by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
At first glance, there’s not much difference between Bear Country and Gus & Call. Most of the folks on stage Saturday night at Slowdown Jr. looked familiar, though vocalist Susan Sanchez was gone, and I’m sure there were other personnel changes that I missed at what was their debut performance in front of a rather healthy crowd of at least 100.
They started out in yee-haw territory, real bucket o’ chicken-style country rock that made one guy in the back of the room who hadn’t seen them before snipe “This is what I’ve been missing?” The tune did sound more hoe-downish than your typical empty-prairie-at-dusk-in-the-depths-of-winter Bear Country tune; I expected someone in the crowd to start bucking around the dance floor on an imaginary horse, slapping his ass.
But as the set wore on, the band toned down its C&W and turned up the feedback, creating a new form of psychedelic, droning, alt country. Instead of “shoegaze,” call it “bootgaze” — a slower, denser sound that still held a hint of twang. I was reminded, again, of those forlorn Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions (I wonder if the band ever looked up that album after we talked about it back in December ’09). The five members formed a circle on stage and spent most of the set intensely watching each other for visual cues, a sort of human symbiotic organism formed around a nucleus of rhythm. What kept them from drowning during the quietest moments were the vivid lead vocals shared by guitarists Mike Schlesinger and James Maakestad, each with his own earthy style.
And then toward the end of all this, the band tossed a stick of nitro into the crowd called “To the Other Side of Jordan,” which is hands down the best new “rock” song I’ve heard from an Omaha band (actually, from any indie band) in a long time. Think of it as a retooling of all your favorite ’70s Ameri-rock into a crisply pressed indie package. The song started with a slide guitar part that mimiced the opening of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” before shifting gears with a riff that’s pure Allman Brothers meets Lynyrd Skynrd. It will make even the most stone-hearted indie music fan grin. In fact, I was looking across the crowd at one local musician notorious for his barbed shots at just about every local band that doesn’t play math punk — most of you know him, some have recorded with him — and even he couldn’t control himself, letting out a “Whoop!” toward the end of the tune along with the rest of the usually laid-back Slowdown crowd. It was an electric moment, a complete surprise, the highlight of the evening, and I was happy I was there. Welcome to the party, Gus & Call.
Simon Joyner always surrounds himself with great musicians, and his new lineup, called the Parachutes, is no different. The six-piece band included a violin/cello and one of the city’s most under-rated guitarists, Mike Friedman, on pedal steel. Simon’s usual blonde-straw cowboy hat was appropriate for a set of old-style folk-country ballads that would fit on the Opry stage, but still had that classic, desolate Simon Joyner quality that’s one part broken and two parts lonely. This was the first time I’d heard most of these songs before, and as such, they demand further examination. In some ways, the tunes reminded me of the last record (Out Into the Snow), but were shorter and more to the point, less apt to wander. In the crowd were two professional videographers, I assume a pro film crew doing a piece on Simon…
Opening the evening was Well Aimed Arrows, who played most of the songs off their forthcoming album, Adult Entertainment (which I’m told will be available sometime in May — keep your fingers crossed). WAA is a band that you can’t help but cheer for. With a sound clearly derived from post-punk bands like Fugazi, Jawbox, Wire and Gang of Four, the thinly layered four-piece takes away any scrap of excess, ratcheting their tightly honed math equations to bare white bone for a sound that’s as angular and dissonant as it is strangely infectious. When all four join together to yell out a chorus (on songs like “International Debut”) you want the crowd to yell along, too, and they probably would if they only knew the words. Maybe they will after their new record blows up.
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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 © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.