Houston is often derided for its physical sprawl and lack of cultural coherence. The critique is largely deserved. But for a brief time in the early 1990s, not only did the city on Buffalo Bayou have a vibrant music scene, but that scene was located in a specific geographical zone. In fact, for a time many of the bands inhabited the same street.
Lexington Street sat strategically between Houston’s more enlightened neighborhoods—Montrose and Rice University. Lined with ramshackle old homes, Lexington was like an island surrounded by a concrete mote in the form of a busy highway, shopping centers and thoroughfares. Not only was rent cheap, but it included rehearsal space. (Try that in Brooklyn, or even Austin.) The only people likely to complain about loud music were your neighbors, who were likely sharing a bill with you that weekend at Rudyard’s or the Axiom or Pik-N-Pak.
It was a post-punk period just before “grunge” spurred an epidemic of cookie-cutter bands worldwide. Perhaps it was because Houston was so not on anyone’s musical radar, so utterly dismissed as any kind of musical hotbed, that the musicians there felt liberated to play anything they wanted free of pretense. So came the sweet pop sounds of de Schmog, the white boy funksters Sprawl, the darker strains of the Pain Teens, Rusted Shut, Fleshmop and the Cave Reverend. The Cinco Dudes, Joint Chiefs, Mike Gunn, Peglegasus and the Linus Pauling Quartet. Each doing its own thing.
Still, as distinctive as these groups were, they for the most part worked within recognizable musical templates. They didn’t necessarily challenge any norms or forms (unlike, say, their mysterious city mate Jandek or the Butthole Surfers up Austin way).
Oh, except for that exception. A band that defied categorization or pigeonholing.
Dry Nod (named after some sinister medical instrument) was as odd an assortment of fellows as one is likely to encounter. The rhythm section was comprised of Kyle Phillips on bass and Vaughan Boone on drums — two blonde-haired former high school tennis champions; the “front man,” Roberto Cofresi, was a tall, thin Puerto Rican Rice graduate who smiled mischievously as he strummed his Ibanez and “sang.” Then there was the “lead” guitar player, Fletcher Etheridge, a soft-spoken graying mathematician from Vanderbilt U. who picked at his sunburst ES-335 clad in a Hawaiian shirt.
It would be too pat to say they were a collision of Sonic Youth and the Grateful Dead, but that’s perhaps a starting point. But then Rob Nuttall showed up with his French Horn, on which he played long extended notes run through various effects — providing a kind of sweet thermocline haze that hung over the building cacophony. And when he did that, Dry Nod was utterly and completely unique. Anywhere, anytime.
(Like Tommy Hall’s electric jug in the 13th Floor Elevators, Nuttall’s horn was what catapulted this group into the outer limits.)
They were less musicians than conjurers of … transcendent sound. Like shamans, they arrived at the appointed ritual locale, and began stirring their musical brew in the cauldron. If all went well, there would be a quickening in the room, an aural flash, and suddenly a humming harmonic — the fabled perfect jazz note — would fill the space and, with luck, carry through the rest of the engagement. The ingredients were volatile and not always tasty. And, if they mixed the recipe imprecisely, the whole show could nose dive into the worst kind of debacle. It happened, and it was hard to stomach at times. But when Dry Nod took flight, there was little to compare them to.
As is all too often the case, no recording has been able to capture Dry Nod — live or in the studio. (Ever seen a good photo of a séance?) Even the piece of music you just purchased is a static document — a script of what they played, but not the true embodiment of it.
One night I walked into Rudyard’s and the late Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground was belly up at the bar smoking. Morrison was a Houston Ship Channel tugboat captain (after getting a PhD in English at UT Austin).
As he sat there, by pure dumb luck, Dry Nod was playing one of its few covers —“Heroin.” Morrison didn’t recognize it. When told what it was he raised his eyebrows and said, “that song lends itself to many interpretations.”
Dry Nod’s members have left town, cast off like blades of an exploded experimental whirly-gig. The drummer lives in Rhode Island, both guitar players live in opposite sides of North Carolina, and the French Horn player resides in New Mexico. Only Phillips remains in Houston.
-- Peter Lenker Voskamp
released October 1, 2011
* Dry Nod - Vaughan Boone, Roberto Cofresi, Fletcher Etheridge, Rob Nuttall and Kyle Phillips
* Additional vox on Blow - Don Walsh
* Additional guitar on Take Babylon - Ramon Medina
* Strings on Carnival - Jeff Bernstein (cello), Jennifer Neira (violin), Joachim Zwick (viola)
* Live KTRU recording of Bleeding Lady - Justin Crane
* All tracks except Bleeding Lady and Carnival recorded and mixed at Deep Dot Studios, Houston TX sometime in the 1990s.
* Mastered at HiFi Mastering by Marco Saenz
* All songs by Boone, Cofresi, Etherdige, Nuttall and Phillips
all rights reserved