Denton Rock Lottery Brought Out the Best in Local Music

photo by Emily Cline

On Saturday, Rock Lottery celebrated its 20th anniversary with Rock Lottery 16, featuring a brand new crop of names and faces to be initiated to the tradition. Although this year’s Denton Rock Lottery was only the 16th of its kind, the tradition began in 1997 and has spawned additional lotteries in far-flung cities like Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco, and Baltimore—not to mention a few ex-pat lotteries in British Columbia and South Korea. 

Historically, Rock Lottery has been used not just as a fun opportunity for musicians to expand their horizons, but as a fundraising opportunity as well. Previous beneficiaries have included CASA of Denton County and Denton County Friends of the Family, but this year’s event benefitted KUZU 92.9, Denton’s own fledgling listener-supported radio station. Randall Minick, one of this year’s participants, felt that KUZU was a more-than-deserving pick. “There are so many good things to give to, but right now, this one—for the town—it’s exponentially getting better,” he said.

Dan’s Silverleaf opened its doors early Saturday morning to a flurry of excitement. Participants and spectators milled around the venue and mingled over Bloody Marys and cigarettes. PamFood’s Pam Chittenden served the perfect hangover breakfast: roasted potatoes with chives and bacon, a biscuit casserole topped with cheese and sausage, pickled vegetables, and red and green salsa (with vegetarian and vegan versions available.)

The drawing began at 10:30. Emcee Scott Porter explained the process, pausing to mention that this would be the inaugural year of Rock Lottery posters. Each band would be assigned a visual artist who was tasked with creating a poster—no easy task, since band names were picked very quickly and could in no way indicate what the group’s aesthetic would turn out to be.

Drummers’ names were drawn first, the order of drawing dictating the set order for the night. Each drummer then proceeded to pull four more names from the hat, solidifying their lineups. Finally, the drummers picked one last name from the hat to select their artists. Everyone paused to take band photos, then dispersed to their respective practice spaces, which included businesses—like the Little Guys Movers headquarters—and homes alike. By 12:30, the five bands had names: Kuzumineers, Trash Baby, Orgasmivore, Cactus Head, and Dolphin Butt. Each band’s name was inspired by totally different forces: Cactus Head’s Trent Reeves spent breakfast observing the cacti on the back patio of Dan’s, while Josh Berthume’s daughter Harper picked Dolphin Butt. “She suggested it while we were onstage,” Berthume laughed. “We had a couple of other things we were kicking around, but by the time we got to the rehearsal space, we were like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’”   

For many participants, the bulk of the day was a blur of writing and rehearsing punctuated solely by a 3 PM lunch back at Dan’s (courtesy of Mellow Mushroom and Tex Tapas.) For bassist Avery Taylor of Trash Baby, writing completely on the fly was one of the biggest hurdles. “I was nervous, very anxious…but I was also excited because it’s been a long time since I had fresh people to play with,” Taylor said. “This was kind of like, ‘Where do we even start?’” Trash Baby vocalist and keyboardist Sudie Abernathy found it difficult to maintain the high energy of the morning’s drawing. “Right after lunch I think we were all feeling really tired. We had to really get back into writing,” she said. “I know Bella [Scott] flew in this morning from California, and I only got like three hours of sleep last night…we were all feeling kind of groggy, but then we got back into it.”

For Jabari English of Orgasmivore, an entirely different problem presented itself—a classic case of double-booking. “I fucked up,” English laughed. “I played another show at 7, at Two Sheds. I showed up late and we played a short set, but I went and played that show and came back…doing that made everything kind of hard.”

The issues that arose for Dolphin Butt were unlikely. “It was really easy. We clicked really well. We had five songs before lunch,” drummer Josh Berthume said. “It was really funny shit that was difficult, like picking the order [of the songs.]” Dolphin Butt singer and synth player Dahlia Knowles added, “All five songs are different genres, basically. Sort of showcasing each person.”

By 8 PM, dinner catered by Milpa was served on the back patio of the venue. Some participants ate and chatted, while others ran home for quick naps or a costume change. There was a distinct air of adrenaline and excitement in the building as show-goers began to arrive. When asked about the best part of the day, Cactus Head drummer Trent Reeves simply said, “It’s about to start. The show hasn’t started yet, but I know it’s going to be the best part.”

