Mission to Portland 

Thirsty Alley ain’t got time to bleed at NXNW.

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Missionary day at the Salt Lake International Airport. Perfect.

Thirsty Alley left early on their trip to Portland’s North by Northwest Music & Media Conference last week—long before City Weekly promotions queen Lara Haehle and myself, the “reporter” designated to cover the affair. So they missed the big fun that is an airport full of young males-filled-with-purpose bidding farewell to their sobbing girlfriends (who all promise to still be there in two years) and sobbing families (ditto). Darn shame, would have made a great song.

Singer Zabitha Z. Zoome, keyboardist-hornman Dick Suave, drummer-author (more on this later) T. Ludit, guitarist Roland Roland Roland and bassist EdwardEdward Shovelhead write twisted songs about normal situations—at least as far as life in Utah is concerned. What would the pseudo-hipsters of Portland think?

“Living in Salt Lake City will do weird things to a person,” wrote Willamette Week music editor Zach Dundas of our hometown band in the sponsoring alt-weekly’s comprehensive NXNW preview guide. “Thirsty Alley’s deeply deranged circus-rock experiments leave you wondering just how much damage all that desert sun and off-kilter Christianity can do.”

Their fellow attendees at the opening NXNW daytime conference were wondering more than that, like, “Who let these clowns in?” and “Is that a special kind of tinfoil?”

Zoome’s fetching outfit-of-the-Thirsty-Alley-moment, an aluminum-foil bustier complemented by matching silver accessories and hair, was an eyeball magnet in the swanky digs of the hosting Embassy Suites as she passed out handbills promoting the band’s Thursday night showcase. In contrast to Zoome’s hyper-perky salesmanship, Ludit—wearing his traditional striped clown suit and face paint with twin “Little Ludit” doll in tow—introduced himself around in a strictly business manner as he gave stunned-yet-curious NXNWers the show flyer and a copy of his hand-lettered, self-titled book. Thirsty Alley was on a mission of its own, just in a more stylish manner than that of their white-shirted brethren back in Zion.

With 300 bands playing in 20 clubs (scaled back from previous NXNWs) over four nights, you gotta do what you gotta do to get noticed—if that meant staying in costume and character for every minute leading up to Thirsty Alley’s Thursday-at-9 showcase, so be it. That was the easy part; convincing those who have not heard that the musicians behind the concept of Thirsty Alley—Tara Duff (Zoome), Dale Lee (Suave), Bob Smith (Ludit), Ralph Mason (Roland) and Butch Moon (Shovelhead)—are legit and serious players was another matter.

“So, what kind of music do you play?” was the question heard over and over during Thirsty Alley’s show-day rounds at the NXNW music-biz vendor booths (by the way, the dubious get-your-band-on the-Internet-or-you’ll-die-a-20th-century-nobody business hasn’t yet bottomed out—see Sound Affects). Being the tag-along writer-guy, I attempted to explain the complexities of Thirsty Alley’s eclectic Cuisinart of jazz, rock, ska, classical, opera and performance art. When I noticed they weren’t really following—mesmerized by Zoome’s glittering breasts and Ludit’s proud ’n’ hairy beer gut—I usually just fell back on “John Zorn, Mr. Bungle, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse—you know, that kinda stuff.”

All it took to get ex-Salt Lake radio guys Rick Emerson and Clyde Lewis (now happily working in Portland and national syndication) to the Thirsty Alley showcase was the mere mention of an “evil clown” in the band—they share a fascination, don’t ask. Although SLC native Lewis lived in Utah most of his life, he’d never seen a Thirsty Alley show, and this harmonic convergence promised two of his favorite things: weird music and pizza.

Out of necessity, NXNW turns the least-likely Portland haunts into concert venues. Rocco’s Pizza—on the triangular corner of Oak, Burnside and 10th Avenue—while tossing the absolute finest pies in the Western United States (no joke—I ate there every day of NXNW), makes our own cozy Burt’s Tiki Lounge look like Kingsbury Hall. Surrounded by display windows facing three major streets, the makeshift Rocco’s mini-stage allowed for 5 feet of surrounding audience area, tops. Even if they had bothered to move the golf (!) video game, it wouldn’t have made much difference, and the glaring florescent lights above what was usually a chow-down area couldn’t be turned off. Rock & roll, baby!

“This is going to limit the theatrics at bit,” understated Suave, the picture of professional cool in his black robe and Silence of the Lambs stainless-steel headgear during sound check. “Welcome to Rocco’s, where the pizzas are bigger than the stage!” [Laughs]

By the time the cute punk-rock waitress with the partially shaved head, multi-pierced face and single-strapped “Crypt For Two” tank-top had served up my slice and microbrew, Rocco’s was filled to capacity, spilling back past the “stage” area and into the lower half of the joint. Also, like shoppers peering into one bizarre fish tank, nearly as many people watched from the streets—including, at one point, Everclear’s Art Alexakis and Elbo Finn’s Jayson Gates (again, see Sound Affects).

Despite the cramped space and careening sonics (glass, tile and pepperoni make for bright, bouncy and greasy acoustics), Thirsty Alley blazed through their 10-song set flawlessly—just like real, professional musicians wearing wacky costumes. Among the several jaws to be picked up off the pizza place floor after Thirsty Alley closed with “Eat My Heart” was Lewis’—the purveyor of all things paranormal on Ground Zero couldn’t believe he’d missed this for years in his own back yard.

“This is the true band of the apocalypse,” he said before heading off into the night with a copy of Ludit’s book. “It’s like watching a doll factory get hit by a nuclear warhead.”

Adding to the surrealism, across the street at Powell’s Books (a gigantic independent bookstore and Portland hotspot), the front marquee announced that Minnesota governor/rassler Jesse Ventura would be in-store two days hence, signing copies of the new follow-up to his literary classic, Ain’t Got Time To Bleed. Perfect.

“I’m going to set up right next to him and sign copies of my book,” Ludit said purposefully. “I’d tell him he needs more pictures and fewer words, like mine.”

No band City Weekly has sent to North by Northwest (or South by Southwest) has scored a record deal yet. How ’bout a book deal, instead?

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