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Back in the day, Austin couldn’t hold an incense candle to Darth Vato. Photo by E.R. Bills

Here’s the thing — with all due respect for my hometown.

If my brain had lips, they left the Fort Worth area in 1985 quite parched and on the verge of cracking. I was ready to move on to a new libation, something different, something more diverse.

I was born in Fort Worth and grew up in Aledo when it was little more than a farm town. An uninspiring “Jack and Diane” ditty from John Cougar Mellencamp. I went to college at Texas State University and thoroughly enjoyed the college scene in San Marcos and frequent visits to Austin. Upon graduation and a year of graduate school, I fled to Austin and pursued curriculum-less, uncredited graduate studies. It was a great time to be young and a great city to be young in. I whetted my brain and my eardrums on a revolving catalog of music, quasi-Bohemian freedoms, and copious amounts of inebriating tonics. Austin in the early ’90s was a mecca for slackers, budding hackers, wayward misfits, sexual free-for-alls, and a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious music scene. Not much of it was corporatized yet, and you never knew what you would find or who or what was behind the music that was emanating from the next bar, dance club, or live venue you stumbled by. And sometimes you followed those sounds and were blown away. It was a reckless, wonderful ride that Austin no longer really offers.

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I left town in mid-1994 and spent months backpacking through Europe. I returned with shoulder-length dreadlocks, and Cowtown reentry was something of a culture shock. In fact, one of my mother’s friends actually broke down in tears when she beheld my white-bread natty dreads. It was an inauspicious re-beginning, but my reassimilation was made easier by a beautiful woman who became the love of my life. A laidback West Indies girl who joined me in late-onset marriage, kiddos, a morgue-age, and a begrudging lapse into conventional maturity. (It happens.) The dreads long gone, my wife and I were still known to drop our squids off at the grandparents and sneak off to Austin for reprieves now and again. But they became fewer and fewer.

But after a few more orbits around the sun, something wonderful and unexpected happened. I had dropped out of grad school (again) and was working full time, but I still occasionally perused the entertainment sections of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and something new (to me, at least), the Fort Worth Weekly. And what I got wind of mildly shocked me. A Bob Marley Festival?! In Cowtown?! I’d never been to one of those, even in Austin. I’d seen the Killer Bees in San Marcos, yes, and had always been something of a Bob Marley fan. But a Bob Marley Festival in Fort Worth?!

I was intrigued and excited. This was heretofore undiscovered territory for me in the FW. I was stoked but suspicious. I remember pondering the distinct possibility that we might encounter only six other people there.

What I discovered instead at the old Trinity Park, at the southeast corner of West 7th and Museum Way, was a full-blown funky reggae party, with three stages and hundreds if not thousands of attendees. My wife and I took our young twins, basked in the laidback vibes, and enjoyed a restorative lapse into Rastafarian grace. And shockingly — almost unbelievably — one of the best bands at the event was an all-white Fort Worth group called Root 420. The lead singer was a Rio Grande Valley dude named Joe Vano.

Vano had attended college at TCU and was a fixture at local poetry nights, but after seeing Leroy Shakespeare and the Ship of Vibes, he decided to try to channel his creative energies into reggae. After Root 420, Vano with bassist Marcus Lawyer, keyboardist Justin Pate, guitarist Steffin Ratliff, and drummer Damien Stewart came together to form Pablo & The Hemphill 7. And the band singlehandedly made reggae a living thing in Fort Worth. In fact, they even opened for Bob Marley’s former band, The Wailers, at the Ridglea Theatre on one occasion. I saw them at a couple more Bob Marley Festivals in Cowtown, including the last one — before the event ended here — and then Pablo began playing the festivals in Dallas.

I got on with raising kids, coaching my kids’ little league sports teams, and more, but in 2007 or so, a couple of old college buddies came to town at the last minute on New Year’s Eve, and we went to see Pablo at Lola’s Saloon. Years had passed, but Pablo was still great. Their opening act, however, reduced me to a gurgling, gaping primate. They were a punk-ska-reggae band that called themselves Darth Vato, and their stuff was as tight and original as anything I’d ever heard emanating from a pub, club, or live venue in Austin.

Anything.

And, as it turns out, I probably spilled beer on them at the last Bob Marley Festival in Cowtown. Lead vocalist/guitarist Kerry Dean and bassist/lyricist Steve Steward were there as well, and they decided to form Darth Vato after seeing Pablo. Steward reached out to drummer Eric Dodson, and in 2002 Darth was born. By around 2007, DV was mind-blowing genius. Razor-knife clever and concrete strawberry real. And real funny. It was like The Pixies and Bad Brains had a baby in Texas, and then the little shit grew up here with a D’reetos chip on his shoulder and a penchant for pensive unruliness. Legend has it that as a toddler, Darth demolished the animatronic animal band at Chuck E. Cheese and started belting out “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. And the future frat kids cried in their watered-down apple sauce, and the Tanglewood mothers clutched their pearls.

I can’t lie, I’ve been huffing their stuff ever since.

The one thing I didn’t miss about Austin was the constant swell of pretentiousness. And the one thing I always dug about my hometown was the lack thereof. For me, Pablo and DV represented Fort Worth in a way that nobody repped Austin while I was there. And they still inspire and impress me today. They’re Fort Worth institutions now. And not like a lame Chip and Joanna Gaines pledge of middling, geriatric conformity in Waco or even a nod to pandering obviousness like Kelly Clarkson of Burleson. There’s always less than meets the eye to those institutions, but they make a lot of money keeping the mediocre comfortable with mediocrity. Pablo and DV never sold out, and they kept on keeping on and keeping true when so many others cowered and cowed down. Talk about balls — Pablo & The Hemphill 7 never even made an album. And Darth Vato made a few and should have made it big, but they were probably too talented and too clever for their own good. (It happens.)

Pablo and DV have excited and inspired me in ways I can hardly express. And they still excite me. Fort Worth originals, through and through, that can still sling righteous vibes and good times 21 and 20 years in, respectively. Their tunes can change your whole mood, make you laugh, or make you plumb unexpected depths. And you wouldn’t be able pick them out from any other Cowtowner eating fried chicken at Drew’s Place or walking through the Fort Worth Zoo. Where they would fit right in if they didn’t have mad rhythms and wicked prefrontal lobes.

All this, of course, to say they’ll be playing Lola’s Saturday, the indispensable venue’s last weekend before a move to Berry Street. And it will also be Dodson’s final DV gig before a move to Florida (bastard!).

My brain’s lips are whetted with anticipation. I’ve already purchased 16 tickets. I’ll be there with my “Greenlight Girl” and “a ferret named Thor.” I’ll be beer-soaked and possibly unsteady (trying to balance my longboard on the dancefloor), but I’ll be “Smilin’ Today” like tomorrow’s the farthest thing away.

Who says you can never go back?

I get to every time I see Pablo & The Hemphill 7 and Darth Vato. It’s something I’ve never really admitted to anyone, but I’m an addict. I have a severe aural fixation, and when Lola’s moves and Dodson leaves, I’m afraid it may be Thumbzilla for longer and longer spells! Then I’ll have only Pablo to stave off Northside Bocephuses and Chuck E. Cheese.

Oh, my brothers and sisters, let’s get irie. Let’s Lola Pablo and Darth together one last time!

 

Fort Worth native E.R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious and Fear and Loathing in the Lone Star State.

 

 

Darth Vato, Pablo & The Hemphill 7, Protect & Swerve, Brotherhood
6pm Sat at Lola’s Trailer Park, 2735 W 5th St, FW. $10-13. 817-759-9100.

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