Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Heathen Chemistry

Band of Heathens
Congress Street Bridge, 6/6

Seeing as they just returned from a European tour and were sharing stage space last weekend with the current mayor of Austin, his predecessor, and Batman, Band of Heathens certainly don't fit my usual rubric of developing local bands. They're developed. They are what they are, and aren't likely to change. Younger area music fans, having been gifted a convenient term that allows them to totally dismiss an entire thriving branch of American music without spending a second approaching it critically, would quickly label them "Dad rock" and ignore their substance.

That's really too bad, because they put on a good show. For a relatively short-lived original Austin band, they can play a headliner-length set and not have the energy flag from repetition and lack of range. Their breadth of material and the way they distribute the instrumental solos and the lead vocals equitably assures this. They have a lot of different guitars and other instruments on stage, but they know how to use them so that tone and volume are balanced evenly and warmly. They're not whipping out resonators and archtops and lap steel guitars just to prove that they own them; each instrumental part serves to bring well-chosen color to the song at hand. And their three-part harmonies... oh, man. I can't understate how lovely it is to see great vocalists concentrating on harmonizing instead of over-singing their solo parts. If you go see live music a ton you know that full bands that use harmony well are exceedingly rare.

Band of Heathens have a founding myth that's irresistible, one that had them on my short list of Austin bands to investigate before I even moved here. Beginning as three solo troubadours sharing a residency, Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist, and Colin Brooks started sitting in with one another, and before long were just playing whole shows as a trio. With that much talent assembled as a frontline, pulling in a sympathetic rhythm section must have been elementary. Each writer has a different style, which is easy to gather from the generous curve of their live set. Brooks is steeped in roots music, with his assortment of instruments in slide tuning. Quist is the most modern-minded Heathen, playing gnarlier guitar parts on a Les Paul and writing the most incisive lyrics of the trio. The multiply talented Jurdi has a blues style on the guitar and a lively keyboard tone that draws from soul music. Sharing around verses and joining together for choruses, the band arranges with the song (and not its originator's ego) paramount.

The broad lesson to be drawn here is that if two heads are better than one, three must be almost foolproof, assuming all the heads involved are as committed to dedicating equal passion to realizing the ideas of their partners as they are to hearing their own compositions bloom. Even if you're a songwriter who can move seamlessly from style to style, you can't do everything alone. No two individuals think about music in exactly the same way, nor do any two writers employ precisely the same process. People write better stuff when they're in bands with other composers who challenge and stimulate them. It's a fact. None of the three guys fronting Band of Heathens would be particularly exciting on their own. In fact, they'd be better if their reference points were further apart. As it is now they're more comfortable than innovative, but they're delivering everything their core audience could expect.

For no extra charge, a second moral lesson today: These guys were playing for free outdoors on a beautiful day, and before they did so Adam West drove up to the stage in the freaking Batmobile. I'm getting a little annoyed by all the local musicians to whom I speak who say they just don't have any time or money to go see other Austin bands. In a lot of other cities, yeah, I feel your pain, but in these parts, great bands play for free every week and sometimes, if you're lucky, you get to see Batman at no added cost. If you must spend your concert money buying overpriced tix to the Pixies' latest annual "nostalgia exploitation" revue (I think you can buy T-shirts that say "No one in this band has had a relevant musical idea since 1993, please enter your credit card number now"), you should at least try and clean your soul off afterwards by going to a free local show or four.


  1. Good stuff here Westy. I thought I was the only person not in the "Dad Rock" world to actually like Band of Heathens publicly. I reviewed their album for a music site last year and loved it.

    Regarding the free shows, be sure to check out Blues on the Green over at Zilker Park. It is one of my favorite summer traditions here. I'll be at Alejandro Escovedo and Raul Malo for sure, but will try and catch Charlie Mars.

  2. Teenager of the Year came out in 1994. Please update accordingly.

  3. The only interesting Frank Black solo album is "Trompe Le Monde."