Written By: M. Sloves | Photos By: Derrick K. Lee
Sometimes you hear people wax poetic about the abundance of vinyl that surrounded them growing up. How their unconsciously cool parents shaped the future of their musical minds with shelves full of Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dylan, Mozart, The Stones: anything and everything rad from the last century of recorded music. I always shake my head and think, “damn … lucky fucks.”
My pops was a good dude but not the least bit interested in music. And my mom? She loved music and even played the sax for a while but there were only two artists allowed in her modest stack of records: Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. As a suburban Jewish kid, being raised on the sounds of a couple alcoholic hell-raisers who praised Jesus Christ and sought redemption as passionately as they chased their own destruction in the bottom of a bottle …well, it was odd. But such was my mom – a pre-straight-edge, non-puritan, sober libertarian. But I’ll save the amateur psychoanalysis for another time. Suffice it to say that before there was any “gangsta” in my life, there were plenty of “outlaws”. And while I sure as horseshit ain’t no fucking cowboy, it’s been a refreshing kick in the ass these last couple years to watch bands like The Felice Brothers and Deer Tick roll through town and deposit some of that outlaw DNA into the bloodstream of the LA music scene.
It was these northeastern “Americana” bands that opened my eyes to the massive potential for folk-inspired traditions to ferment in the undercurrent of a post-80s generation thirsty for an outlet that might tap back into a more authentic moment of musical creation. Like surfers re-exploring the single-fin: unearthing a retro concept and probing its original potential while redefining and breaking open its limitations to connect with a contemporary audience. Now, I’ll admit that I hadn’t been all too familiar with Jamestown Revival before Derrick invited me to cover the show, but he said they channeled some of that same energy and, well…when Derrick speaks the music of his mind, you gotta listen. So I was more than stoked to join him at Mr. Weston’s Troubador for JTR, Nikki Lane, and Pete Molinari, a lineup that combined for an evening of music that turned out to be…pretty fucking rad.
Pete is an interesting cat. I don’t know much about him but anyone who titles an album “Theosophy” is clearly a cerebral dude trying to unpack the mysteries of the universe – if not for the world, at least for himself. The double-edge to Pete is that he lives almost entirely in a moment past. He steps on stage and it looks like every thread of every fabric on his body was woven before 1969. Tapered slacks, Pendleton shirt, cowboy cravat, felt boater hat with a feather band – it’s all a spot on sartorial homage to his collection of mid-century spirit animals, Kerouac and Dylan being the obvious focal points (yeesh, even the name Molinari is eerily similar to On the Road’s Dean Moriarty). The tricky thing about Pete is that he cuts an image so close to its source material that he runs the risk of getting lost in it. Strumming on an acoustic guitar, his voice has that all-too recognizable twang that falls somewhere between John Fogerty and Arlo Guthrie. But when he lifts the harmonica up on a neck rack…the whole Dylan mystique becomes a bit overwhelming and drifts into the realm of cliché. And that’s tough for a singer-songwriter doing a one-man acoustic show. You have to show the audience who you are and distinguish yourself from the next five acts at the Hotel Café. And as derivative as any musician may be, the audience always wants to recognize that one irreducible kernel of individuality that is YOUR voice. If your whole schtick is just that you look and sound exactly like Dylan, well, then it’s just a schtick.
In all fairness and with much respect for Pete, as the set went on, it became clear why Jamestown and Nikki would want to tour with the guy. When he takes a pause and chats with the crowd, it isn’t easy to make sense of what he’s saying (chit chat only works in the smallest venues) but it’s really easy to get lost in the smooth lower register of his voice and the calm cool English accent that makes everything he says sound just a fraction of a bit smarter than it might really be. He’s clearly a charming guy and extremely talented. I think he falls into that category of “musician’s musician” – the guy that pro jocks want around when they’re at a recording studio or a house party because he can jump in on any song without a lot of ego stroking or maintenance costs. And as he warms up to you, you start to realize that his commitment to resurrecting that 60s vibe is so sincere and so fully committed that it’s much more than a gimmick; you recognize the authenticity and character of what Molinari brings to the table. Dude just seems like a good soul. Musically, I’d love to hear more of that smooth British voice in his singing. I don’t think it would compromise anything he’s trying to accomplish, but it might allow the audience to connect with him a bit more quickly. In the meantime, I think anyone who appreciates the tradition that Dylan and Guthrie helped set in motion 50 years ago, a night at a small venue with Pete Molinari would be time well spent.
