With musical prowess, a natural flair for the dramatic and an intriguing first album, Hall and his band are the most promising unit on the local alternative scene.
The singer under the lights at the Howlin’ Wolf this night in June doesn’t pack a whole lot of pounds, but every ounce of James Hall’s bantamweight frame is being hurled into cathartic expressions of faith and despair and hope.
With close-cropped hair and a vast inner energy, he alternately croons and howls, wields his white Stratocaster with authority, and pauses to interject a majestic trumpet solo.
For an encore, he and his band wail away on the Sex Pistols’ “Holiday In the Sun,” a sign that they are especially jacked up tonight. Then, after introducing and dismissing the band members, Hall accompanies himself on guitar for a poignant new composition, “Irrational.” It is the perfect coda for the set. As he had brought the audience up, he now eases them down, then quickly departs.
The performance is so mesmerizing, so sincere, so intense, that no ones seems to notice that Mr. Hall isn’t wearing pants.
A few songs back, he had shed his black polyester Sans-a-Belt slacks to reveal a sleek pair of dark pantyhose; with nary a word, he continued on as if there were nothing unusual about this at all.
For him, at least, there really isn’t.
James Hall settles into a recliner in the shopworn living room of the apartment just off Magazine Street that he shares with his girlfriend. He moved to this place from the infamous Hummingbird Hotel & Grill, his first residence after arriving in New Orleans nearly three years ago. Here, he is not onstage. He does not wear pantyhose. He is low-key, almost to the point of distraction (at the end of a ninety minute conversation, he will ask, “So what did we talk about?”). Introverted? Thoughtful? Relaxed? Is it just not his time to perform? “I’m glad I don’t have to make this interesting,” he informs his interviewer, smiling. “That’s your job.” (He is told to feel free to contribute to that end.)
Or maybe he is being careful not to reveal too much. Hall is apologetic but firm in his reluctance to grant his visitor’s request to sit in on that evening’s practice. “When we rehearse, we rehearse,” he explained, “and when we do a show, we do a show.”
In a separate conversation later that night, his band-mates will nod in recognition of their leader’s thinking. “A lot of people, because he has his beliefs and his methods, and that’s what he sticks to, don’t understand that the guy laughs,” says guitarist Lynn Wright, who followed Hall to New Orleans and became the first member of Hall’s current band. “He’s a really humorous person. But rehearsal is rehearsal. They’re not necessarily uptight, serious affairs, but, outside of the guy who produced our record, nobody comes to our rehearsals. That’s where we’re together and we work out the songs. It’s just comfortable that way.”
“I have so much fun at practice,” says drummer Mark Brill. “There’s a lot of energy and magic going on. Just the four of us there, stripped down to the waist, no mousse, no lipstick. ..”
“I think there’s a certain amount of privacy in the creative process that we all embrace,” continues bassist Grant Curry. “It keeps it focused. It has worked really well for us to treat it as kind of a family meeting.”
The patriarch of that family has already established his new band in New Orleans and Atlanta, his former hometown. At the end of August, he will start on the rest of the country, after his debut solo album, My Love, Sex and Spirit, is released by Daemon Records, the independent label founded by Indigo Girl Amy Ray as a means of winning exposure (and major-label contracts) for alternative-minded acts with an especially strong focus on songwriting. The release will be celebrated at the Howlin’ Wolf on Saturday, August 21.
When Ray came to New Orleans in February to finalize her deal with Hall, she recalled the first time she saw him perform. “I went up to James after, and said, ‘I want to do a record with you.’ I don’t usually say that the first time I hear somebody. Actually, I cried during his show, it was so amazing. It was spiritual.”
Hall was born in Houston and spent most of his adolescence in Nashville. He had no formal music lessons, aside from assorted music classes. He classifies his early stage experiences as reinforcers, either negative (the humiliation of screwing up his lines in a fourth grade play) or positive (first prize in a church contest at 14).
He logged two semesters at a college in Kentucky before setting out for the bright lights of Atlanta, to concentrate on music full time and find an audience for his efforts.
