Thursday, November 19, 2009

Spell Check

Saxon Pub, 11/18

You have to respond to the enterprising spirit of a band that puts an ad up offering free show admission to musicians and critics. Local bands are like innumerable grains of sand in Austin, but few are self-aware enough to realize that they need the listening ears of those beyond their significant others and drinking buddies to reach the mythical Next Level. Ouachita don't require anyone to tell them how to play -- the six musicians in the band are at a proficiency level far beyond the average bar band. Drummer David Pennington, in particular, is a gas to watch and hear. I hear a lot of call for "pocket" players these days, but Pennington is proof positive of the fact that a superior drummer is loose-limbed enough to provide lots of color with his right hand while still keeping unflagging time on the snare and kick. Bassist Sonny White has a complementary active but anchored attack. Drew deFrance is a monster lead guitarist, and although he doesn't solo often, Jonah Kane-West's Hammond and piano playing is marvelous.

Ouachita's take on blue-eyed soul isn't monochromatic. They can recall Stax/Chess for one song, the JB's for the next, and then with Hank Bragg's tenor riffing, Springsteen/Clemons. Though varied in style, the bulk of their songs are pretty similar structurally -- introductory solo, first verse, chorus, solo over verse chords, second verse, chorus, and so on. Often the best thing about their songs is the endings. I don't mean that in a sarcastic way. Rather than trailing off, most of their tunes have composed codas. They might deliberately slow the tempo into a big finishing flourish, reharmonize a section repeated earlier, or all play together an arranged melody. Their unison playing is really interesting, since deFrance has a guitar tone that's quite saxophone-like in its sustain and vibrato. When he and Bragg attack a figure together, it sounds like micro-Phil Spector.

Despite the excellent musicianship, there's only so much you can do with repeating solos over standard, major-chord blues changes. Despite deFrance's creative and pyrotechnic playing, their set was a little heavy on boogie, with four players (keys, bass, drums, and rhythm guitarist Kurt McMahan) repeating very simple vamps while Bragg and deFrance exchanged licks. Later in the set when they stretched out more and worked in some group improvisation, they got much more compelling. Letting the drummer and bass player step out more is never a bad idea with players this skilled and sympathetic. McMahan's guitar, in particular, became more of an integral part of the sound when he was playing off of the backline. Since Kane-West comps a lot of the time, a lot of McMahan's rhythm guitar playing isn't really necessary, at least when he's just strumming chords. He might consider putting the guitar down some of the time. This also might help with the band's stage presence, since other than the singer everyone kind of remains rooted to the floor in one spot. On a few tunes McMahan plays counter-riffs off of deFrance's wicked leads; Ouachita sounds leaner and more purposeful then.

Cutting out some of the unnecessary rhythm guitar would also help mask the fact that structurally the songs are not real complicated. White and deFrance do amazing things turning very simple chord changes into original compositions; having an extra guitar just going from G to D much of the time doesn't add anything to the very full sound of the six-piece band. McMahan would also be freed up to play more electric harmonica, and as far as I'm concerned there's no such thing as too much electric harmonica. With deFrance's riffing, Bragg's sax interjections, and especially those occasional composed sections, there's nothing wrong with the songs being based around simple changes. It fits the band's style, and with the addition of a few more turnarounds, they'd have everything they need musically.

I would like to hear some more distinctive lyrics. McMahan's got a strong soulman's voice and he works a crowd well -- some of his best bits were his improvised encouragements to the band and audience. The way the group's songs build to choruses, I wish sometimes the lyrical hooks they were arriving at were more original and memorable. That's all quibbling -- a more pertinent concern is how they're going to get people to find their music with a name I still can't spell correctly after typing it at least a dozen times. Ouachita? I think that's right. In any event they're playing the best joints in town -- the Saxon, Momo's (Friday the 27th) -- because they're a vastly superior bar band. Thanks for the invite, guys.

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