by Steven Garrett Brantley
Photos by Ashley Bradley
Thursday night of Free Week saw Austin host to many, many shows but it’s difficult to imagine another one as inexplicably linked to whiskey as Ovrld and KVRX’s Free Week showcase at Scoot Inn. No other word resonates quite as well with this pedal-heavy, honky-tonk style that somehow captured a foothold again in bars and venues across town. At any point that night you could have closed your eyes and lost track of exactly which decade it was when you walked in.
But why close your eyes when you can watch Jinx and The Hammer deliver some of the sweetest harmonies you never thought could couple with a little banjo that picks away just boldly enough to match the guitars in a way that all together doesn’t lose the sort of pastoral landscape it develops. The scenes were sun-kissed right up until the set’s peak —a rendition of NIN’s “Hurt” that made me wonder what self-doubt looks like on a gardenia plantation in the Midwest.
Next up was Tyler Jordan and The Negative Space, whose music probably went furthest from the twang of the whiskey barrel which had exploded that night. Mixing near-grunge licks and singer-songwriter lyrics which never seemed to rely on a chorus, the music sucked everyone in all the same— I had no trouble forgetting they couldn’t easily add pedal steel guitar to the mix. I think I even noticed a couple times when the bass would take the lead and run up and down the chords provided in such a playful way you’d swear you were hearing The Beatles somehow, bouncing at their heaviest.
Bringing the night right back to the bottom of a bourbon bottle, The Gents displayed studio-tight, three-part harmonies and near effortless, high tempo honky-tonk love as well as anyone could hope for. The ease and comfort with which they perform could easily make you think you’re looking into a practice session and they’ve forgotten all about you; except that they didn’t and they are all smiling wide and carrying on the entire time like brothers! It doesn’t take a veteran show-goer to see the earnest joy they get from belting out tunes appropriate for O Brother Where Art Thou and beyond – the sort of thing that becomes extremely infectious when championing a music genre already known for bringing out that whiskey, which so well themed the night. It’s no surprise that a few audience members were even lead to sock-hop about the venue for a couple songs, waving beer and hooking arms. They closed on The Coaster’s classic “Down in Mexico,” and that rendition was as good as hearing it the first time.
Bringing things back down to what would be the most somber tone that night was the incomparable Carry Illinois. Led by Lizzy Lehman, the group managed to carve out some of the most simultaneously beautiful but stern notes which became twice as haunting when coupled by Lehman’s lyrics which deal in the misrepresentations people go through frequently in our society— both internally and out in the world. I enjoyed watching the piano player in particular while he felt out the most wrenching progressions available to him to back up Lehman’s soaring vocals.
Last up was the many-faced, genre-hopping trash poet himself— John Wesley Coleman III. The “Ding Dong Songwriter” brought a set that was toned back from his garage-punk heavy, Burger-brand light psych he can be known for. This set he was teetering more on a throwback to a Hole in the Wall show of his, but it was at Scoot Inn that I think it found a better home. Never failing to bring the hooks-and-stomp on the distortion a bit, the band swept away the last hour of the night, giving the catchiest lyrics (dance with me, mothefucker) and, for me, the most enjoyable between-song banter, which never led anywhere at all.
JWC reminds me of a TV that has been left on too long and is shorting out —the barriers between stations disappearing into a jumble of all channels melted into one. Just as much can be said for the influences these songs seem to pull from: a lovely cross-section of several guitar genres that manages to tie-in the best parts of rock-and-roll and preserve them with alcohol and electricity. And where would they be without a little droning keyboard and unapologetic saxophone (a member of Gospel Truth) to tie the picture together and tickle the brain? The whole thing went by way too fast. It left me asking questions like what were honky-tonks like in the 70’s (and the 2010’s for that matter), and if Jesus attended junior high school. Every band showed up for the next and that created a sense of community on the whiskey-laced island they had created that night. All of it made me sad to ship out back to the real Austin, TX and the rest of Free Week.