Soon thereafter he founded Mary My Hope. That quartet’s hard psychedelia caught the ear of London-based Silvertone Records, which signed the young group. Hall was barely 20, with shoulder-length curls, when he and his bandmates journeyed to England to record their debut, Museum (1989). They achieved modest success, touring the U.K., France and the States.
But with the advent of his 20s, Hall felt stagnated. “It would have been really hard for me to grow up into Mary My Hope,” he reasons. “Everybody has their first band — that was my third first band. I really felt like I needed to get on. There was a good time and a height of popularity that we achieved on a local and a somewhat national level, but there was a certain time that I needed to get on with my life.”
Atlanta was not the place to start anew, having worked for three years to establish an identity as Mary My Hope’s leader. “There was a certain audience that just wanted to hear Mary My Hope again. For a while, I was still writing Mary My Hope’s next record. It took a while to really shake that.”
Hall returned to Nashville, and took a vacation from music. When it was time to begin again, he cast about for a new home. New Orleans was at the top of a short list, even though the city does not have a reputation for breaking rock acts. He was drawn here by the Southern location, and “it’s a good climate, and rent’s cheap, and it’s a city, and I’ve always been attracted to city life.
“I think the weather here is absolutely wonderful. I don’t mind this at all,” he says, indicating the wet, muggy afternoon outside. “This is my briar patch.”
Hall credits the local characters, straight from the pages of A Confederacy of Dunces, as being the dominant local colorization of his songwriting. “New Orleans definitely has a certain class of characters, certain stock characters, that you’re going to run into that is going to shape the way you think, and from there the way you write music.”
Street musicians — and the time Hall spent as a Decatur Street sidewalk bard — have left the most profound impressions. “That wasn’t bad at all,” he says of his time on the streets.
“But it got to a point where I really realized that people do have certain expectations — whether you want to believe it or not-to see ‘Muddy Wolf’ sitting on the corner, as opposed to James Hall.
“There’s a lot of people coming into New Orleans that feel this pity for street musicians. It’s not that way at all. Speaking for myself, I was playing because I loved it.”
Eventually he broke into the clubs at Muddy Water’s, strumming an acoustic and backed by a drummer. Guitarist Wright, who had lived in the same apartment complex as Hall in Atlanta, visited, and decided to stay. “I was just ready to change the pace of what I was doing,” he says. “There wasn’t anyone in Atlanta that I was really interested in playing with. I had done a bit of recording with James in Atlanta, and it went so smoothly and naturally that it seemed obvious [to join up again].
“I had put down the guitar for a year. When I started to play for James, I had to work so hard. Every day I would play for hours, and I’ve never done that. I fell in love with the idea of playing guitar and really mastering that instrument.”
Wright, like Hall, is aware that his adopted hometown has altered his perceptions. “[New Orleans has been] a strange adaptation for me. It’s urban, but it’s not metropolitan at all. And that’s the opposite of Atlanta, which is very metropolitan, and you’re in touch with what’s going on in the rest of the world. But I love it [in New Orleans]. It’s isolationist, and I think that’s how our music came about. It didn’t matter what was going on anywhere else — we were here making our music.
“Sometimes James and I would be riding around in his green station wagon, stomping our feet really hard and doing offbeat rhythms and making percussive noises with our mouths, riding over to the West Bank to look at guitars, or driving around town looking for an apartment for me. We just embraced this Mardi Gras Indian rhythm thing. Then we picked up the guitar and there it was. That’s something that totally came to me through James once I moved down here.
“It made it more groove-oriented compared to what we recorded in Atlanta. It became a lot more rhythmic. This is a rhythmic city. It’s flat and wide-open; sound can travel more. If a bus goes by, it rumbles your whole apartment. The whole city is a rhythm.”
In the months after Hall and Wright were reunited, various configurations were tested out until Grant Curry won tickets to see the bass-less band at the RC Bridge Lounge.
“Lynn was in a suit, looking really sharp, and James was in pantyhose and standard red shirt,” remembers Curry. “I was immediately impressed with Lynn-he was playing all these sixteenth notes, and keeping time very well. I realized he was taking the part of a bass player.
