The Ballad of Broken Bands
C. Charles Bowden wants to be in a stable band. But, alas, fate has seemingly condemned the 28-year-old to a musical existence where the only sure things are an awesome group name—Other Desert Cities, derived from the sign on eastbound Interstate 10 alerting drivers to the same concept—and a penchant for alt-country beauty that belies his Southern California-raised soul.
Bowden's first efforts under the Other Desert Cities moniker occurred about two years ago, when he convinced friends from other bands to get together and jam. The resulting five-member makeup soon established itself in various 909 and 562 dives, receiving enough attention to justify the release of a self-titled debut on the Huntington Beach-based label Velvet Blue Music. Other Desert Cities was a little tumbleweed of dusty heaven, featuring Bowden's plaintive, slightly reedy voice fronting tender compositions bemoaning and celebrating the passionate heart. The 10 tracks galloped across the country canon—harmonica-heavy declarations ("I Will Lay Down"), pleas softer than a cricket's chirp ("Still Swimming") and a bevy of gentle twangs more familiar to the gusts of the Midwest than the oily smog sky of Long Beach, where Bowden lives. The recording is perfect for long drives through undeveloped land, music that could serve as a soundtrack for the most romantic evening of your young life.
Other Desert Cities—the album and band—were well received. Perhaps too well-received—the quintet became a solo project soon after the debut's release, and Bowden went in search of something new. "It was too country for some of the members of the group, and for the others it wasn't country enough," says Bowden, his easy chuckle and steel-gray eyes showing no lingering resentment. "Oh well. I had to move on with it."
And move on Bowden did. In fact, musically moving on has been the ballad of Bowden's musical trek for the past decade. The special-ed instructor went through various musical forms during his upbringing in Los Alamitos—emo inanities, Dinosaur Jr skateboarding madness, and at one point worshipping anything Van Halen. But always lurking in the background was a tiny Spanish guitar that Bowden found in his parents' closet sometime in the eighth grade.
"You couldn't really rock on it, so I just learned a bunch of three-chord songs that were pretty soft," says Bowden. "Later I fitted it with steel strings and began to twang. After a while, I moved away from hard music and concentrated on writing country-type music."
Bowden always found it difficult to locate others similarly intrigued with lower-decibel musings, however. He filled in for a couple of bands as an auxiliary guitarist, his able strumming and plucking substituting comfortably for AWOL members. Word of his skill and commitment gained Bowden enough respect that he could coax people to join his Other Desert Cities plan. But Bowden bounced around again after the original Other Desert Cities proved an aberration, eventually residing with another local alt-country outfit that shall remain nameless for courtesy's sake.
"I joined the band with the understanding that we would play half and half—my songs and the lead singer's songs," Bowden notes. "And that's how it started. But as we played more and more shows, I started to be relegated to just playing guitar for the singer's songs. It wasn't horrible—I liked the music we were playing. But I wanted to play my own stuff, too."
And thus arrives the second incarnation of Other Desert Cities, formed only two months ago. The trademarks of the Bowden vision whisper better than ever—murmuring organs, crisp guitars, pendulum-reliable bass, and a longing for love only Hank Williams expressed better. Even more exciting are the addition of a flute and oboe, adding a hovering orchestral quality to Bowden's alt-country grittiness.
Bowden is grateful that Other Desert Cities exists again. But he's also conscious of his bad luck in retaining member interest in his dreams. "I'd love to have a solid band," Bowden says. "I currently have one, but I don't know if they even consider themselves full-time members." They all moonlight in other bands, and the keyboardist is in New Mexico finishing school. Practices—"What practices?" Bowden laughs—occur in the days before a show, and that's that.
Bowden understands people have lives, and have plans for fame of their own. And that's why he's insistent on his vision—he's one of those people, too. He just wishes others had the same drive. "That's the problem—a lot of musicians want to jump onto something that they think will hit it big immediately," Bowden opines. "But a band takes a lot of time and patience and effort. A lot of musicians are waiting for their big break, rather than earning it." Bowden certainly belongs in the latter category.
Other Desert Cities perform at the Gypsy Den, 125 N. Broadway Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 835-8840. Fri., 8 p.m. Free. All ages. For more info, visit www.otherdesertcities.com
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