Music : Customatic for the people

Lil’ Bit and her hard-working roots band are ready for the world

Jen Adams, aka Lil’ Bit, may come across as a younger, more brooding Wanda Jackson, but she likes to think that she’s channeling Minnie Pearl onstage, along with that giddy jamboree feeling of Hee Haw. But entertaining in public wasn’t always the plan for this flame-haired chanteuse in vintage A-line dresses.

Lil’ Bit and the Customatics.

“My parents were hippies,” says Adams, dynamic singer for local roots heroes the Customatics. “My childhood memories are of them playing in bands and partying. My dad would kinda ambush me and make me sing in his band, and I hated it and would throw a tantrum. So I kinda rebelled against it and turned all nerdy — got involved in every school group, was on the drill team, and got good grades.” In a high-pitched imitation of herself as a teenager, Adams adds, “I was kind of like, ‘I’m going to school for business!’”

After a few years and a few changes in majors, Adams left school when she was invited to join a friend’s band after singing regularly at a karaoke night. She started out singing one song each show, but with her big voice and charisma it was inevitable that she would become lead singer. Then Adams pushed that band, Papa and the Texas Three, to add a standup bass. It was the beginning of a new direction.

Enter lanky and charming Tom “Tomcat” Miller, who just happened to play bass. Miller started working in bands at 12 and ran through the usual San Antonio musical progression: hardcore garage-punk to heavy metal to ... jazz? Well that happened in college and led to scholarships. Ultimately, however, he settled on American roots music. “I picked up the upright bass and just fell in love with all the traditional music,” Miller says. “Now it’s almost all I listen to, quite frankly.”

Adams and Miller both had ambitions that were too big for the original, eight-piece band that brought them together. Adams says, “All the old members kind of got pushed out because the ultimate goal was not just to play around locally, but to play the world if we can.”

The singer and bassist decided to embark on a plan for fame, fortune, and world domination at the end of 2002, with a new band whose name merged Adams’s nickname and the snazzy logo found on an old refrigerator. The band evolved into its current incarnation, with Brian Duarte on electric guitar and Rich Alcorta on acoustic guitar, and occasionally drums or bass. Duarte and Alcorta are San Antonio natives who come from musical families, and neither one can sit still without a guitar in his hands.

Adams and Miller write most of the original songs independently and bring them to the band to polish up. Adams sings lead on the bulk of the songs, but everyone can harmonize, and Miller sings lead on about four songs each set. Though they have loyal fans highly familiar with their original songs, the Customatics are careful to include enough Gene Pitney and Hank Williams covers to make first-time listeners in the audience feel at home. They try to choose less-than-obvious tunes, but a crowd-pleaser like “These Boots Are Made for Walking” is likely to end up on a set list.

The Customatics practice diligently and it pays off in their tight interplay. They’re driven to keep improving. Miller says, “You see us now, and then you see us four months later, you’re gonna see new stuff. It’s not a stagnant operation at all. I’d say before we were primarily hillbilly and rockabilly, even when we played old honky-tonk songs and blues songs, because of our limited instrumentation as a string trio.”

Lil’ Bit and the Customatics
9pm Fri, Apr 28
The Limelight
2718 N. St. Mary’s
8pm Sat, Apr 29
The Cove
606 W. Cypress

They haven’t just added Alcorta, the newest member. They’re also expanding their “musical arsenal,” as Miller likes to say. Duarte has picked up the steel guitar and Alcorta has added drums. Adams is learning mandolin, listening to a lot of Django Reihardt, and writing songs under that influence.

The band members are developing music to reflect their own interest in traditional sounds, but they’re also intent on simply putting on a lively, entertaining show. They even watch recordings of their performances to determine what areas need work — such as eliminating silence or not having all four heads look down at the set list at the end of a song. And if Adams ever feels shy in the limelight, she never shows it while she’s singing in front of the microphone or dancing the stroll in the audience at the front of the stage when Miller takes over the vocal duties.

Lil’ Bit & Customatics haven’t reached that goal of touring the world, yet. But they have developed a fan base on the West Coast, where they try to tour twice a year. Earlier this year they dropped one extended tour to work on new material and prepare for their fourth CD before hitting the road in the September. Until then, they’ll be perfecting new songs and new instruments at several live shows each week.

With regular gigs at Rebar, Sam’s Burger Joint, and the Cove, the foursome are able to make the band their primary job. It’s enough to make Adams glad that she succumbed to her dad’s wishes and learned to embrace her singing voice.

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