Disclaimer: I love Love LOVE ladies who kickass. And Nikki Lane kicks it. She first stepped on stage to Join Pete Molinari at the end of his set and right off the bat it was hard to not be a bit awestruck by the cut of her jib. With lanky limbs, and jet black hair, she looks kinda like a rockabilly cross between Zoe Deschanel’s evil twin sister and Krysten Ritter (the girl Walter White tragically lets OD on Breaking Bad – ohhh such a brutal scene!) Harmonizing with Pete and with a full band behind them, suddenly you started to get a glimpse of Molinari’s full potential. And not that it really matters but standing next to Nikki you notice that Pete’s an oddly tiny fellow. Dwarfed by Ms. Lane, who probably isn’t really that tall, his retro chic takes on something more akin to a “nebbish cute”. A Bilbo Guthrie…? Like I said, not really relevant. What’s relevant is that the two of them sounded great and the impromptu vibe of their sharing the stage created a really smooth passing of the torch from Molinari to Nikki and her band. It’s cool to see bands touring together actually giving a shit about each other and it was immediately clear that these weren’t individuals operating in isolation but artists who’ve developed a relationship during the course of their shared travels.
Speaking of sharing, it was about this moment when I noticed the couple next to me sucking face while scarfing greasy hot onion rings. Kinda sexy …but kinda barf. If I had to choose, I’d go with barf. Anyhow, back to Nikki. Her South Carolina accent makes her sound a helluva lot older than she looks. It’s a little raspy but not in a French/Israeli “I’ve been smoking since I was 8 years old” kinda way. Nikki probably sounded like this straight out of the womb. Lends her a certain gravitas that plays well off the current of thick heavy drumbeats that connect her grittier rock moments to her slower country vibes.
Early in the set, the guitarist busted into a sweet Dick Dale style surf guitar. Between Nikki’s rockabilly black hair and that Misserlou sound coming from the guitar, the whole thing started to feel very Tarantino-esque. I half expected to see Harajuku girls go-go dancing in the background. Alas, no such luck. Instead, Nikki presented what I find to be her most iconic song or at least a great starting point for any crash course in the Nikki Lane experience, her affectionate tribute to “700,000 Rednecks” – that threshold of grassroots maniacs that any Nashville-based artist needs to get their career off the ground. With a heavy tom-tom beat in the background, her voice echoes between imagined canyons while guitar licks fill the space in between. It’s crafty. And that’s what she is as she shifts between the shadows of different genres. Crafty. She can move in 4 or 5 different directions without ever losing touch with her root sound. Maybe that’s Dan Auerbach’s hand in the mix, I don’t know, but it’s pretty rad to know that she’s not a one-note artist. She can pick it up as fast as she slows it down and that makes you appreciate each moment a little more knowing that it’s never gonna get stale. In fact, it gets pretty damn fresh – like her intro to “Always the right time (to do the wrong thing)” – she kindly asks the audience to look right, look left, say a hello to the folks next to you because “this is a song about fucking someone you don’t know”.
To paraphrase Tracy Morgan, Nikki Lane gonna get everybody pregnant …!
Over the course of the set, Nikki slows it down with her throaty drawl but never lets her foot entirely off the pedal. Just when it feels like the mood is starting to chill out, she speeds it back up with Clapton-inspired guitar riffs and retro rockabilly anthems like her neo-feminist classic “Walk of Shame”. Along the way, she’s careful to open the door for those “3 smelly dudes” she shares a van with to pull back the curtain and unleash solos that make it quite clear they’ve got the chops to go in directions as thick, as heavy, or even as funky as Ms. Lane so desires. And that’s the question. Where does Ms. Lane want to go? She’s talented. She’s marketable. She says “fuck” juuuust enough to be adorable but not enough to be crass… but it’s all still a little raw. What she’s doing right now is awesome but you feel like that there’s a lot more left in the tank. And that’s just fine because I love her now but I’m just as excited to see what she’ll be doing in a year or two. Maybe it’s all part of that tough broad gender role-reversal that seems to underpin so many of her lyrics. She’s basically giving us just the tip. And it makes us want her to give us the rest that much more!
Dudes rolled onto the stage in fur freaking coats.
Not sure if it was more Jim Morrison or Joe Namath but it set the tone for the rest of the night.
This was gonna be party.
