An unadulterated evening of Texas-style and Texas-sized rock and roll got started with a little North Carolina folk music. American Aquarium’s BJ Barham played a set of his new songs, commanding the audience at the Tralf in Buffalo, with just his voice and sparse acoustic guitar. The material was inspired by the attacks in Paris last year, during which Barham happened to be about an hour outside the city.
But then the rock came. And later the roll.
Austin’s Heartless Bastards blasted out of the gates with “Gates of Dawn” off of their latest release, Restless Ones. Their music is like a silly putty replica of classic rock. They’ve mashed the putty down, lifted up the image of rock as it was, and pull at it, distorting it into a creation that is all their own. They stretch it out until it slows almost to a standstill, bringing out the beauty of every nuance.
Drummer Dave Colvin controlled the putty, shaping and forming the rhythm with master strokes and splashes of cymbals and brilliant fills. Bassist Jesse Ebaugh accentuated the drawn out pace, while still managing to enter in some full-on lead bass lines into the mix. Mark Nathan’s guitar crunched out some good old anthemic rock lines slowly building into epic soars as Colvin and Ebaugh drive the beat forward. Kyleen King filled in the empty spaces when and where they existed, playing guitar, percussion, keys and backing vocals. Above it all, and lending as much to their signature sound as anything, was rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist Erika Wennerstrom. In a different era, Wennerstrom’s voice would be on every radio in America, a one-of-a-kind marvel of a sound that perfectly melds with the oozing power of the Heartless Bastards.
Heartless Bastards hit upon all eras of the band, and peaked throughout the mid-set trio of “Hold Your Head High,” (from 2009’s The Mountain) “The Fool” (off Restless Ones) and “Down in the Canyon” the epic closer of 2012’s Arrow.
Rhett Miller (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), Ken Bethea (lead guitar), Murry Hammond (bass) and Philip Peeples (drums) have been touring together as the Old 97’s for 23 years. After 10 studio albums and countless shows, it’s been the same guys sticking together through it all, a rare feat to say the least. But in fact, on the road, the lineup changes on a nightly basis. The crowd is undoubtedly the fifth member of the band. The audience was singing every word to every song, hitting all the right emphases, stomping, clapping, hooting and hollering the whole way through. They added an energy and excitement to the proceedings that wouldn’t be the same with just the same four guys onstage.
With song titles like “Stoned,” “Wasted,” “Smokers,” “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On” and an opening number that dropped more than a few none-too-subtle F-bombs, you might expect a stage full of brutish hard partiers. They appeared, however, to be a group of pretty easygoing guys that life has been pretty kind to. When Hammond took a swig of his bottled water he joked it was filled with straight liquor. But there was no alcohol to be had on this stage. Just earnest songs with a rockabilly bent and a lot of twang, staying true to their alt-country roots, much to the delight of their fans.
Miller sang, “I’m gonna play my guitar ’til my fingers fall off; sing till my voice is gone.” Through a 22-song career-spanning set amidst a lengthy spring tour, truer words may never have been sung. Or perhaps maybe they had hours earlier, when Wennerstrom belted, “I know whenever you are feeling down, you gotta have, gotta have, you gotta have rock and roll!” Those Texans seem to know a thing or two.
Gates of Dawn, Got To Have Rock And Roll, Black Cloud, Into the Light, Blue Day, Hold Your Head High, The Fool, Down in the Canyon, Only For You, Parted Ways, Nothing Seems the Same
Nashville, Rollerskate Skinny, Melt Show, Stoned, Wasted, Crash on the Barrelhead, Dance With Me, Big Brown Eyes, Won’t Be Home, Longer Than You’ve Been Alive, Wish the Worst, Valentine, Barrier Reef, Victoria, Give It Time, Smokers, Nineteen, Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You), Most Messed Up
E: Question, Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On, Timebomb