A strangely hip lounge/bingo act begs the question: From whence come the El Orbits?

Drop enough quarters in Bar America, and you begin to get a feel for the music of the El Orbits - the music that sprang up south of the I-10 corridor. A few rounds of bingo don't hurt, either. Because bingo, however cheesy it might sound, is a big part of the band's identity.

The El Orbits got their start on a Monday night in Houston, when drummer and bandleader David Beebe decided to do something about the fact that there was nothing to do on a Monday night in Houston. At their first gig, they ran out of songs in two hours, having exhausted their collective repertoire of South Texas lounge music. Beebe introduced the bingo as filler, with the promise that it would go away after they learned some more tunes. Although they augmented their set with a number of lounge classics ("You Only Live Twice" by Nancy Sinatra, or Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles" sung in the original Hawaiian), the bingo stayed. Now six years later, the El Orbits have become a fixture at the Continental Club in Houston - which Beebe co-owns - and are a regulars at the Continental Club in Austin. They have rocked (or, if not exactly rocked, then at least "strolled") audiences from stages as diverse as the Astrodome and the Astrodome Radisson. It is the band's philosophy that they should make their money doing weddings and private gigs on the weekend, so that they can play for tips from young bingo addicts and lounge lovers during the week. On those terms, they make a living.

"This is a cover band. We have a couple of original songs, but we don't even play 'em," Beebe said, hovering over a plate of Earl Abel's fried chicken, buttered broccoli, mashed potatoes, and cracklin' gravy. With Buddy Holly glasses, a thick Houston accent, and hair that is long by 1950s standards, Beebe looks and sounds like a caricature of a Texas musician. (Earlier, he'd asked the waitress, "Are your green beans cooked with bacon fat and pepper and stuff?" She shook her head, and he said, "Too bad, 'cause I like all that stuff.") For a young guy, he has a strange fixation with Royal Crown Cola and PEZ, and, lucky for his equally young audiences, an encyclopedic knowledge of Texas' musical minutiae. After a long conversation about Doug Sahm ("He played at one of our Austin happy hours"), Huey Meaux's recent parole ("Did you know that his obsession with photographing young girls naked started right after he quit producing music?"), and why people should move to Houston ("It's cooler than you think"), Beebe mentioned that he was recording two new albums at Sugar Hill Records. "As you know, this was the studio

10pm, Tuesday, March 18
Taco Land
103 W. Grayson Street
Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, and all the Huey Meaux stuff came out of," he said, "as well as Kenny Rodgers, 13th Floor Elevators, Bubble Puppy, etc."

So who, where, and "when" are the El Orbits? Are they crooners, surf rockers, or just latter-day lounge lizards? Are they a Houston band, or have they set down roots in Austin? Beebe doesn't have any easy answers, but it's plain to see that they are all of those things.

As far as "when" goes, it might as well have been a few months ago at Tacoland: The El Orbits were halfway through their set, and my bingo card was filling up fast. I just knew that when the band got through their rendition of "Rhinestone Cowboy," Claudette the bingo caller would announce my winning number, B-8, and the Mr. Potato Head on the bandstand would be mine (along with a case of RC Cola, a PEZ dispenser, and a toothbrush). And that's the honest-to-god truth. It would have been prohibitively strange if it hadn't been so gosh darn fun. •


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