Featured Music: Wednesday, October 24, 2002
Cosmic Bond

Former Blue Sky Black bandmates go their separate ways ... for now.


The drunken golf pro just wouldn’t leave Tim Locke alone.

Locke, ex-Blue Sky Black frontman, was just trying to do a soundcheck for an acoustic show at The Moon on Berry Street, but this guy kept harrying the performer with requests for Cat Stevens and Beatles tunes. (Memo to Golf Pro: You should at least have the decency to let a performer soundcheck before you start heckling him.)

Locke obliged with a version of Stevens’ “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” to which Golf Pro responded, “What was that? That wasn’t a Cat Stevens song!” “He wrote it,” Locke explained patiently. “Rod Stewart recorded it back in the ’70s.” When Locke sang a heartfelt cover of George Jones’ classic “She Thinks I Still Care,” Golf Pro was even more offended. “Too much country!” he declared. Finally, the rowdy drunk departed in the middle of a gorgeous version of Alison Krause’s “New Favorite,” but not before paying Locke the somewhat bizarre compliment, “You’ve got skills — like me.”

“He’s right,” Locke said. “We’re both modestly talented individuals.”

Anyone who’s heard Locke’s acoustic music would agree that the singer’s selling himself short. In such an intimate setting, the ache in his voice and the crystalline textures of his guitar come through in a way that they never did amid the Big Rock dynamics of another one of Locke’s former bands, the Grand Street Cryers, or the edgier sound of Blue Sky Black (basically the same band as the Cryers minus guitarist Greg Beutel, but one that performed a whole different kind of material).

With sensitive, sympathetic backing from drummer Dave Karnes and former Blue Sky Black bassist Byron Gordon, Locke inhabits a very different space than he did with his old bands — more ethereal but still emotionally compelling. Songs like “Many Happy Regrets,” “Last Chance?” and the Beatlesque “The Choice You Made” from the self-produced c.d., Love Songs for the Very Low, sound like Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley or anybody else who can break your heart with just a guitar and voice (although there are other sounds on the record).

Inevitably, the question arises: Why did Blue Sky fold the tent? The band, according to Locke, had a record deal with a Houston-based label whose main backer was affiliated with ... Enron. In the wake of the Enron debacle, the label evaporated overnight. “They had an entire floor of stuff in an office building — gone!” Locke said. “If somebody would throw 10 grand at us, I’d still love to go in the studio and record that [Blue Sky Black] material.”

Meanwhile, Locke continues mixing acoustic shows with gigs as guitarist in the band of ex-Nixons frontman Zac Maloy, while the other force behind Blue Sky Black, Steve Duncan, has been fronting a new band, The Chemistry Set.

After Blue Sky Black, said Duncan, “I was writing songs and wanting to get stuff recorded. I was always doing solo things but I was being really patient, seeing how it would come together organically. I was new to the singing-and-being-a-songwriter side of things, so I wasn’t going to jump out there too early. Then about a year ago, I met [guitarist] Andy Myers, and we started writing some stuff together. We clicked really well, and that was the moment when I said, ‘OK, time to put a band together.’ ” Myers spent eight years playing with the Danes, a high school band that lasted until he finished college. The other elements in The Chemistry Set are Neil Saunders on drums, Meredith Knoll on keyboards, and Corey Helm on bass.

Duncan and Myers have assembled a studio in the house they share in Dallas and have begun recording some songs. “I’ve had a lot of engineering experience,” said Duncan, “so why pay other people to do it when we can do it ourselves? Our ideal right now is to get on a good, solid independent label where we’ll be able to put out music that we’re doing ourselves, not feeling like we have to spend a quarter of a million dollars to make a recording.”

At the Gypsy Tea Room in early September, The Chemistry Set played nine songs to a responsive crowd. The band’s music is a little spacey, a little poppy, evoking the spirit of classic psychedelia with interesting textures from the two guitars and Knoll’s keyboards. The diminutive Duncan has developed a strong presence as a frontman, and the contrast between him and the gangling Myers makes things interesting visually. Saunders and Helm are a solid, unobtrusive rhythm section. Duncan cites Wilco, the Flaming Lips, David Bowie, T-Rex, and the Beatles as artists whose work he respects. The Chemistry Set is definitely at home in that ambitious musical company.

There’s no animosity between the former Blue Sky Black bandmates, whose association dates back to 1995, when they formed Dead City Radio after Locke left Cream of Mushroom and Duncan left Tabula Rasa. “Steve and I will always make music together in some form,” said Locke. Duncan agreed. “We’ve been playing together for seven years now, and we still don’t want to kill each other ... or to be more accurate, we’ve gotten beyond the point of wanting to kill each other. He’s my best friend.”

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