Every year at Austin's South by Southwest music conference, the who's-hot buzz quotient gets a little more frenzied. Usually it goes something like this:
"Have you heard about the urban-death-pop band from Shreveport whose lead vocalist plays spoons on his genitalia while singing The Way You Look Tonight'?
"No, well, what about the Belarussian blues band fronted by Ukrainian midget twins who play like Hendrix and sing like Meatloaf?
"No? Then I'm sure you've heard of the latest Zeitgeist-True Believers-Wild Seeds Austin-guitar-band clone, right? It's what God had in mind when he gave white men the urge to jangle."
The most unusual case of trendy-band buzz in recent memory happened three years ago, when most of the preshowcase hype centered on an unknown band from New Orleans called the Iguanas. The word was they were fronted by a pair of tenor-sax honkers, both of whom could sing in English and Spanish. Other instruments in the band included accordion and bajo sexto. Its music, according to a legion of music fans who'd never seen the group live, ranged from "calypso" and "Tex-Mex" to "New Orleans R&B" and "roots-rock." The best pregig summation came from a crusty guy who'd seen the band at Tipitina's in New Orleans. "It's the best band in Nawlins," he slurred late one night after he'd consumed more than his share of Austin's chief liquid delicacy, Shiner Bock. Everyone in the room agreed that any band that could excite a musically jaded, not to mention well-lubed, New Orleans native had to be worth a look.
The band's showcase the following night at Austin's shoebox-size Continental Club was packed full of wide-eyed critics and Texas music celebs like Texas Tornado Doug Sahm, blues guitarist Denny Freeman and even Lou Ann Barton. Unlike most hype-assisted acts, the Iguanas delivered in spades. Opening with a boozy, Norteo-flavored ode appropriately titled "Margarita," the band's two howling sax leads loosened more than a few of the Continental's roof timbers. As the set progressed, the points of the Iguana style became apparent--blues, Tex-Mex and lots of saxophone-powered R&B of the King Curtis-Sam Taylor variety. In their unorthodox approach to instrumentation, the Iguanas are the spiritual kin of eclectic ensembles like Brave Combo, those Texas polka punks. Musically, however, the Iguanas sound remarkably like Los Lobos--border-rock with New Orleans second-line rhythms and Caribbean dance music spiced in to give it a kick.
After the set in Austin, the band was surrounded by converts. "God, you guys are good," one Eastern scribe was heard to gush. "We are?" came the incredulous response. When asked to describe their music, all the band's two reed rockers, Joe Cabral and Derek Huston, could do was shrug.
"Actually, we still have trouble describing it," Cabral said in a telephone interview last week. He and the rest of the band are calling from the office of New Orleans Recording Company, a well-known studio outside N.O. where the group is currently recording its debut album for Margaritaville Records, the MCA-distributed label owned by Jimmy Buffett. Besides Cabral and Huston, the Iguanas consist of guitarist-accordion player Rod Hodges, drummer Willie Panker and bassist Ren Coman. Using the studio's speaker phone so the whole band can listen (and laugh), Cabral and Huston still do all the talking. "It's definitely a New Orleans kind of thing," Derek Huston says, still searching for words to capture the band's music. According to Huston, the south-of-the-border, Tex-Mex, accordion side of the band is easy to trace. It comes from Hodges' mother and Cabral's father, both of whom are Mexican Americans. He says the rest comes from the diverse musical personality of the Big Easy. "It's a New Orleans city sound, closer to mambo than to Cajun music. I don't know if there's anywhere else other than New Orleans where a band and a sound like ours could have evolved."
Most bands that attempt so many different kinds of music end up with a jumbled sound that has no identifiable thread. In both their original music and their bizarro covers of long-lost classics, the Iguanas have mastered a convincing style. It's an unmistakable sound that works as well with a polka or a waltz as it does with a hard-drivin' rocker. The sight of twin saxophone leads also makes the band a hot live act.
"It's a chemical thing," Huston says, drawing a burst of laughter from the rest of the band. "But really, rather than discussing the different styles that go into it, the best way to describe our music is to say it's about dancing, about a groove and about having a hell of a good time."
Slated for a January 1993 release, the as-yet-untitled Iguanas debut is being produced by Justin Niebank. Although the band wanted Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam, Meat Puppets), its members now say they're glad Niebank is aboard. A knowledgeable knob twister, Niebank has recently produced recordings by alternative bands Trip Shakespeare and Blues Traveler and engineered the last two Marty Stuart albums.
Since it signed with Buffett's label, the shy quintet that once had trouble believing it was any good has begun to believe in itself. The first thing the deal did was convince the quintet to fulfill every band's common dream: jettison the day jobs. A question about whether drummer Willie Panker, who spent his working-stiff days as a schoolteacher, misses his old profession brings a collective howl.
"Yeah, Willie, a drummer, was teaching kids," Huston says, while the studio explodes in chokes and giggles. "They let him teach preschoolers and he ended up in a couple lawsuits. It's okay now, though; he got out of them." (He's kidding.)
Besides concentrating on making its debut, the band has also landed a number of regular gigs in New Orleans, the most famous of which happens Sunday nights at the storied Maple Leaf bar. It was at the Maple Leaf that the band experienced the most tangible sign that its career is beginning to take off.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Last February 2, Bruce Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, showed up at one of the quintet's Sunday sessions. After sitting and listening for a set, the Boss was jazzed enough to get up and jam with the band on classics like "Ain't That a Shame," and "Save the Last Dance for Me." The band wasn't surprised that the New Jersey-bred rocker could relate to a group fronted by two rockin' R&B tenor players. The really satisfying thing, according to Cabral, was that Springsteen said nice things about the Iguanas' music and told them he'd look forward to hearing the new album.
"We've already been onstage with Springsteen," Cabral says. "Where can we go from here?"
PROMOTING FROM WITHIN... v8-26-92