A new attitude

Imagine, if you will, an alternate dimension — one where, at a boozy recording-industry party somewhere in Beverly Hills, Iggy Pop and Johnny Cash are engaged in an ill-advised tryst in their host’s bedroom.

Nine months later, one of them (it doesn’t really matter which one, at this point) births a set of triplets. True to their roots, the three grow up to become musicians. And that is how The Blacks came to be (at least in the aforementioned alternate dimension).

In our sphere, however, the origin of this up-and-coming Chicago-based threesome is a bit more prosaic. In fact, in our dimension The Blacks aren’t even related. Founding members Danny Black and Gina Black met at a G. Love & Special Sauce show back in 1995.

Danny, whose last name was then McDonough (he changed it for showbiz reasons), cut his musical teeth on a steady diet of classic rock — until he found a Hank Williams record in an apartment he rented in 1993, that is, and until he started watching Woody Allen movies, which introduced him to the music of Django Rheinhardt and Louis Armstrong.

After this Joycean epiphany, Danny’s songwriting began to stray away from hard rock and into the territory of blues, country and jazz.

“When you play loud guitars, it doesn’t leave any room for anything else, really. I like to play loud sometimes, just not all the time. … I wasn’t satisfied with just that. I wanted more,” he revealed in a recent phone interview.

Gina was a freshman at DePaul University and a classically trained bassist who ached to perform outside an orchestral setting — somewhere she could actually be heard on her own. Brought together by their mutual admiration for gravelly voiced singer/songwriter Tom Waits and a desire to branch out careerwise, the two started jamming together, touring for a year under the name The Black Family before finding current drummer James Emmenegger (who could previously be found doing penance for past-life crimes by playing drums in an Eagles cover band).

The Blacks have been pegged as alternative country, but that label belies the true range of influences present on their latest hillbilly-hipster album, Just Like Home (Bloodshot Records, 2000). Everything on Just Like Home is designed to take the listener on a vertiginous trip through the American subconsciousfueled by equal parts big-top, acid trip, homecoming dance and backwoods fire-and-brimstone. That includes the cover art (a disturbing David Lynch-does-Mayberry-cum-American Gothic clay sculpture by Gina), the choice of instruments (banjo, trumpet, standup bass, piano, saw, lap-steel and Hammond M3 organ are all present and accounted for), and the lyrics (which prominently feature themes like betrayal, unrequited love, mortality, masochism and guilt). Danny and Gina share vocal duties, with his warbling-yet-masculine presence offsetting her woozy sexuality.

Asked what inspires his songwriting, Danny comments: “[The ideas for my songs] come from other songs, things that happen. It’s hard to say. The best [songs] just happen — and you don’t really know how they happen.”

Icing The Blacks’ well-established penchant for musical innovation is their growing reputation as excellent live performers. In fact, Danny feels that the band, which definitely harbors a theatrical streak or two, is at its best in settings where anything can happen:

“We do things that get your attention. You give some and then you get back some — that seems to work for us.”

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