Legendary Chicago band The Blacks blew open the No Depression scene with gender bending stage shows and genre twisting music. Signed to Bloodshot Records in the late 90s and embraced by critics, it seemed like the band was well on the way to re-imagining country music for larger audiences until it all fell apart among the alcohol soaked costumes and volatile relationships that doomed this bastard son of Hank Williams and Bon Scott. Here, we present a feature article and mini-documentary on the newly reunited band who traveled dark roads and ultimately got lost.
Walking up to the large, blue house on Chicago’s north side where the Blacks were rehearsing for their reunion show at the Empty Bottle, I had to check my notebook and confirm the address. Having been to many, many basement rehearsals, I was confused by the eerie silence that made this residential neighborhood seem darker than it already was. As I came around to the rear basement door, the tell tale signs of a band at work finally came within earshot. Through the cinder block and cement foundation I could hear the mournful wail of Hank Williams, the soulful call and response of the Staples Singers, the thumping bass of Bill Black, and beneath it all the unmistakable backbeat of rock and roll. This was the right spot.
Part One – Coming Together…Finding the Way…Signing on the Line
Danny Black exudes a kind of coolness from behind the mic. Not a type of “cool” but a coolness that at first seems aloof, but soon reveals itself as concentrated passion. It’s not that he’s ignoring the audience, it’s that he’s giving all his attention to the songs. Some musicians are entertainers, some are artists, and some are conduits. Danny Black has elements of all three with a far off gaze that hints to his being “elsewhere.” The right amount of alcohol and faith and the audience can go there with him, but be ready for a trip through swampy outhouses, muddy back roads, and dank icehouses. A show with Danny is like a history of American folk music with each song.
Of course, the music is the foundation. But the Blacks are also well known for the personal drama and onstage theatrics that further set them apart from the “No Depression” bands they were lumped in with when they signed to Bloodshot Records in the late 90s. Intra-band romance, grueling touring, drink (and a hint of other) found the Blacks disintegrating after just two albums, Dolly Horrorshow and Just Like Home.
Touring is tough for any band. It’s long hours in a van driving from one city to another, often for nothing more than gas money and a couple of drink tickets. Cramped quarters become much more stifling as you go into the second and third week. There’s a lot of personality management and eggshell walking, and this is in the better situations. Throw in two fiery, romantically involved band members and things get considerably more uncomfortable.
“I could never keep the relationship out of the band and she could never keep the band out of the relationship,” said Danny about his then girlfriend and bass player Gina Black. The added stress of traveling with a fighting couple was too much for some.
When I told people GLONO was doing a feature on the reunited Blacks, everyone asked the same thing, “Is Nora going to be there?” When I assured them that Nora O’Connor was indeed joining the band for these limited dates, I was most often met with disbelief. “I heard Nora said there was no fucking way she’d play with them again,” said one bartender the night before my interview with the band.
On the eve of a west coast tour to support Dolly Horrorshow, O’Connor had decided she’d had enough. With Danny and Gina fighting and the thought of three weeks on the road far from home looming, O’Connor packed it in. The band that started as a three-piece was back to its original configuration, but the loss was felt. O’Connor not only filled out the sound with her beautiful harmonies and rhythm guitar, she added a depth and sense of melody that made the Blacks’ debut a haunting affair. And Nora O’Connor wasn’t the only one feeling the stress.
Drummer James Emmenegger is a painter. Hanging in Danny’s house is a huge rendition of the famous tabloid picture of the Bush Twins falling over each other with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Emmenegger painted it as a gift for Black, who he feels has been the biggest influence on his musical taste. Blown up and rendered in paint, the image illustrates the focus we can sometimes put on people and their youthful indiscretions. It’s also a study in pop culture and the influence under which we all fall when somebody else is deciding what’s important.
“Most of what I know about drumming is due to Danny,” Emmenegger said. “Before I met him it was all just the Beatles for me. Danny told me to listen to Zeppelin and Black Sabbath for all I needed to know about drumming.” It’s odd advice to give the drummer of a band with sincere country roots, but Black knew early on he wanted something different with this music and that’s exactly what he got with James Emmenegger.
It would be very easy for a less creative drummer to fall into pat country swings and shuffles with Danny Black’s music. Emmenegger draws from a different well and therefore employs a different set of rules to the music he hears. For him, it’s as natural to launch into a Bonham fill or a Ringo backbeat with Danny’s songs as it would be for anyone else to picture a more traditional beat. The result is mesmerizing. With Emmenegger behind him, Danny Black gets as close anyone can to realizing his dream to hear “AC/DC fronted by Hank Williams.” It’s sounds silly until you hear the music and understand the common thread in all this music, which is to say it’s made by outlaws. Not literally (well, sometimes), but figuratively. It’s music that shares common ground in the early rhythms and beats of American folk with just a twist here in there that keeps rock and roll alive these 60 years on.
Part Two – Dressing for Showbizz…Hulahoops for Everyone…Death of a Family…Back from the Dead
Back in the basement, there’s a ceiling tile missing above where Gina Black stands. The ceilings are low, but it’s clear she’s a person you need to make accommodations for; you need to make room. She’s tall, she’s loud, she’s commanding (and maybe demanding). The same could be said of the Blacks. They didn’t fit at Bloodshot Records and yet it was the perfect label to release their records.
“Stylistically, they speak to what I love about what we do,” said Bloodshot founder, Rob Miller. “They themselves were discovering these classic American music forms and playing with them and molesting them and grafting them and mixing them up with their own aesthetic and coming up with something really new.”
But it’s never easy to be an outsider. The band endured nights on bills with rockabilly bands whose fans, seeing a hot blonde on an upright bass, were less than enthused when the Blacks refused to conform to the stringent code of greasers. It probably didn’t help that Danny was wearing eyeliner. But when you’re flanked by two beautiful girls in French maid costumes, it’s probably not hard to stay secure in your masculinity.
Still, the touring and recording of new and interesting music can take a toll when people are slow to come around. When you refuse to obey the rules, you remain on the fringes. It also made for difficult marketing of their music.
“Of course. It always is,” Miller said about the difficulties of promoting music that breaks with tradition. “That’s the deal with the Devil you make when you are interested in music that cannot be easily tagged.”
When Danny Black finally made the call to Norah O’Connor to get back together, she had been listening to their first album that morning.
“I told her I’d been talking to Gina and James and we were thinking about putting the band back together, “said Black. Like most everyone else in town, he didn’t really expect her to go for a reunion. It’d been a long time and O’Connor is busy with her new 8 month old son, work, and various other musical projects. To everyone’s surprise, she agreed to rejoin for some shows.
“I’ve played with some amazing people but there’s something special about playing with these three people,” Gina Black said as we were wrapping our interview. Everyone else nodded. It was never made clear why right now was the time to reunite, but nobody seemed to question it—nobody in the band, that is.
The Blacks have renegotiated their deal with the Devil and will play one more time this Saturday, July 22 at Chicago’s Empty Bottle.