by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Bicentennial Man: Son of 76 and the Watchmen
Son of 76 and the Watchmen celebrates Shangri-La.
Lincoln’s Son of 76 and The Watchmen is not a blues band, not that there’s anything wrong with playing the blues.
The Son of 76 himself, Josh Hoyer, sees some advantages to being aligned with the genre. “If you’re called a blues band, blues fans will come out to see you even if you don’t play the blues,” he said.
Conversely, there are those who go out of their way to avoid blues bands, having been burned too many times by the army of Blues Hammer (i.e., “blues rock”) acts that have eroded the genre to something that just barely crosses the line from being a cover band. Hoyer quoted a friend who summed it up this way: “What went wrong with the blues world is that a bunch of old white guys with day jobs put on bowling shirts and began playing the same Stevie Ray Vaughn covers,” he said. “Blues is a pretty vast genre, but the majority of guys around here are stuck in that world.”
It was my own close-minded take on blues that almost kept me from discovering Hoyer’s band at last year’s Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards (OEAA) summer showcase. Someone had told me they were a straight-up blues act, and I nearly left before they hit the stage. Luckily, I didn’t.
While there are blues overtones to some of their music — thanks in part to Hoyer’s throaty, deep vocal delivery — Son of 76 has more in common with classic American rock acts like Warren Zevon and Springsteen. On their new album, Letters from Shangri-La, the band sways through a plethora of genres, from the piano-driven rock of “She’s the Kind of Woman,” to the Celtic-flavored ballad “Annie’s Heart,” to the NOLA style of the title track, to the doo-wap of “The Moon,” to, yeah, the blues grind of “‘Til She’s Lovin’ Someone Else.” It’s Hoyer’s voice — which lies somewhere between Tom Waits, Dr. John and Elvis — that ties the styles together into something uniquely cinematic, original and thoroughly authentic.
Born in 1976 in Lincoln, Hoyer is a veteran of a number of bands including The Magnificent Seven and Electric Soul Method. While he lived most of his life in the Star City, the music on Shangri-La was inspired by travels throughout the South. “I took a trip down Highway 61 and went to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and a lot of small towns in Louisiana,” he said. “Instead of taking pictures, I remembered what I’d seen and put it into the songs and lyrics.”
But not all of his songs are based on his travels. With the lines, “Well that coward was never a man / Just a scared little boy, with a gun in his hand,” the elegiac “Starkweather Son” has obvious local origins.
“Everyone in Lincoln has a Starkweather story,” Hoyer said. “I thought no one could write about it better than Springsteen.”
But then one night at a party during another round of Starkweather tales, Hoyer heard one that was hard to top. “This kid said, ‘My great uncle was Starkweather. I’m a Starkweather.’ He shared what it was like to grow up with the name,” Hoyer said. “He’d said that many of his relatives had been driven away and how hard it was to grow up in Lincoln, but that he wasn’t going leaving. He hadn’t done anything wrong. I knew it was a story that would make a great song.”
One of the best tracks off the new album, the song burns with a grim intensity, thanks to Hoyer’s band of local pros that includes Brian Morrow, bass; Nick Semrad, piano; Luke Sticka, rhythm guitar; Justin Jones on drums, and guitarist Werner Althaus, who also co-produced and recorded the album in his basement studio.
Hoyer said he met Althaus at an open jam and realized he was “the missing piece of the puzzle,” but was too shy to ask him to play in his band. “I finally got the nerve up,” Hoyer said. “For me, he perfectly finishes the songs I write by how he approaches music. He seems locked in on my ideas.”
Althaus, who sounds like a Midwestern Arnold Schwarzenegger thanks to a slight German accent, said that while Hoyer writes most of the music, everyone in the band gets involved putting the songs together and offering ideas. “Josh used to be much more controlling,” Althaus said. “In his previous bands, he told people exactly what to play. So this was a new thing for him.”
He said he doesn’t understand where the band’s blues tag came from. “I can hear the influence, but I don’t hear the blues,” Althaus said. “When people say I’m a blues player, I tell them that I’m not. I play what I want to play. I don’t listen to it or study the old masters, but if a blues vocal line fits into a song, why not?”
He added that the band’s musicians have a broad background in a variety of musical styles. “If someone takes it somewhere, we draw on what we know,” Althaus said. “We all have the basic vocabulary.”
“They’re all stellar players, and they’ve trusted me,” Hoyer said. “There have been times when I’ve written something that they’ve said is weird, but they’ll try it anyway.”
With a band that consists mostly of seasoned veteran musicians, Hoyer said touring may not be a realistic option. “We’re all adults,” he said. “Everyone except for Nick (Semrad) has a mortgage. Whenever I think about touring, it seems like a pipe dream. Maybe I’m killing the dream before it happens.”
For now, Hoyer is content booking local shows. “We sold a thousand copies of last album playing Lincoln and Omaha,” he said. “We’re building a crowd just playing at home. That’s pretty cool.”
Son of 76 and The Watchmen plays with The Kris Lager Band and Matt Cox, Thursday, July 1, at The Waiting Room, 6212 Maple St. Showtime is 9 p.m. Admission is $6. For more information, visit waitingroomlounge.com.The band also is playing at Harrah’s Stir Lounge July 3 at 9 p.m. Admission is $5.
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Just two months after releasing their debut album, It’s True announced that the band is calling it quits. The announcement came from stage at last night’s show at Slowdown Jr. “This is our third to last show,” said inebriated frontman Adam Hawkins without giving an explanation. “We have this show, and two others, and that’s it.” During the set, someone jokingly suggested to me that it was a publicity stunt. But something tells me the MAHA guys aren’t that brutally savvy — that’s right, the MAHA Festival July 24 would be the band’s last performance (not counting a rumored MAHA after-party), Hawkins said. Their second-to-last show will be in Lincoln tonight at The Bourbon Theater — that is if they are, indeed, breaking up. But something tells me it’s true, which is a shame.
Last night’s performance had all the charm of a drunken wake, with Hawkins taking double shots between songs. Despite proclaiming that he was “wasted,” he still put on one helluva show, calling his pals from Poison Control Center (the opening band) up on stage to join him for a couple songs. The set ended with a 15-minute guitar-noise-odyssey, with Hawkins kneeling with his back to the audience next to Kyle Harvey who was busy creating his own curtain of feedback on electric guitar surrounded by a couple girls on stage along with the PCC folks. The sonic melee didn’t end until after 1 a.m. when the house lights came up — a rare late-night at Slowdown. God only knows what the band has in store for tonight’s show in Lincoln.
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In addition to tonight’s Son of 76 CD release show at The Waiting Room and It’s True at The Bourbon, Dim Light is opening a four-band bill tonight at Slowdown Jr. with The Vingins, and Colorado bands Woodsman and Candy Claw, who have been described as ambient/minimalist/psychedelic rock. $7, 9 p.m.
Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
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