I first saw Churchwood at Sam’s Town Point in October of last year. Never heard of Sam’s Town Point? I hadn’t either. It’s biker bar in the middle of a residential neighborhood on the south side of Slaughter Lane. My friends and I walked up in our Saturday night best, and were immediately, laughably out of place amidst the leather and helmets. We had arrived to see Bobby Jealousy for the first time (who are releasing their new album today!) and ended up getting there early for the majority of Churchwood’s set. Though I was distracted with trying to avoid death at the hands of the biker I had accidentally bumped into at the bar, I remember being moderately impressed with the group. I had laughed at the band’s name and initially written them off as just another blues band, but they refused to let my initial impression stand. They were sharp and nimble, and generally enjoyable.
I didn’t think about them again, though, until I saw that they are one of the many showcasing artists at SXSW 2013. I’m going through all of the Austin bands showcasing this year and listening to their records, and when I hit Churchwood, I stumbled across their 2013 release, 2 (not surprisingly, their second album), and immediately enjoyed it. Well, not immediately. Opening track “Duende” left me none too impressed with its rumbling Bo Diddley style percussion and unmemorable chorus. I tuned out.
Yet the second track, “Keels Be Damned,” immediately drew me back in. Its tempo fluctuations, old-timey minor chord changes and dramatic, affected vocal performance from Joe Doerr all reminded me of Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits (the accordion accents probably helped that perception as well). It’s a remarkably catchy, fascinating, endlessly engaging track that doesn’t sound anything like the standard blues band I had been expecting. When that was followed with the demented swamp blues of “Weedeye,” I knew this band was different.
“Weedeye” uses Churchwood’s twin guitar attack remarkably well, as either guitar part would stand well enough on its own as the main part for the song, but together they create a tableaux of sound that keeps the song interesting after many listens (trust me). The same toms that seemed traditional on “Duende” are suddenly primal and eerie. And Doerr’s laughable lyrics, fanciful limericks delivered with a sly ferociousness, are wildly entertaining (“We don’t have to white or wheat / We’re already rye…We all live in one cadillac / We all of us drive”).
The track that immediately follows, “Fake This One,” is more of the kind of blues track that I heard back in October; it’s more recognizable as blues, but demonstrates the band’s dexterity by rapidly slamming between styles and tempos. In fact, when the band’s press materials claim, “The ingenious quintet kick [sic] the lazy butt of blues music into the second decade of the 21st Century and beyond,” I actually agree. This is clearly blues-based music, but Churchwood are out to infuse it with a life that I rarely encounter in the genre (which seems unavoidable in certain parts of Austin). At times, the band recalls Captain Beefheart, The Doors, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Audioslave, and all while retaining their own quirky identity. Singer Doerr is actually a professor of English Writing & Rhetoric at St. Edward’s, and his mastery of the language is evident in his lyrics.
Admittedly, not every song is as winning as the ones described above, but each one is engaging and interesting, and the energy level is through the roof throughout 2. I know it’s not a typically indie/Red River kind of album for the hip Austin crowd that follows this site, but if you like original, upbeat guitar music, you’ve got to give this record a spin. And then catch them this Saturday at the Hole in the Wall before the craziness of SXSW.
– Carter Delloro