Scott Porter returned to the stage a little before 10 PM—decked out in a gold lamé jacket and a long black wig—to start the show. KUZU aired a live broadcast of the performances and various speakers. Throughout the night, several integral Rock Lottery figures gave brief talks and acknowledgments, including Rock Lottery co-founder Chris Weber, current Rock Lottery organizer Chuck Crosswhite, and a member of KUZU’s Board of Directors. Dan’s Silverleaf owner Dan Mojica and long-time sound engineer Jimmy Smith were also brought onstage in recognition of Smith’s retirement after decades of service to the venue. (In classic Jimmy form, when offered the microphone and an opportunity to speak, Smith simply turned the microphone off.) 

Kuzumineers (John Hodge, Ian Hamilton, Dale Jones, Joe Snow, and Randall Minick) were the first band of the night. The group kicked their set off with a slow-burning instrumental number filled with wavering, psychedelic riffs and droning basslines provided by two synths. Snow’s lap steel floated atop the other instruments, lending the song a mournful, eerie feel. (If “desert psych” wasn’t previously a genre, it may as well be now.) Each song managed to sound both at-home with and alien to the one that came before it, an effect resulting from an egalitarian use of each band member’s talents. “Initially, when we were all first meeting, we were kind of trying to fathom what was going to happen,” Minick said after the set. “Fortunately [the music] came naturally because we didn’t have a bass player, so myself and the other synth guitar player were able to kind of take that role and switch it off… It just worked out really well.” Cohesiveness wasn’t Kuzumineers’ only accomplishment—singer and guitarist Dale Jones also brought a good deal of showmanship to his performance, pausing after the group’s second song to pull a bundle of coupons from his pocket and ask, “Anyone get any good deals today?” As they launched into their next tune, a catchy rager with a chorus of “Beautiful deals,” Jones began tossing the coupons to the crowd. Later he reminded the crowd to support KUZU with a bit of rhyming wisdom: “Open your purse and you’ll open your ears; open your wallet, ‘cuz that’s why we’re here.”

Trash Baby (Bella Scott, Avery Taylor, Sudie Abernathy, César Velasco, and Alan Painter) came onstage second, toting a synthesizer and keyboard in addition to the standard guitar, bass, and drums. Scott’s keyboard complemented Painter’s surfy guitar work as Velasco kept time. The band’s ambiance was equal parts soft electronic dreamscape and noisy punk breakdown, tethered by Abernathy’s ethereal vocal looping prowess. Trash Baby’s physical performance echoed that dichotomy: Abernathy and Scott maintained a focused, cool energy, while Taylor, Velasco, and Painter remained a little more frenzied. At the end of the band’s first song, Velasco screamed a “Trash baby!” refrain while Abernathy echoed the phrase more quietly into the microphone. The even division of labor wasn’t just apparent from a spectator’s perspective; Abernathy herself felt that the lottery worked in Trash Baby’s favor. “I feel like we got a really ‘even’ band,” she said before going onstage. “We all did our fair share of writing and participating. It was really easy between all of us.” Trash Baby had also managed to secure a loyal fan base even before playing their first show: by 8 PM, there was at least one audience member in attendance who had created their own Trash Baby t-shirt for the occasion. (Taylor informed us prior to their set that Trash Baby fans refer to themselves as the Trash Daddies, a fact he demonstrated by asking the crowd between songs, “Who’s a Trash Daddy?”

Not to be outdone, Orgasmivore (Jabari English, Ellie Alonzo, Poppy Xander, Teddy Georgia Waggy, and Stephanie Burns) took the stage with one of the night’s biggest assortments of gear, including two synths and an Omnichord. Orgasmivore was also the closest Rock Lottery 16 would get to an “all-girl” band, a fact that wasn’t lost on vocalist and guitarist Waggy. “The band I got picked to be with was my dream band. I was really hoping to get paired up with all of those people…I just really wanted to hang out with a bunch of women all day,” she laughed after the set. “And I got the most females out of anybody!” Orgasmivore’s sound defied categorization—due in part to the band’s wide array of instruments, but due also to the incredibly varied musical backgrounds of each performer. English, the sole rapper selected for Rock Lottery 16, felt this was an advantage. “Being the only rapper in this, there’s all these people in the scene that I’m not a part of,” he explained after the performance. “So I got to hear people’s music that I’d never heard and meet people that I never would have met outside of this.” Xander’s piano and effects-laden vocals gave the performance a witchy texture, while Burns and Waggy filled the sound out on bass and guitar. English sang and handled the Omnichord for a couple of songs, wearing a pair of vampire teeth for the whole performance. At various times the set was Vaudevillian, theatrical, or something Amanda Palmer would have appreciated—anything but pedestrian. The band ended with a dreamy cover of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” putting English on drums and Alonzo on the Omnichord.

