It’s not common for the Continental Club to fill its Thursday-to-Saturday headline slots with the same artist. But there’s a reason the South Congress flagship has followed up an October 2012 three-night stand by Poi Dog Pondering with a return-engagement triple-booking this weekend.
Though the band has been based in Chicago for the past two decades, a great deal of Poi Dog’s formative history took shape in Austin in the late 1980s and early ’90s. And some significant turning points happened at the Continental.
It was 1986 when band leader Frank Orrall, singer Abra Moore, guitarist/mandolinist Ted Cho, drummer Sean Coffey and several other friends left their Honolulu home seeking adventure across the mainland, stopping in various cities along the way to play on street corners and college campuses. February 1987 brought them to Austin, where they were so well-received that they stayed for a month. They performed frequently on the Drag and on the University of Texas’ West Mall — and also got a gig at the Continental Club.
They continued their travels to the East Coast, but Orrall and Moore had returned to Austin by the end of the year, with an independent-label deal in hand. Cho and Coffey soon rejoined them, and they’d hooked up with bassist Bruce Hughes — then with local acts Skank and Arthur Brown, though better-known to modern Austin audiences for his long tenures with Bob Schneider and the Resentments.
Orrall had big ideas for the shape and depth of Poi Dog’s sound, so they were seeking additional players to flesh out their first record. One fateful night in early 1988, they stopped by the Continental, where Small Faces alum Ronnie Lane was performing with a band called Seven Samurai that included violinist Susan Voelz and trumpeter Dave “Max” Crawford.
“We hadn’t met them yet,” Orrall recalls. “After the set, we went up and asked them to come to the studio the next day to record. So that’s how we met Max and Susan. Literally, it was like, ‘Are you guys doing anything tomorrow? Why don’t you play on our record?’”
That night changed the lives of Voelz and Crawford, who helped turn Poi Dog into a hugely popular Austin act that ended up on Columbia Records. The band was such an integral part of circa-1990 Austin that Orrall and Moore ended up with bit parts in Richard Linklater’s landmark debut film “Slacker.”
When Orrall moved to Chicago in the early ’90s, Voelz, Crawford and percussionist John Nelson went with him. They formed a new Poi Dog nucleus that attracted an extended lineup of Windy City musicians. Many more records followed, the most recent being 2011’s mini-album “Audio Love Letter.” The members who remained in Austin set off on other pursuits — most notably Moore, who launched a solo career that led to a Grammy nomination.
Still, a certain romantic notion of the original Austin lineup lingered. A few years ago, most of the Austin contingent joined in when Poi Dog came to town for a show at Antone’s. And in 2011, when the band celebrated its 25th anniversary with two nights of retrospective concerts at the Metro in Chicago (later released on DVD/CD), the original Austin lineup reassembled to play the early material. That led to the 2012 Continental stand, which went well enough to prompt this weekend’s return.
If such occasions partly play to longtime fans’ nostalgic notions, Orrall is fine with that. “What’s nice is that nostalgia is kind of like firewood,” he says. “Once you burn the firewood, it’s gone – but the band is the chimney, and it never goes away.
“When we get together, it feels really fresh. It doesn’t feel like a nostalgia trip. It just feels like, ‘All right, let’s go to work. Let’s do what this lineup does.’ So it’s kind of nice — I just look at them like there’s two different lineups, and we continue to run both lineups.”
Common to both the Chicago and Austin Poi crews are Orrall, Voelz, Crawford, Nelson and Cho. In Austin, they’re joined by bassist Hughes, guitarist Adam Sultan, and drummers Daren Hess and Sean Coffey.
Though the focus is on material from the four records made during the band’s Austin years — 1988’s self-titled debut, 1990’s “Fruitless” EP and “Wishing Like A Mountain, Thinking Like The Sea” LP, and 1992’s “Volo Volo” — the Austin lineup also has shown an increasing interest in working up a few songs from the latter-day Poi catalog.
“I love a lot a the music written during the Chicago years, and I don’t feel like limiting it to the albums we recorded with the original lineup,” says Sultan, who plays with a variety of Austin bands including Mistress Stephanie & Her Melodic Cat, Bedpost Confessions, and the David Bowie/Queen tribute bands Super Creeps and Magnifico. “Most of the newer stuff has more of a dance feel — kind of where ‘Volo Volo,’ our last recording, was heading.”
The transformation of Poi Dog from ragtag acoustic street band to a more heavily rhythmic club outfit wasn’t a big surprise given Orrall’s musical origins. “In Hawaii I was a drummer and a percussionist; that was my primary thing,” he says. “I basically moved over to guitar to write songs for Poi, and then came to the mainland.”
That early experience proved fortuitous more than two decades later, when he was recruited by Washington, D.C., DJ collective Thievery Corporation as a percussionist in their touring lineup. “A friend of mine from Hawaii who knew that I played percussion recommended me,” Orrall says, adding that “one of the founding members, Rob Garza, was a Poi Dog fan; he was very familiar with the early records.”
If his work with Thievery Corporation has taken Orrall even further beyond the street-collective roots from which Poi Dog sprouted, he’s also found a way to reconnect with the simple pleasures of unamplified acoustic music through a side-business called Chef Franc. Orrall and a couple of chef-musician friends — including original Poi Dog drummer Sean Coffey, who lives in Austin — prepare a meal for guests and then play a house concert.
“I was sort of missing that real acoustic interaction, now that the band does mostly club shows,” he says. “I get there in the afternoon and get to meet people. By the time we sit down to play music, we’ve already been hanging out in the kitchen, we’ve been cooking, we’ve had dinner and wine, and everybody’s all casual. So it makes for a nice evening of music.”
In fact, Orrall arrived in Austin a week ahead of the Continental shows for a few Chef Franc events around town. He’s also been working with Poi Dog bassist Hughes on various projects, including a low-key album of covers likely to include tracks by artists ranging from the Smiths to Cole Porter to Scott Walker.
Though he hasn’t lived here since 1992, Orrall says he visits at least once a year. “To be honest, it’s more interesting to me now than it was (25 years ago), in a certain way,” he says. “It seems like a bunch of people with ideas came into money and then opened businesses. So there are nice restaurants, there are nice shops, and that part’s cool. Though I’m sure it’s probably hard to be an artist there now, just trying to make ends meet.”
Austin 2014 is indeed a far cry from the city Orrall and his Hawaiian pals discovered in the winter of 1987, when they first pulled up to Guadalupe Street and started playing in front of the iconic mural at the 23rd Street Artist Market. The mural recently was defaced by graffiti, though it has been partially restored.
Its undamaged condition is preserved in a 1989 video the band filmed there for the song “Living With the Dreaming Body.” Longtime Richard Linklater cinematographer Lee Daniel was at the helm, though execs for Columbia Records had their own designs.
“Lee’s original idea was for it to be kind of a cinema verite kind of thing,” Orrall remembers. “He wanted it to be like, ‘OK, you’re just going to go play on the street, and just let me film it.’ But then the Columbia guys got in the way, and it turned into a way more high-budget video than it was intended to be.
“I remember when they brought out the (dolly) tracks to do a tracking shot,” he says, laughing heartily at the memory. “We were like, oh man, it’s over now!”
Poi Dog Pondering
With Kiko Villamizar y la Banda (Thursday), Shoulders (Friday) and Bamako Airlines (Saturday)
When: 10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Where: Continental Club, 1315 S. Congress Ave.