Felton, Gerry "Phareaux"
Every rock fan relocating to Austin remembers their first jaw-droppingly great guitarist. For me, that was Gerry "Phareaux" Felton of the Commandos, whose playing was expressive without being showy, twangy without being retro.
The sad news came Tuesday that Felton, an original guitarist for Omar and the Howlers, passed away Sunday 20 January 2007 from a heart attack suffered at home in Albuquerque, N.M., where he had moved with wife Linda in the early '90s. His funeral service will be in Albuquerque on Friday.
A native of Hattiesburg, Miss. who moved to Austin in 1980, Felton made an indeliable mark on Austin music with the Commandos, the melodic, but raucous roots rock band that was the first to charge a cover at the Hole in the Wall. Nobody complained about having to pay three bucks, because it was better than having to look in from the outside to see all the euphoria you were missing. Every guy had a crush on singer Suzy Elkins, who looked like Carlene Carter and brought a smooth, sultry delivery to the tuneful jackhammer sounds.
Every guitar player in the place, however, came to watch Phareaux, who had the ability to take songs higher, harder than it seemed possible with string-bending ferocity. He was also a sturdy, intuitive rhythm player who once turned down an offer to join one of Stevie Ray Vaughan's early bands because he wanted to stay loyal to Omar.
To my thinking, Phareaux was a great rock guitarist because he served the song, not his ego. Don't get me wrong: He could tear it up, but he also wrote most of the songs that you would sing in the car on the way home from a Commandos gig.
Anyone who saw the Commandos at the Hole in the Wall knows the fun that I'm talking about. That band put the Hole on the map.
But I saw them first at the Back Room in April 1984. This was before the club was a hair band haven. There were about five red booths and a few table and chairs in the club's shotgun layout. The night before, my first in town, I had seen the Butthole Surfers at the Continental Club and they fried my brains. I met a few people that night who, asked about other great bands in town, suggested the Commandos.
Because of the name and who had recommended them, I thought the Commandos would be a hard-core thrash band. But they were more of a straight ahead rock band, closer to my tastes than punk. Sitting there listening to all those great songs, most penned by Phareaux, then later standing in front of the band's intensity, I felt like I was finally where I was meant to be. Any town where folks loved both the Surfers and the Commandos was paradise all right.
Phareaux Felton raised the bar on Austin's roots rock scene by showing that you had to have songs to go with the riffs and solos. He and the Commandos made at least one new resident of Austin realize that they had made the right move.