Then James hit a distortion pedal while he was still playing the acoustic, and it just kind of rocked me. Not so much what they looked like, but what they were achieving without a bass player. There was an intensity about the whole thing that just got inside me immediately. I had no idea who James Hall was, or Mary My Hope-I just thought these guys had tons of soul. It was obvious to me that there was a lot of integrity going into the songwriting.”
Curry’s band at the time used the same building for rehearsals as did James and Wright; it wasn’t long before Curry offered to fill the bass slot in Hall’s band. He was interviewed by Lynn and James, and invited to join.
After an unsuccessful attempt to incorporate one of the band’s early managers on drums, the band, now drummer-less, honored a scheduled appearance at the Howlin’ Wolf. Mark Brill,who was pounding the skins for the now-defunct Bum Version at the time, was in the audience.
“The first (James Hall gig I saw) was opening for Burn Version, and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is going to be doing something great,'” remembers Brill. “Then they started steamrolling. When they lost their drummer, I asked James, ‘You guys have a gig tonight. What are you going to do?’ And he said they were just going to play it. That had me too curious, and I went and saw them that night [at the Howlin’ Wolf]: It just knocked me on my ass. It was just the three of them lined up onstage,keeping time by tapping their feet It was just tremendous.”
Brill suggested they jam. They did. A great time was had by all. Hall invited Brill to fill in on a couple of gigs, and then to join permanently. At the time, says Brill, Bum Version wasn’t really jelling. He thought it over for a week, then made the plunge-after clarifying one point.
“After I made the decision to join up, I went over to [James Hall manager Frank O’Connell’s] house, and I sat down, and the first thing I asked was, ‘Am I going to have to wear make-up?”
“I wanted to know, because that looked like their whole thing. Their drummer before had played it up to the hilt, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do that. I had brought it up with James and he was like, ‘Do what you want to do. It really doesn’t matter.”
What mattered was the groove. “They’re the finest players I could find,” says James Hall of the band he built.
Live performance, says Hall, is “the quintessential test. That’s where it all comes down.
“There’s a lot of circumstances under which I’ve played. I feel at home on the stage. But it’s an environment that I’ve had to learn, it’s an environment that I’ve had to kind of have a hand in the making of.”
Preparations for entering that environment include a dot, placed in the center of his forehead; it is “a traditional Indian marking, a mole, a beauty mark, a reminder that I will return to ash. I dunno. I did notice that the moment I started doing that, I had a full band behind me. I didn’t make up the dot on my head before I had a full band. I put that on the very night I had a whole band. To me, it’s a frame of mind, a third eye. You’re supposed to save your ego trip until you get onstage-that’s where I put it on.”
(Other band members have their own routines. “I like my shirt to smell like gigs,” says Wright. “That’s a strange thing. I mean, I do wash my clothes, but if we’re playing three gigs in a row, I’ll tuck my shirt away, and I just love that smell. It’s the mindset for me. It helps me to stay focused.”)
Hall on pantyhose: “I just found it was a cheap way to look good. They’re sleek, you know? I guess I could give an answer like, ‘Well, It’s sort of a mockery of what we as men make women wear in order to appear girlish for our own pedophilic desires,’ but that’s really not the way it is. I have no real anger or court-jesting aspirations.
“But Kiss was an influence on me. There’s a side of me that’s really into that area of showmanship.
“I guess I kind of like it too because it makes you look sexless, like the Ken doll. Androgynous. It’s somewhat a statement of rock’s sexuality, the rhythmic beat of rock & roll. As much as we want to bastardize it, it’s about the loosening of the knot. I guess that’s all I was really doing with it, losing my inhibitions about it all, [losing] even more inhibitions about getting onstage.”
The night Hall first wore pantyhose onstage was the first time Curry saw him perform. “I certainly thought, ‘Well, this cat is kind of freaked out,’ ” recalls the bassist. “But I think I was just inspired, ’cause I didn’t know who James Hall was. For all I knew he was just this lonely nobody who didn’t have any friends but came out once in a while to the dumpy RC Bridge Lounge and played this beautiful music.”
