Music: Southern Comfort

Now in Texas, former Cincinnatians return on tour with Mr. Brown

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Amy R Smith

PJ Herrington, Diedrich Jones and Kris Brown of Austin's Mr. Brown.

Imposing in stature yet disarmingly humble by nature, P.J. Herrington is a giant of a man with a heart of gold. A modest, modern mystic on a musical mission. Pulling his overloaded SUV into the parking lot of Flamingo Cantina in Austin, Tex., he quietly goes about the task of loading his band's gear out of the truck through the backstage door and onto the club's open-air bandstand. It's a clear mid-May evening, and a cool breeze blows in from overhead. Smiling, Herrington glances up at the rooftop patio that overlooks the stage. Playing the Flamingo twice a month, PJ's Roots Reggae band Mr. Brown has established itself a nice little residency here. It's one of their many regular gigs, a favorite among the band members and their unofficial home base.

After playing almost every venue in Cincinnati, Herrington reached a point where he felt he had "hit the ceiling," maxed out his opportunities here in town. He started playing gigs further out in the suburbs for the money, but that wasn't where he wanted to be.

"I was grateful to be self-supportive playing original music," he says, "and I was real lucky to be able to make a lot of great recordings and gigs with my friends at that time.

But I wasn't getting anywhere. I wasn't moving forward."

The malaise was taking root when Herrington's old friend Kris Brown offered him a gig in his Reggae band Mr. Brown and a place to stay in Austin. Now in a professional band playing a full itinerary of gigs sometimes five or six nights a week, Herrington found himself working at Antone's and a host of other famous Austin clubs almost immediately.

As Herrington goes on to describe how Austin promotes the city through music, I realize he's describing a sort of haven for musicians the likes of which I've never imagined. Did you know that Austin provides free health care to musicians? A quick visit to the offices of Health Alliance for Austin Musicians with proof of recent gigs — say, club listings or a write up from a local paper — and a working musician can can sign up for no-cost coverage.

Commenting on a musician-friendly infrastructure and a positive environment that invokes pride and loyalty among musicians of every genre, Herrington says, "Austin's tourism focus is on music and so the city caters to the creative class. The city wants musicians to feel appreciated because they are its lifeblood."

In just a few short months since leaving Cincinnati for the greener pastures of Austin, he had joined a merry band of expatriates that conquered the Austin club scene. A remarkable accomplishment, made all the more impressive considering the relatively short span of time it took them to pull it off.

To be sure, it was the groundwork laid by Mr. Brown himself — Kris Brown, another Cincy native who relocated to Austin a few years ago — that set the chain of triumphant events in motion. Like Herrington, Brown exudes a warm Buddha-nature that flows instinctively through his every spoken word and every note of his musical expression.

It's impossible to find a musician here in Cincinnati who doesn't hold Brown in high regard. Since relocating to Austin in 2001, his formidable guitar skills and gracious, gregarious nature have been welcomed and woven into the fabric of Austin's legendary music scene.

With their combined musical mastery, decades of club and Dub experience and a scholarly grasp of countless musical genres, Brown and Herrington hold unparalleled pedigrees. After graduating from CCM, Brown played with numerous local outfits, including Rich Uncle Skeleton and his high-spirited Family Sauce. Always keeping to an insanely busy schedule of gigs, he astonished patrons of every Jazz club in the Tristate with a steady stream of blue notes, original tunes and infectious good humor.

After assembling a crew of like-minded players comprised of Texans and Cincy transplants, Brown launched a charm offensive on the Austin club scene and saw immediate results.

I can't pinpoint exactly when I first met Herrington. Both of us active on the Cincinnati music scene for many years, I seemed to see him everywhere at all the cool shows. Occasionally I would happen upon one of his bands onstage when I wandered into a club where they were playing, his big brown hands cradling a beautiful Telecaster, working the warm cozy spaces between the notes.

A master of understatement, Herrington could peel off a sparse, four-note guitar solo that'd give you goosebumps.

After an extended run with the highly successful Jam giants Admiral Walker, Herrington formed The Ropers. A modern mash-up of The Meters and Booker T & The MGs with a liberal dose of heavy Funk, The Ropers were an impressive and provocative bar band. Their largely instrumental performances never failed to get people on their feet, dancing and bumping into tables, spilling beers, kicking over chairs. Normally reserved women suddenly turned wanton and wild, throwing their hands in the air, their hips swaying, their asses shakin'.

Centered around a Gilbert Avenue rehearsal space Herrington shared with several other local bands, a loose collective of musicians convened almost every night of the week. Though often just another typical band practice space we shared with Buckra and Earle Grey, "The Space" morphed overnight into Herrington's home away from home, housing his many guitars, amps, microphones andvintage tape machines and recording equipment.

With Herrington's old friend Kris Brown and Austin's prospects calling out to him, it was just a matter of time before he left us for Texas. Delaying the inevitable for many months, I think he stuck around as long as he could. Booking and playing shows, recording every friend's band for demos and posterity, wringing every last opportunity out of the Cincinnati music scene before finally loading up the wagon and heading west.

Catalysts and conjurers of immeasurable musical magic while we had them in our midst, Cincinnati's loss is Austin's gain.

MR. BROWN plays Saturday at the Southgate House and July 7 at Winton Woods Amphitheater.

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