AUSTIN, Texas -- A gray haze hangs heavily over the outdoor stage at Emo's.
It's just turned 1 a.m. on a hot, dark Thursday night (July 23) in Texas, but even with the sun tucked safely in bed, the temperature stubbornly refuses to drop below 80 degrees. The humidity is so thick that clouds of cigarette smoke linger in the air long after being exhaled.
"A beer for Kerri [Davis, guitar/vocals] and a rum and Coke for Debi [Martini, bass] please," is the call from the stage, where it gets so hot under the lights that a girl could wilt.
That means a potentially extended delay before the night's set by the Red Aunts -- a situation that ordinarily might send a crowd into apoplectic fits.
But because this night is special, because this night will never happen again, the crowd (many of which are purse-carrying Red Aunt doppelgängers with choppy nerd bangs and dresses) waits for drinks to be delivered and for strings to be re-tuned with the patience of school kids on their best behavior.
The audience knows that the Red Aunts -- L.A.'s punk version of the Pink Ladies -- are breaking up after this tour (only 10 shows remain after this night). And that means this may be the last chance fans get to see their favorite group in Austin.
The Red Aunts begin the show casually, with a simple imitation of an industrial sewing machine -- a long series of clicks and taps that threaten to go on forever but last just until the precise moment the crowd gets restless. The sudden slam into "$5" -- a song from RA's fourth (and stylistically riskiest) CD, Saltbox -- sounds fat and full and lush in comparison, and it immediately sets the place on fire, causing a spontaneous, coed slam pit to erupt, a whirl of handbags and smeared makeup and sweat.
Frontwoman Kerri Davis takes the vocals, her generous lips (an easy match for Mick Jagger's pout) curled into a gloriously wide grin, her muscled right arm cocked at a 90-degree angle (from which she pounds, rather than strums, her guitar), and she wails "I can't feel anything" in a rich, bluesy style, mustering more soul than most punk bands would ever dare display.
On this night, the signature aggression, the famed RA attitude, is largely gone. There will be no swearing at the audience, no overlapping rants between the dark-haired leaders, Davis and Terri Dahl (guitar/vocals). The spit and fire and get-down-on-your-knees fury has been quashed by the heat and the sadness, replaced with thoughtful nostalgia and long periods of dead airtime, where nothing is said at all.
"Do we have any stories to tell?" Davis asks Debi Martini, the silently cool blonde Aunt, who shakes her head no, and they just stand there for a moment, fidgeting.
Of course, this might also be a survival tactic, a way to conserve strength between songs, which remain tightly coiled bursts of fearsome female energy, a Clorox cocktail garnished with a maraschino cherry.
To the Aunts, Austin is a favorite stop. "I'm gonna miss Austin," Dahl says in her best Laverne DeFazio whine, looking out at the 300-plus crowd with affection. "I really am. Even though the devil lives here 'cause of how hot it is."
And while the Red Aunts may sound "punk" to a layman's ear, the girls from L.A. are far more complex than that. Punk is just the package. Wrapped inside is a burning heart beating to the sound of a vast collection of pop influences.
Over the course of five CDs, the Red Aunts, including drummer Lesley Noelle, have managed to subtly fuse country-western, swamp blues, pop-rock and '50s girl-group sounds into their shrieky, sketchy outlines, more as subliminal messages than as show-offy genre-hopping.
While this method might not always work (at Emo's, a few songs threaten to fall apart onstage), sticking their necks out is what makes the Aunts true pioneers. Each song charts an unpredictable course of hairpin turns, herky-jerky starts and stops, violent tempo changes and catchy, sing-along choruses that last all of three seconds. Brilliant pop hooks that most other bands would milk for all they're worth are casually tossed off by the RAs, never to be heard from again, as if to say, "So what? There's more where that came from."
At Emo's, the Aunts churn out an hour-long batch of songs off four of their CDs (continuing a tradition of ignoring their debut, Drag). Davis, who handles the bulk of the singing tonight, continues to sparkle, playing as if each chord transports her to a better world.
Dahl is subdued in comparison, simply going through the motions (even her trademark on-the-floor moment appears forced). Martini is pale behind dark sunglasses, far removed in her pose on the right side of the stage, standing stock-still as she sings "Whatever" (RealAudio excerpt) in a jaded alto. Her expression is unchanging, except for when she accidentally drops a lit cigarette into the audience. Noelle continues to drive out her own brand of startlingly original drumming, shifting from backwoods shuffle to squeaky-clean cheerleader riffs without dropping her cigarette or disturbing her molded, black, Annette Funicello-style bubble-flip.
The show ends without fanfare, near 2 a.m., with a quick encore blast through the 20-second, hardcore "Smoke," after which Dahl bids farewell: "Goodbye, Austin. We're gonna miss you a lot."
Climbing down from the stage, Davis joins her, and they both squat on the floor (coolness before modesty) before the arctic breeze of an industrial-sized floor fan.
Club-goer Melissa Wilson, realizing that there will be no more encores, extracts herself from the pit (where she has danced for nearly an hour), slinging her white purse over her shoulder. "It was amazing," she says, wiping sweat off the back of her neck and straightening her slip. "It blew me away."
Davis, standing near the breeze of the giant fan, is still so sweaty that her bright-orange guitar pick remains glued to the center of her forehead like a bindi.
"Right now, I feel the way I was meant to feel," she says wistfully. "Playing -- it's the best feeling in the world."
She pauses, the magic-markered setlist on her forearm melting into an unintelligible black smear.
"I'm really sad we're breaking up."