“I think the way we look is just the way we look,” continues Wright. “It’s not as conscious… James and I didn’t look at Grant and say, ‘OK, look like us now.’ We all do what we do naturally.”
(Indeed. Curry says, “I was telling my parents last night, ‘Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not just wearing make-up onstage because it looks cool. I wear make-up because I enjoy it.'”)
“Now,” says Brill, “people complain when James doesn’t take off his pants and show his pantyhose.”
There are risks to such displays. “The main risk is that people began to hear our music a little differently,” says Hall. ‘Oh, they’re a glam band.’ To me, I really don’t see a whole lot of other risks, because I haven’t had a problem with people calling me a sissy.
“We’re not totally based on image,” says Hall. “Then again, we’re not so wrapped up in the music that we’re floor-starers: It’s hard for me to wholeheartedly get into a band that’s having a hard time getting into what they’re doing themselves.
“If my band is really cranking it out, saying that, doing that, then that’s pushing me to greater lengths.”
On a good night, all the band members are pushed to such lengths.
“When I was younger,” says Curry, “I had some reservations about how I looked, but some nights I’m just feeling really sexy, and the sexual and spiritual energy of the music … people can call it pretentious, or whatever they want, but, yeah, there’s nights when I’m feeling like, ‘I want to take my clothes off and show more of myself.'”
“It’s the most I’ll give to people of myself onstage: says Wright of his gigs with Hall’s band. “At first I used to not move a lot onstage-I have this natural shyness. But after I really let the music take me, it doesn’t matter anymore, and that’s when I give it all and I receive all that I can.”
In some ways, James Hall is both mentor and father figure for his players.
“I think one of the things about James as a musician is he’s not just focusing on the note and melodies that he’s writing, he’s focusing on how the band is functioning and what’s going on with everybody emotionally in our daily lives,” says Curry. “I think that’s one of the things that makes our music as powerful as it is. It’s a combination of communicating as humans and musically.
“I did three rehearsals and then went and played a gig. I was really frightened and nervous about playing, I didn’t know the songs very well: he remembers. “James came over to my place the morning of the show and we just ran through the songs together quietly, sitting in my living room, unamplified. He said to me, ‘We’re going to do this together. You’re not alone out there. We’re going to fail or succeed together.’ That’s how it’s been the whole way through.”
“I think everyone in the band learns from each other and teaches each other,” says Lynn. “James is an amazing musician. I’ve never seen an instrument that he can’t learn in a month. He honestly doesn’t realize that what he has is as good as it is.”
The tracks on My Love, Sex and Spirit were sweated out live in a Nashville studio last March. Amy Ray, says Hall, was ideal to work with. “She’s been able to wear both hats well, both as a record executive and an artist,” he says.
“She really wanted us to be the best that we could be. And she believes, like I believe, that largely that is just kind of making your mistakes. That’s what got me where I am today, making mistakes.”
The others know this. “I think James’ approach is it doesn’t have to be perfect,” says Curry. “You’re going to win by going out there and trying and trying and trying and making some mistakes, maybe at the expense of looking really bad. James, as soon as he bought that trumpet, he started bringing it on stage — he didn’t know how to play it. And he’s doing some wonderful things with it now.”
The first trumpet that James Hall ever owned was acquired in a local pawn shop a few months back. The idea to purchase and play one, he says, came to him in a dream.
“I felt very strongly about it. That’s weird. You say to somebody, ‘follow your dreams.’ That was the first time in my life that it ever really carried over to that degree of literalization.”
Now the others are following his dream.
“He gives us the path,” says Brill. ‘”He comes in with a drum rhythm, and he’ll let me run with it. If I’m running off too far, he lets me know. ‘Well, that’s not quite the feel I had in mind.”
“It’s all about having a lot of faith in what James is doing,”he continues. “Even if it’s something as simple as writing a song, if I’m disagreeing with what he’s hearing for the music, just having faith in the end product.. (it) is going to be something bigger than I can see. I just put total faith in him, do what he asks, and in the end, he’s always proven right.”
They are still not far along in their journey together.
“Now, really, is only the beginning,” says James HaIl. “I’ve had a past, I’ve had a history, but really it’s just starting.”