Twin Falls native travels hard rock road

By Brad Bowlin
Special to The Times-News

EUGENE, Ore. - Several hundred voices roar from the darkness as Paul Durham leads his band out of the backstage shadows into the blue-white glow of the spotlights.

A moment passes. The crowd grows uneasy in the unexpected silence as a technician fiddles furiously with a piece of expensive, essential --- and momentarily useless --- piece of equipment on the corner of the stage.

"That's why you do a sound check, folks, so that when the real show begins, something is guaranteed to (foul) up," Durham deadpans into the microphone, a sheepish grin hiding any inner angst. Undaunted, Durham and fellow guitarist Michael Belfer riff into an impromptu, R-rated Laurel-and-Hardy routine that actually has the crowd tossing dollar bills onto the stage before the balky equipment comes to life.

Thus begins another stop on the bumpy road to stardom for Twin Falls High School's most successful musician since Gary Puckett.

A loose cable is the least of what Black Lab has overcome the week leading up to the show at a mid-sized club in this college town. Black Lab finished its stint opening for Kentucky rockers Days of the New with shows in Portland and Seattle before heading east.

Four days earlier in Los Angeles, someone stole the trailer carrying the band's musical gear --- some $40,000 worth of guitars, amps, drums and mundane electronics that can make or break a performance.

"We haven't had time to replace everything yet," Durham said after the show.

"So, even though it sounds great, we're in hell trying to play all of this unfamiliar equipment."

The packed house at The Wild Duck is humored by Durham's offhand comedy to start the show; it is captivated when the tall, gaunt frontman launches into the first of a half-dozen songs from the band's successful debut album, "Your Body Above Me."

Dressed in a collared shirt and rip-free jeans, Durham looks more like a youthful David Bowie with good teeth than the pierced, tattooed idols usually sought by the Tommy Hilfiger set. Veins threaten to escape his neck as he belts out the high-energy "X-ray." Other songs, like the love ballad "Time Ago," absorb him; his eyes close as though he is crooning to some unseen lover`s second-story window.

The tightly woven set betrays no sign of the band's recent struggle.

Durham's brittle tenor soars above the twin guitars, breaking off into a near-falsetto that adds a plaintive tone to Black Lab's powerful melodies.

Call it power pop, alternative, post-grunge --- whatever. It's not far removed from the days more than a decade ago when Durham stood in with Twin Falls High garage band Shades of Gray.

The sound is largely Durham's creation, and it rings familiar to anyone who caught his solo acoustic performance at The Sandpiper nearly four years ago --- the last time he performed in Twin Falls.

Now Durham hopes to achieve the success panned by the punk rock heroes of his youth. In the garage days, a big-label record contract like the one Black Lab signed last year with Geffen Records, or ticket sales handled by Ticketmaster, would have branded a band as a "sellout."

These days, Durham says enjoying the fruits of one's labor doesn't invalidate the music.

"In some fundamental way, punk is over," Durham said over a plate of peppered ahi after the show. "Nobody gets into the music business without wanting to be successful. Punk rock is the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Descendents, Suicidal Tendencies, Green Day. All of those guys wanted the same thing --- to be successful, to not have to worry about paying the rent. There's nothing wrong with that."

Durham insists that signing with a big label didn't mean relinquishing his artistic control. The band members chose the group's name (there's no dog involved; one of them cracked that their sound should be a combination of Stereolab and Black Sabbath.) They picked the art for the album cover. Durham writes most of the lyrics and music himself.

"Almost nothing happens without me seeing and approving it," he said. "Every artist makes a choice. If they don't have control, it's because they didn't want control."

While punk's "sellout" taboo may be gone, its influence on Black Lab's music is not. Belfer was a member of the Sleepers, a San Francisco band that inspired early Bay Area punk icons Sonic Youth. Durham's own musical roots stretch back in time beyond Sonic Youth, through the early pop-punkers Echo and the Bunnymen to the moody introspection of Bob Dylan.

The "image-is-nothing" attitude of punk's early days and Durham's own Buddhist background jibe perfectly with Black Lab's straightforward approach, and that takes the pressure out of potentially embarrassing moments like the Eugene's show's opening.

"That's what people are paying for," Durham said. "They are looking to see some kind of ideal, someone who's not completely absorbed, but who is willing to stand up there and have fun no matter what happens."

The theft of their instruments brought that into focus, Durham said.

"We've had great shows since our (stuff) got stolen," he said. "The loss can make you fearful, but I stepped back and said, `I'm still alive, and everything's still basically OK. We've been good about existing our fears."

Even failure carries no fear. The odds of Black Lab becoming the next R.E.M. or U2 are as long as a Twin Falls High quarterback's chances of starting in the Super Bowl. But Durham says it will have been time well spent.

Years invested learning the music business, from songwriting to producing, will guarantee a job no matter what the future of Black Lab, he says.

For now, he's soaking up the energy from the crowds, living in the moment.

"It sucks sometimes," Durham said. Weeks on the road away from his wife, a San Francisco school teacher, drag through nights spent folding his 6-foot-plus frame into the bed of the band's mini-RV.

"Some days, at 5 p.m., I say `I can't believe I have to go out and play,'î he said. "It`s like you feel like ---- and now you're going to go out and run a marathon."

"But music is energy, and that takes care of itself once I get on stage."

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