May 21, 2012

One Band’s Long Road to Being the Next Big Thing

By Emily Grobe and Forrest Burnson
For Reporting Texas

The band named Austin Heat had just finished its set at the Hole in the Wall, a longtime music hangout in Austin just off the UT campus. Sitting on the back patio, singer Brian Scartocci mulled over his half-eaten Philly cheesesteak.

“To be completely honest, this sandwich was not worth $9,” he said.

The band was not paid to play at the Hole in the Wall. Nor were the members given any handouts from the grill. Such is the life for one of the scores of bands trying to make it in the Live Music Capital of the World. Austin Heat, whose five members range in age from their mid-20s to their 60s, have their own tale to tell.

Austin Heat plays a combination of soul, rock and funk — yes, similar to a sound heard around the city for decades, most famously promoted by Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan. But in this band’s case, the funk rock sensibilities of Parliament are paired with Beatlesque arrangements, and Scartocci’s voice, reminiscent of Al Green, brings it all together. These are not your father’s Fabulous Thunderbirds.

The group has jammed around Austin for the past three years, picking up gigs downtown, playing the fraternity circuit and the occasional wedding. Now, Austin Heat is on the verge of releasing a new album, and the band members hope to a solidify a bigger fan base.

Singer Brian Scartocci and guitarist Austin Roach of Austin Heat on stage at Club 606 in downtown Austin earlier this month. Photo by Emily Grobe.

Keyboard player Don Burrows played with Joe Ely in the early ’70s. Drummer Dexter Walker regularly fills in for national acts, and played for Willie Nelson and Rick James. Freddie Marshall on bass has opened for the Bee Gees and played alongside Kenny Rogers and James Polk.

The younger members — Scartocci and guitarist Austin Roach – draw much of their inspiration from the experience of the older members.

“The other three grew up in the era of real music, and me and Austin are definitely old souls in that regard,” Scartocci said.

The band members agree that they were lucky enough to find each other and crazy enough to make it work.

Roach and Walker first met about eight years ago when Roach, then 15, was playing gigs at which his parents dropped him off. Walker, 60, was so impressed with Roach’s playing that the two started jamming together. Roach’s college roommate is the son of keyboard player Don Burrows. Walker, Marshall and Burrows crossed paths on the music circuit throughout their roughly three decades of making music. Scartocci, a New Jersey native, was introduced to Marshall over a phone call after dabbling in the Austin scene for a few years.

“I remember when he auditioned over the phone for Freddie,” Walker said during practice recently. “He sang ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ and we all knew, ‘Dang, that is our guy right there.’ ”

“The guy that put me on the phone asked if I knew that song, and I laughed,” said Scartocci, whose son was named for David Ruffin, who sang lead on The Temptations’ vintage hit. “Of course I knew the song.”

Scartocci is as comfortable singing Motown as he is crooning Sinatra or the wedding reception standards. But the intensity of their rehearsals, held in a run-down house in an otherwise quiet neighborhood, makes it clear that Austin Heat wants to be more than a cover band.

“Certainly singing songs other artists have sang isn’t our idea of what we want to be doing, but it works for now,” Scartocci said before pausing to hear Marshall explain how that last verse should finish a little quicker and with a bit more upswing – “the way [he] used to do it in the ’70s.”

“We certainly know how to make each other better,” Scartocci laughed. And they each agree that starting a band in Austin is “difficult” – in fact, so far it has been trying, according to band members.

“Every show we play we play it our hardest, but if no one is paying attention, it’s really frustrating,” Scartocci said.

And like most bands in the city, they each make their own sacrifices to see it through.

Roach, who graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in electrical engineering, works at a pizza place by day and plays music by night. He isn’t ready for a job where he has to wear a tie, as he puts it, but hopes to put his degree to use and some day open a boutique guitar amplifier company with his father.

“I’m really happy with this band,” Roach said. “It’s really unique, and it kinda freaks me out sometimes. It shouldn’t work as well it does. But it does.”

Late on a Thursday, playing to a marginally non-existent crowd, save friends, girlfriends and bartenders, the band used the time to relax, work through songs and have some fun. But the wait for the established fan base, the first finished album and the flowing funds can be trying.

“We just want to play music and have fun, and we want the audience to connect and have fun too, you know?” Roach said. “It’s hard to get to the next level.”

Getting to the next level means trucking through barely attended shows. It’s frustrating for the older band members, who seem to have less patience for gigs that will not make any money.

“I’m too old for this,” Walker said, before being called back to stage to finish the band’s last song for the dozen audience members at a downtown spot, Club 606.

Back at practice in the house, the band worked on a new song — the first on their second album, a sign of optimism. The floor of the practice space is beer-stained, and the doors were kept open to let air circulate on the balmy spring night.

“We’re drifting, honey,” the band harmonizes at the end of the new song, possibly singing of their future. “We’re drifting to the promised land.”