- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

A few things have changed since the Austin country-rockers Reckless Kelly last came through town.

For one, they don’t put out their own albums anymore. That honor goes to Sugar Hill Records, home to heavy hitters like Dolly Parton and Nickel Creek, which means a whole lot more people are going to hear the band’s fourth album.

“This is our first real turn with a big record label,” says Cody Braun on a cell phone from Austin, Texas. “It’s another step up from where we were. We’re all just thrilled.”

Reckless Kelly plays the Iota Club and Cafe tonight, as part of a tour that will take them up and down the East Coast.

Cody Braun lends his considerable fiddle, mandolin and vocal harmony skills to his brother Willy Braun’s songwriting, guitar playing and singing chops. It makes for a potent combination of country-tinged rock, but playing with genres didn’t initially help the band land a record deal.

“We’ve had trouble on the business end of things,” Cody Braun says. “Managers would shy away from us: ‘If you guys don’t fit in the niche, there’s nothing we can do with you.’”

Lucky for the group, fans packed into tiny clubs didn’t really care what the music was called, so long as they could sing and dance to it. The band, which also includes drummer Jay Nazz, guitarist David Abeyta and bassist Jimmy McFeeley, even fleshed out two shows — one quiet and acoustic, the other a rowdy rockin’ set.

For the brothers, who spent years as part of a family Western swing band called Muzzie Braun and the Boys, the road has been in their blood for years. With their father and two other siblings, they even played the Grand Ole Opry, the mecca of music for anyone with even a little country in his or her blood.

“I think we both knew early on [what we wanted to do] pretty much out of high school, when we didn’t go to college,” Cody Braun said. “We were going to move to Bend, Oregon, go there for a year or two and kind of see what happened.”

The band lasted less than a year in Oregon, after which the brothers decided to move to Austin in 1997. It was one of the best decisions they ever made. The Austin Chronicle named the band the best roots rock act in town three years in a row.

“It’s just awesome,” Mr. Braun says. “Not only the crowds, but there are so many places to play, and the audiences just come out and support live music. It’s that way pretty much all over Texas.”

Almost three years have passed since the band released a new record, but the wait was certainly worth it. “Under the Table and Above the Sun,” released in May, is the band’s strongest album to date, with songs inspired by Jack Kerouac (“Desolation Angels”) and the early Beatles (“Mercy Beat”).

“The band has matured a lot. We’re getting better as a band and we’re playing a ton of shows,” Mr. Braun says.

Having producer Ray Kennedy (of Steve Earle fame) work with them was an added bonus. Shunning modern computer recording equipment, Mr. Kennedy had the band use real vintage amps and guitars and preferred the raw sound to slick production.

Not that the album sounds like a rough demo tape. Years on the road have made Reckless Kelly tight, and assured that there were few things that needed to be fixed in the final mix.

“We cut the record and played like a band,” Mr. Braun says.

The band isn’t one to take a single set list and wear it out on the road, preferring to mix it up from night to night. Depending on the audience, they spend their time on slow, country weepers or playing burn-the-house-down rockers. While the band’s new big-label status should help it get into some larger venues, Iota has long been a local home to the group.

“We love that bar, man,” Mr. Braun says. “The crowd’s always there to have a good time.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Texas can offer up a good roots rock band. But how about a symphonic pop chorale with two dozen members in robes who look like they could be part of a new age cult?

Surprisingly, Houston’s The Polyphonic Spree fits the bill. Founded by lead singer and music director Tim DeLaughter, the band employs a 10-member choir, as well as keyboards, drums, bass, guitars and more orchestral touches, such as flutes, brass, violins and even a theremin player.

The result is much better than it might sound on paper. On the group’s debut, “The Beginning Stages Of…,” the band offers up majestic songs of hope and love that are hard not to feel giddy over. While the band might look a little creepy, there are no sinister subliminal messages; instead, the group seems ready to preach the power of music to heal all wounds.

Perhaps in recognition of the event status this kind of show holds (and the fact the band travels slowly in about a dozen buses), the Spree is camped at the 9:30 Club for two nights. See the band either Tuesday or Wednesday and prepare for one of the most unusual experiences Texas has to offer.

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