Cactus Head (Tyler Adams, Trent Reeves, Chelsey Danielle, Katie Reese, and Brad Steiger) kicked things into high gear with a strong opening song demanding that everyone get up and move. Reese and Danielle lent both their voices, Reese pausing toward the end of the song to turn her guitar into an improvised noisemaker via the use of a megaphone. The band also paid tribute to Tom Petty with a powerful cover of “I Need to Know.” Steiger took over vocals, allowing Danielle to pull her vibraphone onstage and pick up the song’s piano melodies. Adams took over vocals for the third song, bringing a keenly early-2000s post-punk sensibility to the fore. Before the band’s closer, the vibraphone disappeared and a massage table mysteriously made its way onstage. Danielle, perched on top of the table, introduced the night’s most unlikely instrument: the bare butt and back of Pearl Earl bassist Stephanie Lazcano. (According to several Cactus Head members, the idea was introduced as a joke that very quickly became serious.) Danielle opened the song with a butt-percussion solo, followed closely by Reeves’ precise and metronomic drumming, then by Steiger, Adams, and Reese in an impressive display of technical prowess and pop rock fun.

Despite their silly name, Dolphin Butt (Josh Berthume, Dahlia Knowles, Daniel Doyle, Daniel Folmer, and Torry Finley) opened with a clean post-punk number rife with dark undertones and a vaguely Fever Ray sensibility. Berthume kept time with flawless dexterity while Knowles doubled her vocals a couple of octaves via an effects pedal. The band’s second song was a bit sillier: Doyle told the crowd, “This is our theme song,” before launching into the band’s imagined origin story (which included a dolphin who needed a little help with bathroom hygiene.) But the lyrical goofiness didn’t fall flat; the group decided on a fast-paced psychobilly aesthetic that lent itself to the absurdity. Folmer jumped in on vocals for the third song, as well as the fourth, which was entitled “Denton Plan 2020”—a riff on scene and city politics fueled by Berthume’s double bass pedal and a noisy ending. The last song of the night was a cover of Cher’s “Believe,” something that Knowles had been excited for all day. “I’ve been meaning to cover a Cher song basically since I was born, so this is a very big deal,” she said before the show began, “and it came together so beautifully.” The cover was indeed beautiful, as the band opted to trade the fast-paced electro house beat of the original for a ballad-style slow dance version. Knowles’ gorgeous, doubled vocals were complemented perfectly by Finley, Doyle, and Folmer, creating a perfect closer for the evening.

Attendees and performers alike generally agreed that the evening had a touch of magic about it. For many participants, the idea of being part of a storied tradition was the biggest draw. “I was super honored to be included,” Knowles said. “This shit is so iconic.” Teddy Georgia Waggy echoed that sentiment. “When I first heard of Rock Lottery years ago, I thought, ‘I really want to do that someday, I hope they ask me, but I would be so nervous,’” she admitted. “But I’ve been a musician in the scene long enough that the nerves just wear off after awhile…it feels like the point of today is to be in an uncomfortable position, and if everybody’s doing it, then nobody should be afraid.”

For others, the inspiration and motivation inspired by the event was what appealed the most. “I haven’t been in a band since 2010, and I always wanted to be in Rock Lottery,” Josh Berthume said. “It’s kind of prompted me to get music back in my life again. Today was really rewarding and super fun.”

For Randall Minick, one of the most exciting aspects of Rock Lottery 16 was the range of ages and backgrounds of the participating musicians. “This year was really fortunate in that [Rock Lottery] had a lot of newer and younger people that haven’t been in the scene as much, along with some of those older players,” he explained. “There were a lot of new punk kids. I almost felt like it was half younger people, and that gave it a fresher vibe.” Minick also felt that the variety made for more interesting musical results. “I was really scared I’d get stuck with a banjo player, a drummer who just does country…I was worried I’d just get stuck in a folk band,” he laughed. “The fact that everybody was pretty varied, I thought was great.”

But maybe the most central magic of Rock Lottery is the sense of possibility that comes from taking risks and collaborating with strangers. “Everyone always jokes, ‘There’s a Rock Lottery band that’ll make it, that’ll become a real band, and they’ll keep going,’” Berthume said. “I don’t think it’s ever happened, but the fact that people can feel that way about people they’ve maybe never even met and have a day of that kind of creative experience is really fucking life-affirming.”

Photos by Emily Cline
Header image layout designed by Cristopher Rodgers