Last Tuesday, Simple Play Productions’ Ron Richard partnered with One Eyed Jacks to offer a symposium on all that is alive and well in Southern music. Local wonder boys New Grass Country Club, Baltimore-by-way-of-Chattanooga Southern gospel/ rock band J. Roddy Walston and the Business, and Athens Georgia’s alt-country group Futurebirds descended on the dimly lit red bordello of Jacks like a traveling revival. Though each band’s aesthetic was unique, it’s safe to assume that all the musicians onstage have kissed their mamas in church, blacked out on whiskey and daydreamed about playing in The Last Waltz.
New Grass Country Club kicked things off with the latest edition of a live act that seems to be maturing every time they take the stage. New Grass’ youthful exuberance and evident camaraderie endears them to a live crowd in and of itself, but when you lean in a bit closer, you find songs that are uncommonly well developed. Brooklyn-born front man Jack Donovan sings and writes like a 60-year-old Tennesseean sitting on a front porch, granting the band a sound that is just as likely to appeal to your grandfather as it is your little brother. New Grass is a glimmer of hope that New Orleans may yet produce a fresh band with national relevance, offering a product that could easily have roots in the more attention grabbing roots-rock capitals of Austin or Nashville. The band sped through their folk-influenced songs about everything from loquacious ministers to marijuana enthusiasm with very few breaks for small talk, and the uncontrived, natural spirit of New Grass made them the perfect local host for the touring bands to follow—a luxury that is too seldom afforded to out-of-towners.
As the room filled up and the blood alcohol content rose, J. Roddy Walston and the Business took the stage looking like they just got off tour with the original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. And their style and presentation are not a shtick, but the impenetrable swagger of three showman who know exactly what they’re about to unleash on each unsuspecting audience. Front man J. Roddy relentlessly swayed back and forth, pounding on his Yamaha organ like he was trying to exorcize its demons. Roddy spit-shouted and belted out his lyrics with the energy of a Pentecostal preacher, but the just a-bit-too-nonchalant crowd appeared to prevent J. Roddy Walston and the Business to fully loosen up as they may in more familiar markets. A glowing example of a confounding New Orleans audience trait, it seemed hard for the crowd to enjoy a high-energy touring rock band with the same enthusiasm they may bring to Le Bon Temps on a Thursday night. The band deflated slightly through the bag end of their set, reducing their frenzy to a ten instead of an eleven. But despite the appearance of disinterest, the conversations overheard after the show suggested that J. Roddy and the Business kicked their way into the memories of the crowd, and if nothing else, raised the intensity and anticipation for the main event.
The Athens-based seven-piece Futurebirds finished the show with the most polished and cerebral performance of the night. Following the tradition of Athens bands that are far too good to be from a town so small, Futurebirds draw a bit from hometown predecessors Drive-by Truckers and their frontrunners, the more country-focused Star Room Boys, without falling captive to these local influences. Tight harmonies and a constant wall of sound push them more into a class with Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes or even early My Morning Jacket.
The members of Futurebirds play as a solid unit rotating lead singing duties and instruments with such seamless regularity that it would be impossible to call any member “the front-man”. With slide guitar and tight two-to five-part vocal harmonies that give the band an authenticity and singular presence that can’t be faked in a live show, they aren’t simply trying to play country music to reminisce about stories their grandfathers told them; rather, they are the storytellers themselves. It’s evident that these boys are primed for big time national success, and that they practice – a lot – because each alteration of the line up performed without any loss of proficiency or mood. A band this good and relevant to the modern music scene begs the question: “Why do we not have any bands like Futurebirds coming from New Orleans?”
In a musical climate that is currently agog for Americana and Country, affection is mounting for earnest music. Adjectives like “pretty” and “heartfelt” are creeping into the vernacular of fans that leaned so heavily on the descriptive power of “cool”. In this Southern music renaissance, New Grass Country Club, J. Roddy Walston and the Business and certainly Futurebirds have a place to hang their hats and warm their boots.