Saving Abel / Blacklite District / Three Years Hollow / Wayland / Ethos
Brewhouse Music and Grill – Rome, GA
January 18, 2014
While it’s a bit of a trek from my neck of the woods in Athens, once I found out about this show in late December I knew I had to be there. After one thing or another prevented me from seeing Wayland on trips through Georgia at least three times in 2013, I knew it was time to check out the reigning “Band I Gotta See” recipient in this year’s Golden Penny Awards.
First things first though, as the show opened with local band Ethos. They describe themselves as a “progressive rock band” which left a lot of room to ponder beforehand what they might be like live, given my experience that prog bands tend to range from “very good” to “please make it stop”. While their strong progressive influences are obvious, my takeaway was that they are more than that simple description implies. The entire band shows their technical ability throughout the set but it’s the sudden gut punch of vocalist Austen Earp unleashing a scream seemingly out of nowhere during “Out Of The Darkness” that provided the “Oh DAMN !” moment of the night and makes it clear that there’s more here than meets the eye. The song felt radio/Octane ready right now, as-is. When (or even whether) the band takes that step remains to be seen but they definitely established themselves with me as “one to watch” in the year to come.
Next up, those “Always On Tour” guys from Michigan, the mighty Wayland. To be honest it’s actually a little hard for me to review their set objectively, after all, this was what got me off my ass and out the door to the show. I really don’t turn into a fanboy all that often, they’ve become an exception to that rule. I’ve seen every video clip (official and “unofficial”), I’ve OCD listened to every single, I’ve added my tiny contribution to their social media with a steady stream of hashtags, and most of all I felt like I knew what to expect. When they unleashed a high-energy performance on a capacity crowd I felt … well “justified” is probably a good word. I already knew that a lot of unsuspecting people were about to get their asses kicked and from the blistering open of Bob Seger’s “Fire Down Below” to the final notes of a time-limited set, they delivered a performance that had the feel of a much bigger setting. Despite my familiarity, I did get a surprise though, something I hadn’t really appreciated until seeing them in person. I’d probably always thought about Wayland as “a band”, considering them as a unit rather than individually. What really stood out to me on Saturday night was the parts that make up the whole. Mitch, Dean and Tyler all have their moments but I’ll go on record as saying Phil especially stood out as Saturday, has to be one of the more underrated guitarists out there. Skill, an obvious work ethic, stage presence … I really don’t know what more you could want out of a rock band than Wayland. (Okay, okay, I’ll stop already)
There wasn’t really a lot of time to recover before Three Years Hollow hit the stage. Again here, I had a pretty good notion of what was about to happen: a band well deserving of being several rungs higher on the rock ladder was going to blow the roof off a venue. I do enjoy being right 🙂
Where Wayland had deftly weaved a couple of covers into their set to help draw in the crowd, 3YH came out and hammered an audience that was now primed & ready with a string of driving songs that grab the throat and refuse to let go. Somewhere amidst the onslaught of past singles like “Lost”, “Remember”, “Chemical Ride” and “Run Away” I had my second big realization of the night. I apparently previously thought of the band out of Quad-Cities IA/IL on the basis of individual songs from the past several years without ever consciously considering just how strong their overall body of work has been during that time. Somewhere during the set it dawned on me how familiar each song was, not all necessarily “hits” in the chart/numerical sense but a rock-solid catalog with no filler where every song stands up well against the ones before and after. Closing strong with two new tracks from their album — produced by Clint Lowery of Sevendust — that’s due to release next month, the band delivered a relentless set that managed to leave people wanting even more.
