Song of South Florida

How Humbert attacked the music industry in Austin, Texas, and maybe, sorta, won.

Humbert is on many lips. The guerrilla tactics are working.

"I've known Humbert a long time. Eight to ten years ago, they played their very first gig here at Churchill's," says Michael Toms, co-owner of the Miami rock mecca. "As did Marilyn Manson. And the Mavericks." The band was a three-piece then, with Ferny, Tony, and drummer Izo Besares. Rimsky came onboard in '97; Caesar joined after Izo's bum shoulder and unwavering dedication gave out in '03. Says Toms, "I'm tremendously supportive of whatever they're trying to do."

Kim E. Leon
One of the few of 3,000 balloons that was actually inflated with helium
One of the few of 3,000 balloons that was actually inflated with helium

His sentiment is echoed by the more than 20 bands at the Humbert fundraiser on March 4, nine days before the band's departure for Austin. Fort Lauderdale garage rockers the Remnants give props from the stage, as does Leo's band, Humbert's Hialeah brethren the Brand. After his set, Leo can't help but gush about the Humbert mystique.

"There's something magical about how they do things and they way they are as musicians and people and friends," he says. "It's completely natural, and that's where the magic happens. Some bands have to try really hard. These guys don't try at all."

Almost by default, Humbert ends up playing a mentor role for younger, less experienced bands. "I mean, I'm 24 years old, you know?" Leo says. "Those guys, they have some age, some knowledge. They were playing shows when I was in middle school in Miami. That alone counts for a lot. Like, damn, these guys are almost 15 years older than me, but it doesn't come up, because that's how youthful they are."

The night goes on, and Tony begins tallying the door, all of which will go toward gas and hotel bills in Austin. Roughly $1,300 — a great haul. Outside, the twee-rockers in Miami's Baby Calendar take a few minutes to join the admiration. Like them, few people in this close-knit scene realize that Humbert's trip to Austin is actually its second. Tony and Ferny were there in 1994 as part of the band I Don't Know. Since then, Tony has applied to South by Southwest every year with no luck. You have to wonder if there's any professional jealousy among Humbert's peers now that 12 years and 12 rejections later, the band has the green light.

"When you know that someone deserves something so much, you have to be happy for them," Baby Calendar keyboardist Jackie Biver says. "If it was some sucky band, you might get a little jealous. But you just can't for Humbert."

Austin's mild weather broke late Friday night, so Saturday morning, the band awakes at the Ramada to a damp, chilly day and promptly goes back to bed. Most of the afternoon parties — invite-only soirees sponsored by record labels, publicity agencies, music magazines, and other self-appointed bastions of taste-making — have been called off due to rain. Thankfully, only a few hundred fliers and a handful of CDs are left after last night's melee. No whip-cracking today; the afternoon is spent resting, eating, and visiting Austin's famed Waterloo Records.

By 6 p.m., the band arrives at the Blender Balcony at the Ritz for load-in. The place sits on the corner of Sixth and San Jacinto, SXSW ground zero. A good-sized hall sponsored by the popular music magazine, Blender Bar's door is obvious from the street, but the Balcony is reached via a narrow, undesignated stairway hidden off to the side of the main entrance.

Upstairs, things are no less confusing. There's no stage, a wall of speakers is stacked on one side of the room, and there are six tiered, box-seat areas. It's a weird layout.

Although nobody in the band seems outwardly nervous, they're not exactly calm either. After the hours on the street, the thousands of miles, the thousands of fliers, and the success of the video, no one's really sure how the night is going to go.

"Either I leave here drunk and depressed because there's only six people here," Caesar announces, "or I leave drunk and ecstatic because everybody shows up."

"A lot of people might not know this is the Blender Balcony," Tony says. "I missed it when I was loading gear in."

"It's easy to miss. Why don't we make a sign for outside that says 'Humbert, 9 p.m. '?" Ferny suggests.

With two hours left before the gig, the band goes into full-on action mode. Tony, Franco, Dave, and Leo head outside to dish out the last of the fliers. Rimsky gets to work making signs indicating the stairway. Ferny and Caesar check out the backline equipment, the amps and drum kit they're borrowing from the band playing before them.

They're diffusing nervous energy. A distinct, powerful ambivalence settles in, strong feelings pulling in opposite directions. This could be the biggest gig Humbert has ever played, the gig that attracts all the right people, that soars into the heavens, that guarantees a record deal. Or it could be just another gig.

"There's the hype of South by Southwest," Rimsky says, "but really it's the same as playing Churchill's or Tobacco Road. We totally busted our asses, and even if nothing comes of it, we had a great time. Tony told me the same thing the other night. If nothing happens, he just wants to have stories to tell his kids."

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