Show Review: Sweet Spirit and Ghost Wolves at ABGB

Sweet Spirit The Ghost Wolves Black Joe Lewis ABGB

Over the weekend, KUTX and ABGB teamed up to put together a pre-Fourth of July party featuring three of Austin’s biggest bands — The Ghost Wolves, Black Joe Lewis and Sweet Spirit. Since it was such an explosive spectacle, we let Nick Hanover and Kayleigh Hughes team up to review it. Unfortunately, we did not have a photographer handy, so Nick and Kayleigh were forced to shoot the show with potatoes.

Nick Hanover: The 4th of July has always struck me as kind of an awkward holiday. I enjoy setting things on fire as much as the next person, so that component of 4th of July makes total sense, but the forced guzzling of watery beers re-branded America and the St. Patrick’s Day gone patriotic outfits seem to bring out the worst in humanity. All of which is why I was down for celebrating the 4th of July on the 2nd of July at ABGB with a trio of hot-shit local acts, beginning with thunderous duo The Ghost Wolves, whose Carley Wolf walked out on stage in a sequined American flag vest on top of her traditional snow white ensemble but otherwise avoided bringing any attention to the beer-belly nationalism of the holiday weekend.

I’ve seen Ghost Wolves countless times throughout the years and though their ABGB set seemed to get off to a slow start (that may have had something to do with early tech mishaps and their decidedly smaller amp set-up), they remain one of the most lovable and entertaining groups in the scene. Which is great because most of the crowd at ABGB appeared to be new to the band but were enthralled enough to become Ghost Wolf converts, even going so far as to walk back to the band’s merch booth to praise the performance. As Ovrld’s resident Ghost Wolf chronicler, what did you think, Kayleigh?

Kayleigh Hughes: I think I’ve never seen you set a single thing on fire, Nick.

But regarding The Ghost Wolves, I’ve never seen them play a bad or low-energy show and their ABGB set continued that streak. There’s a Ghost Wolves mega fan I see at their shows sometimes who jumps and bounces with joy through every second of every song, and I can hardly blame that person (though as a meek journalist, I can’t compete with the dance moves). The Ghost Wolves force the audience to get their asses in gear and get into the music, with Carley howling some of the band’s signature lines–“Nobody likes a crybaby!” and “Grandma’s a rebel, raised by the devil!”–and inspiring audience call and responses. I always think it’s funny that Jonny Wolf is the one that takes the lead in interviews with the band, whereas onstage, Carley is a complete powerhouse of a frontwoman.

My favorite part of their set was toward the end when they were playing directly at each other and just smiling big wide smiles, which culminated in the most playful, raucous drum banging at the conclusion of their last song. It’s clear that even if the crowd hadn’t been appreciating their set, they’d have been having a hell of a good time together anyway.

The Ghost Wolves ABGB

Nick Hanover: That’s something I always appreciate about Ghost Wolves, how dedicated they are to the joy of music regardless of how the crowd is behaving or what size it is. It makes me more frustrated when they’re playing for a small, unappreciative crowd but it’s also inspiring to see two musicians so focused on the thrill of music that that shit doesn’t even phase them. So it was especially great to get to see them perform to a packed house full of people who didn’t know them but would now never forget them.

It’s also telling that Ghost Wolves were the openers but outperformed the theoretical headliner, Black Joe Lewis. It was clear that the bulk of the crowd was there to catch Lewis, and that the fans he brings out fall into the “let’s get obnoxiously drunk” category of concertgoer. Lewis undoubtedly has charisma and a powerful voice but what has always bugged me about his music is how he never gives either of those traits room to breathe. The result is a band that sounds like Sam Cooke inexplicably fronting Black Sabbath— you’re so pummeled by a constant onslaught of instruments competing for sonic space that the powerful voice driving it all is simply another brash element rather than a focal point.

My theory is that this also makes his drunker fans experience vertigo, or at least that’s the best explanation I can muster for the woman in front of us who went around aggressively grinding against everyone until she shoved me out of the way to get right up against the front of the stage, where I assumed she was either going to projectile vomit at Lewis or collapse, but (un)fortunately she just scurried off like a sea sick tourist.