Then from Orlando, Florida (by way of both Los Angeles and their native South Dakota) came Blacklite District, a band currently riding the wave of their hot single “With Me Now”. BlD brought a lot of good things into their performance, I’d have a hard time finding any particular complaint with it to be honest. “Take Me To The Grave” is a very strong opener, they’re energetic and put forth a lot of effort on stage, front man Roman James has an inviting “have a good time with us” vibe about him, guitarist Kyle Pfeiffer provides a second personality for the crowd to connect with, the rhythm section is solid, there’s really not a bad song in the set, and yet … their “electro based hard rock” style was a change of pace from everything that preceded it and I think that might have played some role in their reception but not to a large extent. The crowd didn’t hate on them or anything, indeed those who were attentive were happy & having fun but there was an impossible-to-miss drop off in the engagement level which made things feel just a little bit off to me, a kind of plateau that occurred that not even stronger songs like “Worldwide Controversy” (which feels like a future successful single to me) entirely overcame. Pfeiffer made a notable remark just before the end of the set, which I’ll paraphrase as best I can here (with apologies for any inaccuracy), describing the anthemic “With Me Now” as being “the song that’s reason you know us and the reason you’re GOING to know us”. There’s truth in that observation right now, another year & a couple more hits down the line I believe the response to the band will be stronger than it was on this night.
And then it was time for the headliner of the evening. Throughout the night multiple shout-outs from stage made it clear that this was a pretty heavily stacked Saving Abel crowd. A debut album that went gold, over a half-dozen top 20 singles, a run of over five years as a reliable national act lends itself to that kind of reaction 😉 The appearance was not without some challenges, given the very recent departure of the singer that was a founding member and key component of that success (as well as the lower profile departure of drummer at the same time). While bits of live video I’d seen from the first performances since the lineup change had relieved most of my concerns, the final proof would be in the proverbial pudding. It didn’t take long at all for even those lingering doubts to disappear. While it’s probably fair of me to note that I never saw SA live with now-former singer Jared Weeks — who, just for the record, I mean absolutely not one bit of disrespect to in the slightest when I say this — there was never really a point in the evening where I found myself thinking “gosh, I’d love to have heard this song with the old lineup”. Newly arrived vocalist Scotty Austin is plenty capable and while referencing the recent change more than once during the hit-filled set, his stage presence is more than strong enough to push aside too many thoughts about other possibilities. Those who know the band primarily from hit singles like “Addicted”, “The Sex Is Good”, “Stupid Girl (Only In Hollywood)” may actually be surprised to see how strongly the band — from Mississippi — remains connected to their Southern roots. If anything, those ties may be even stronger now with the addition of the “swamp rock” leanings of both Austin and drummer Steven Pulley (who came over together from the band Trash The Brand). What also becomes clear as the show progressed is that Saving Abel’s heart & soul did not depart with singer Weeks but instead remains firmly intact with founding member (and primary songwriter) Jason Null on one guitar, the steady & sizable (literally & figuratively) Eric Taylor on bass, and the even larger (again literally & figuratively) presence of Scott Bartlett manning the other guitar slot. Change is never easy … but it isn’t always a bad thing. Saving Abel remains what they’ve been for a while now: a solid band that clearly enjoys being on stage and is dedicated to making their music, happily bringing fans along for the ride.
As I’ve done in the past, let’s wrap up this review with a look at a bit of GBU aka The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
The Good — there’s a LOT that belongs in this section, starting with the happy sight of a literally turnaway crowd at a rock show. That’s a far too uncommon thing lately, major tip of the cap to promoter Brian Hill for making it happen … also a nod to the folks in/around Rome for turning out to support high quality live original music … kudos for The Brewhouse for being such a solid venue. Not every unfamiliar place comes across as inviting but all my interactions with their staff were positive, just a very smooth experience all evening. I could easily see them becoming a significant and regular destination for similar shows, if they choose to be … even the peripheral things were a plus. Easy to find, easy to get to, plenty of convenient parking in the deck around the corner, security had just the right tone & balance …
The Bad — not a lot falls into this section really, nothing really “bad” per se comes to mind. I think a slightly earlier start time (830p perhaps) might ultimately prove to be a sweeter spot for the market, seemed like a fair number of patrons ran out of steam a little earlier than I’d have expected … I didn’t get to hear my (arguably) favorite Wayland song (“Nobody’s Perfect”) which was a downer for me personally but isn’t too stressful since it just means I’ll have something else to look forward to next time I see ’em.
The Ugly — this unfortunate category really only has one resident, Population: Me … I swear by all I hold dear that I am NOT usually such a stammering star struck fanboy. Wayland suffered through that at least twice Saturday night but I promised: I’ll do better next time 🙂