Straight out of the gates, front men Zach Chance and Jonathan Clay hit the crowd with a tight, well-groomed honky-tonk anthem. Looking like Bo and Luke Duke, working the stage like the gearshift on the General Lee, these hombres have a lot of style and whole lot of swagger – I mean, c’mon, Zach Chance looks like Alexander Skarsgard with a mustache and a cowboy hat. The kids are sexy. But like the lovely Nikki Lane before them, they’ve got more than enough musical street cred to back it up. The light twang in their vocals has a little bit of jug-thumping bluegrass in it. A little O Brother Where Art Thou kinda vibe. But with two keyboards and 3 guitars, this is more than stripped down retro Americana—it’s a full wall of sound—and when the kids let out the throttle, it’s a dance around and scream along bona fide fiesta.
Look at the stage, and you quickly get why everyone says there’ll be a ton of ladies in the house. But listen to the music, and it’s clear why there were also a ton of dudes. No wonder they sold out back to back nights. They’re madly stylish dudes and impeccable showmen (is the man-crush I have on these guys too obvious?). Like Nikki Lane, they stretch the boundaries of their genre but where Nikki is on an upward trajectory, these lads have reached the summit. This is most definitely their moment – but it’s a moment that has legs. These guys haven’t yet hit the limits of their potential and there’s no way they’re going to flame out.
But they’ve certainly mastered the craft. The revelry is focused, the chaos is polished.
With Chance on keyboards and Clay switching from electric to acoustic to lap steel guitar, heavy drum beats keep kicking you hard in the nads (in a good way) opening space for raucous moshable eruptions. And damn, there were several points throughout the night where I had to figure if this show were anywhere but LA, the room probably would have exploded into an ecstatic homosocial brodown.
It’s not all madness though. They slow it down, the harmonies are tight, there are some tender thoughtful moments. For a live show, it’s a beautifully entertaining balance. Soft melodies and organ-play that will take you to church. Then wild eruptions of unbridled apery. An ebb and flow that’s held together by Chance and Clay’s confidence as well as—surprising—their modesty. You gotta be cocky to rock the fur coats and yet they made sure the audience knew how humbled they were to have sold out two straight shows (the second on a Sunday) at a venue as legendary as the Troubador. But then you scratch the surface and learn that even the fur coats aren’t quite the boastful statement you think they are. What at first looks like over the top hipster swank is actually a nod to their song “Fur Coat Blues” which pokes fun at how easy it is to get lost in the riptide of our first-world problems. Makes you shake your head… these guys are too damn cool!
And the music is really damn good…!
The couple next to me (not the gross onion ring sexy-time people, these new folks were a good smidge classier) could tell I was new to the revival. They smiled and said “Hey, you heard a song you don’t like yet?” Nope. Couldn’t say that I had.
The band’s cool was tested for a micro-moment when a speaker blew or the bass went out. No problem though. Chance and Clay filled in the time it took to fix the tech glitch with a little Texas trailer park version of some Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra repartee about gambling and playing lotto scratchers. Then they segued into a soft acoustic duet. By the time the amps were back to full power, the band was ready to give the crowd an enduring reminder that southern rock was and still is bona fide rock and roll. So good. Ronnie Van Zant has to be smiling from above when these guys get loose.
Now I’m not going to pretend to be educated or savvy enough to connect the dots from Skynyrd to Waylon Jennings to Jamestown Revival. That’s a genealogy that might be over-reaching a bit. But there’s no denying that these blond haired brochachos and their brood of flannelled followers have picked up a torch and are making sure it continues to burn bright. Is that news to anyone living in Nashville or Austin? Probably not. But neophytes should take note because if we don’t, we’re going to miss out. This is a party you already want to be at because if you wait too long, you might find yourself begging the shit-kicker at the door to let you in – and he might just smile and point to the end of the line.
The way I see it, Jamestown Revival is right in the wheelhouse of a zeitgeist of cool that’s emerged over the last couple years. It’s a beautiful blend of style and attitude. A middle ground between Hollywood refugees in their Topanga hideaways who want to be a little more Texas and the cool confidence and earnest enthusiasm of Austinites looking to flirt a little with our lady of Los Angeles and her Hollywood weirdness. A sort of rock star meets camp-vibes bar room authenticity that so many folks seem to ooze from the pores in places like Nashville, Portland, Austin, and a handful of other spots that lie just outside the metropolis and yet have a shit-ton of radness going on. It’s not at all pretentious, but it’s certainly infectious and with Jamestown Revival on stage, a hot steaming pot of that infectious goodness boils over with enough froth and brio that La Ciudad can’t help but to lap it up. If they don’t get back here soon, I highly recommend you saddle up and ride out to find them.