When you're faithful to a band for six or seven years, you sometimes just need to play with different people and explore different instruments."

Enter the Short Timers, a 6-piece bluegrass band of musicians "who know 50 variations of the Virginia Wheel and the Joan of Arc Rag" that Hoover's played with for three years on Wednesday afternoons. Instruments include upright bass, banjo, mandolin, guitar, violin, washboard and car keys. Four people share the singing chores. "It's a get-together-on-the-porch kind of thing," he said. "We play old standards. I've written a couple songs on the new CD, but for the most part, they're really old songs, traditionals and Woodie Guthrie tunes."

All 11 songs were recorded in one day at the Nevada Room studio and include such standards as "Will the Circle be Unbroken," "Plastic Jesus" and Guthrie's "Union Maid." It is rural, rustic music, undeniably pure and honest in both composition and performance. It marks a predictable departure for a man who's music has always seemed rooted in telling the stories of the working man.

"It's like field recordings, rough and rugged," Hoover said. "It shows all the warts. None of us are very good at instruments. We know each other and get along and have instruments by our side. We're doing it for fun and for the love of the music."

He says the Short Timers have never played a show, "but hopefully we will." Until then, the memories of the Darktown shows will have to suffice.

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"The music was great and I loved the songs, but they're my friends and that's what I'll remember."


 

 

Darktown leaves the music scene with its share of successes, including two terrific albums, "Hot Tongue…" and before that, "Boom Chang!" Their tours garnered fans throughout the Midwest, especially in the Columbia, Mo., and Lawrence, Kan., areas. Hoover says the best thing that ever happened to him with Darktown was when a Columbia fourth-grade class performed a skit, acting out the band's song "Food Chain" as part of their school program. "It was one of the proudest moments, to see something you wrote make that transition."

The other high point, both Hoover and Kobjerowski say, was playing on the back of a flatbed truck at Carhenge at dusk during the summer solstice.

"I'll miss the people the most," Kobjerowski said of the band. "We've spent as much time hanging out watching The Simpsons as we did practicing. I can honestly say I really liked everyone I played with. The music was great and I loved the songs, but they're my friends and that's what I'll remember."

The night's performance at 906 was a celebration that lasted past 1:30 in the morning. But maybe the end was best signaled during the second song in the second set -- "Strike Up," the band's theme song. By now, a large, sweaty crowd was undulating in front of the stage like the dancers in the Barabas scene of The Ten Commandments, mostly women, throwing their arms over their heads and grinding, worshipping the golden calf that was Darktown House Band.

Hoover, slick with sweat, unstrapped his accordion, grinning as only Bill Hoover can, and began to take off his threadbare trademark jacket that looked chartreuse blue in the stagelights. Underneath was a denim shirt clinched at the collar with a string tie.

He leaned forward to the microphone. "I can't believe that that's the last time we'll play that song," he said. "Let's put a nail in this coffin."

He wadded up the jacket, cocked his arm back like a bride about to toss a bouquet to a throng of bridesmaids and threw it from the stage, slapping a tangle of hanging stars and wires.

"I'm gonna laugh when someone throws that mangy thing back up here," Renee said.


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Published in Omaha Weekly March 16, 2000. Copyright 2000 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.