Black Joe Lewis

When a band has no dynamic range and performs its set as one big chaotic medley, it makes it difficult to really differentiate the songs and ends up feeling like constantly being on the precipice of an orgasm that never arrives. I can appreciate Lewis’ energy, and the individual technical abilities of his bandmates, but in comparison to Ghost Wolves’ set, Lewis’ performance seemed hollow and garish. Both bands traffic in loud, bold performances but Ghost Wolves understand the value in teasing the audience and winning them over with climactic payoffs while Lewis and his band went the route of constantly punching the crowd in the face with their technicality.

Kayleigh Hughes: My first thought as Lewis and the rest of his bandmates started a souncheck that stretched far into the time that was alotted for their set was “I really thought Sweet Spirit had less of a gender disparity…” Alas, Black Joe Lewis and Sweet Spirit had traded slots for some reason and so the crowd, jerking and squealing, was to be serenaded for a solid hour and a half with gob upon heavy gob of virtuoso-bro ejaculate. Lewis himself is, as Nick says above, a fantastic and charismatic frontman with an incredible voice, capable of maintaining the high energy his shows are known for throughout a set of any length. But god help me, I can’t sign off on any band that not only never silences the reverb from their instruments for a moment of palette-cleansing quiet, even between songs, but also features more than one member scrambling to show he can play his instrument with his mouth or other non-hands body part.

Crowds love to get down to Lewis’ music and you cannot fault them for that instinct alone, but you can watch as their movements grow robotic and weary at the same time their faces develop a stubborn commitment to being cool and groovy at all costs–to show they understand and appreciate the music. I chose to forfeit forced insider grooviness, acknowledging the skilled musicianship from as far back in the venue as I could get.

Black Joe Lewis ABGB

Nick Hanover: The funny thing is that Sweet Spirit is a band that has as many members as Black Joe Lewis (or more, including their own horn section) and arguably has the same technical chops but manages to always keep the song front and center rather than individuals’ skills. And as a frontperson, Sabrina Ellis is even more loud and charismatic yet also more dynamic and restrained.

Like a lot of other Sweet Spirit shows I’ve been to, Ellis’ voice frequently pushed the limits of the PA, creating screeching feedback from the monitors and clipping from the main speakers. Ellis is simply too much for most venues to handle and there is a thrill in watching how she wields that power and still performs with the intimacy and theatricality of a cabaret act. In the moments where the band stumbled– like an off-kilter drumbeat that nearly derailed “Baby When I Close My Eyes”– Ellis’ voice is so magnetic and forceful it overrides the other details. This isn’t to say that her band doesn’t get the opportunity to shine– “Rebel Rebel” is always a treat with its dueling guitar riffs and “Babydoll” has that irresistible keyboard hook at its center– but seeing Sweet Spirit so soon after Black Joe Lewis made it abundantly clear that Ellis and company are completely devoted to giving the crowd a hook-filled show rather than a sonic pissing contest.

Kayleigh Hughes: I totally didn’t notice the feedback from the monitors; goes to show how much attention I pay to technical details when Sabrina Ellis is onstage. Sweet Spirit is such a happy, balanced band. Their melodies and musicianship are fierce, but with it all comes a laid-back, joyful confidence. The stage banter was great as always, with jokes about how the band’s friends may possibly have snuck into the gig and how anyone with anything important to say to the band members should take the 30 days of their next tour to really reflect on it. And though Ellis is no doubt always the shining star and guiding force of the band, Cara Tillman’s gorgeous voice provides a fantastic, delicate counterbalance to Ellis’ during their duets and their unique stage presences play beautifully off one another.

I was dizzy from the previous wall of sound during Sweet Spirit’s set but their swingy, sensual energy and utter commitment had me enjoying myself again despite that.

Nick Hanover: Or maybe it was just the effects of that entire pizza we ate finally wearing off.