Featured Music: Wednesday, October 31, 2002
Sat at the Liquid Lounge, 2800 Main St, Dallas.214-742-2336.
From the Heart

If it wails and swoons, it’s got to be the handiwork of art-rockers Alan.


A confession: I like the Dave Matthews Band. I don’t own any of their records, but I like the fact that their music sounds different from the other stuff on the radio. It comes off “rock,” yet syncopated, and employs unusual solo voices. To me, they’re, uh, the Steely Dan of the new millennium (not that I’m not a big fan of the Dan, but ...), the band that crafty musos always seem to dig. To most of my rock ’n’ roll compadres, what I’m saying is big-time heresy.

There’s an artificial separation in some folks’ minds between craft and expression. The way the party line goes, you’re either all head or all heart. Either you’re a soulless craftsman or an “authentic” artiste, the more primitive the better. This is flagrant horseshit. As anyone who plays music (or writes, or makes films, or does visual art) can tell you (if they’re honest), the more mastery of your craft you possess, the wider the range of ideas or feelings you’re able to express.

I got to thinking about this after seeing Alan, a Fort Worth-based band that’s been kicking around since mid-’99. While definitely “rock,” their music doesn’t fit into any of the usual convenient pigeonholes: metal, punk, emo. Their songs are filled with tricky time signatures and classical-sounding chord progressions. The spectre of prog, the genre that dare not speak its name, is palpable.

Alan is the brainchild of Chris Hardee, and Chris Hardee is about the least-rockish-looking rocker you can imagine. He looks like one of the Peanuts kids or a church camp counselor — the mop haircut, the t-shirt, his standard stage acknowledgment, “Thanks, guys.” He’s even into rollerblading (only giving it up recently due to worries about breaking a hand — “I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t play!”) and computer gaming. But when he straps on a guitar and steps to the mic, he becomes this ... rock monster.

Thrashing away at the strings with the most active right forearm on any Metroplex stage or picking complex passages using weird fingerings in non-standard tunings, throwing his head back and singing to a spot somewhere high above the audience’s heads, the kid is definitely emotional and intense. While less operatic, his stage trip reminds me of nothing so much as a solo acoustic show I once witnessed by ex-Van Der Graaf Generator frontman Peter Hammill, and that was probably the most over-the-top performance I’d ever seen in my life.

“It’s funny,” said Hardee over nachos and Shiners at Pedro’s Trailer Park, a favorite Fort Worth venue. “My cousin was going through my c.d. collection the other day, and he told me, ‘Wow, Chris, these are all really emotional c.d.’s.’ Tori Amos, the Catherine Wheel. ... Yeah, I guess that’s right.”

The real surprise is that the fella responsible for Alan’s artful, complex music is completely self-taught. He began playing when he was five. “My grandparents got me a little Casio keyboard,” he recalled. “One day, my parents heard me picking out a trumpet part from Sergeant Pepper. That led to a bigger keyboard and then an even bigger keyboard. When I was a sophomore in high school, my friends had a band, but you don’t play keyboards in high school bands! So I picked up a guitar and started playing rhythm for them. One day they heard me humming and said, ‘You’ve got that high rang; you can sing harmonies.’ So I started singing.”

Hardee spent a couple of years at the University of North Texas, “trying to figure out what I wanted to do.” As luck would have it, while in Denton he ran into multi-instrumentalist Doug Polhamus, and with the addition of Jeff Lowe (ex-Flickerstick) on drums and Dave Bennett on bass, Alan was born. Onstage, Polhamus defines “utility musician” as he moves effortlessly (or so it appears) between keyboards, violin, and guitar. A master melodist and colorist, he rocks out pretty well for a guy who just graduated from UNT with a degree in composition and spends his time away from the band slaving away on film soundtracks. He’s also performed and recorded with Hombru, Brasco, Secret Silo, and Bosque.

“One of our ambitions,” Hardee said, “is to someday have a whole string section that Doug can conduct from behind a grand piano.” Another ambition Hardee and Polhamus share is “20 years from now, to own a recording studio and work with other bands, sharing some of the stuff we’ve learned.”

Perhaps it’s this UNT connection that accounts for the fact that Alan plays a lot more shows in Denton or Dallas than here at home in Fort Worth. “The crowds in Fort Worth are kind of hit-and-miss,” Hardee said. “Although we have our group of friends that will always come and see us, wherever we are, it seems like the interest is greater in those other places. And the club owners in Dallas have always treated us well.”

Live work outside the area isn’t out of the question, either. “We applied to South By Southwest last year, but all we had to send was the e.p. that we recorded in my house — not too impressive,” Hardee said. “Before next year, we’ll have some new material recorded, so I think our chances of getting accepted are better.” Beyond that? “I have to admit, I’ve never seen the ocean. I’ve never been in a plane! But I have a feeling that if I got a chance to travel outside Texas, I’d wind up wanting to go everywhere. And take the guys in the band with me, of course.”

Before that can happen, though, the next hurdle to be overcome is the recording of a full-length Alan c.d. “We’re kinda tired of three-song e.p.’s,” Hardee said. “What’s holding us back right now is money ... the eight or 10 grand it would take to record and do a really good job of it.” The band currently has more than 20 originals in the repertoire, enough for them to play three sets (with the addition of some covers), as they did at the Black Dog Tavern a month ago. They’re all committed enough to rehearse regularly, “so we’ll be tight and won’t waste time in the studio.”

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