This is probably the most important piece that, as a music writer, I have yet written. These are probably the most important images that, as a music photographer, I have yet taken. This is not just a show review. It is one part review, one part personal retrospective and, I guess, if you’re just going to go ahead and say it, it is also one part appeal.
As a music reviewer it is not the best form to write in the first person but sometimes there are pieces in which you have to break the rules, put your head down and just go ahead. This is one of those pieces. There are only a couple of bands that I claim as “my band.” The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit from Oakdale, California provide a sound so personal, write songs to which I can connect and became the foil for some of the greatest moments of my music going life. At one point early in my association with this band I had that realization: “These are my guys.” They have daily inspired me beyond the typical breadth of music (and that is a broad breadth). They provided me that elusive moment in which their song perfectly fit a moment in which I desperately needed it. They play the music that resonates on a level with such depth that there is simply no denying that something truly special happened and suddenly my life was inextricably linked with their music.
I remember a warm early spring day (Jesus, four years ago to this very month!), driving down the hill from work in Sonora, California. My heart was heavy and I was facing one of the hardest moments in life – the day that I had scheduled to have my dog, my partner of fourteen years, to be put to sleep. The poor girl could no longer walk effectively and the time had most certainly come. I stopped at the grocery store and bought a filet mignon for us to share. I drove home from the store in a state of shock. Maggie was still there – still an active part in my life at that moment but I had appointed the hour of her passing and in a short while she would be gone from my physical realm forever. And that moment came and I was inconsolable. Yet there was something, something that drove me to the stereo and told me to play a song and there was only one song to play. This particular tune was called, “Hummingbird” and it was written by my good friend – my brother – Will Taylor and played by The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit. I played it so loud and repeated it so many times it probably drove my ex-wife to distraction but it fit. It was the perfect song for the perfect moment:
Our hearts will always be wrapped up in the heavens if there’s one thing sure of it’s that.
You might be on your way out while I’m on my way in, well so be it if that.
Because I can only be right where I’m at.
Seriously? How does synchronicity like that happen? And it does happen again and again for people that truly feel music the way we do. The moment is golden, it is perfect and it is immediately tactile. I’ve talked to other folks deeply tied to this band and that song is their shape shifter too. That song means something perfect for each of them – speaks to them on a level that only they can truly understand. And over the years that I have listened to this band, that song has taken on a special significance and specifically tied itself to a special moment in my life be it the loss of a sweet soul in death, love lost, love regained and lost again – it morphs in shape and meaning. And it will continue to morph in its meaning. It will continue to shift and fit singular moments of my life as long as I draw breath. That might sound melodramatic but it is real. Somehow it will apply; somehow it will always be relevant.
The thing is it is not just Willy Tea Taylor as the principal songwriter in the band. Chris Doud can write a song that will leave the listener enraptured as his words recount the goodness of climbing out of the city and into the cedars of the high country where the calm of mountains can wash over us and erase the frenzied pace of the metropolis. His words lead us away from the lost mining claims synonymous with empty relationships to the gold found in those partnerships that, with work, can pay out like the magic claims of legend. Doud can drive us down the religion of a highway covered in truck stop scripture and the truth only found in long journeys that wrap around the whole country and put the nation’s dirt under our nails.
Will and Doud’s songs are given wings incredibly talented players. Matt Cordano sweeps the audience with pedal steel flourishes that nod to acid infused outlaw country like The Flying Burrito Brothers. Then he can stand, pick up a Flying V and shred with as much intensity as Slayer. Or he can put the Flying V down and confidently fill in gaps with his banjo. Aaron Burtch is a rock drummer as good as they come providing a steady backbeat that allows bassist Taylor Webster to thump along and embellish the bottom end that, between he and Burtch, provide a foundation of sound for which other bands can only dream. And then, just when you thought the instrumentation could not get better, there is Chandler Pratt trading back and forth between his mandolin and Fender Strat. Suddenly we have a guitar driven band that can come out with the heft of early Seventies era Faces, snarling and swirling in feedback with teeth that can rip but can in a single change turn on a dime and sound as soft and gentle as an old Townes song because, in the end, the song is the focus and this is a song driven band.
So it was with a heavy heart that I walked into the Fillmore Auditorium on March 18 and saw my friends, The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, sound checking their support set for The Brothers Comatose. As I walked into that vaunted hall that boasts perhaps the greatest of all Bay Area musical histories, this was a marked moment. In my time I have never really confronted losing one of “my bands” but after thirteen years the future of The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit was in serious jeopardy. Rumors of hiatus abounded and, scorned most were the rumors of real finality. This night, on that illustrious stage, could truly be it – the last one. No one could truly talk about the future because no one really knew. Side projects that gained widespread recognition were in play, the births of children and all that beautiful responsibility raised its head. This, too, is a band in which most of the players faced the demands of their day jobs. Outside pressures, all fairly positive ones were finally taking their toll on the band I loved. It was best to look at it as twilight with perhaps the hope of a new dawn because I, like so many others, just was not ready to say goodbye. A Good Luck show is generally a throw down – it is raucous and free – whiskey fueled and irreverent in its celebration of life in the cuts. These guys, unbeknownst to them, had ridden shotgun on numerous trips with me into the Yosemite high country, rode shotgun on innumerable ramblings in the eastern Sierra, the boys that sat next to me in a little speaker at many campfires, watched the moonrise with me and other friends over the vastness of the Pacific– these guys were calling it quits? That’s a heavy reckoning.
This fifty minute set, then, was ultimately to be the culmination of thirteen years of brotherhood, thirteen years of shared experience and adventure. Fifty minutes. And I will mention here that The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit provided a great contrast to the night’s headliners, The Brothers Comatose. BroCo is a band on the rise and for good reason. Those guys have youth and excitement behind them; they are self-marketing masters and even better players. They know how to command an audience and they know how to create a level of excitement on stage that I haven’t seen equaled by another band of their kind in a long time. While they are the darlings of this twisted kind of Alt-Country scene, The Good Luck are the beat up old dog that is nothing if he is not loyal. The Good Luck has been beat up, beat down and then raised up more times than they can count. Here was one band on the way up and another potentially on their way out. I’m sure this contrast was on more than a few minds that night.
And the set was beautiful. I would like to say that it was an earth shattering farewell and that the band came out primed to deliver fire for fifty minutes straight but the set opener, Chris Doud’s “Lost Claim,” set the tone immediately. They did not come out of the gates breathing fire. The guitars were muted, Cordano issuing licks from a soaring pedal steel instead of melting faces with the Flying V. Chandler Pratt colored the song with gentle mandolin and Willy Tea’s signature four string guitar pushed the song along. This was going to be an introspective set and reflective of the moment. And that was good. It was a set not unfamiliar at this point to the tested Good Luck fans in attendance and it followed a series of good old standards that gave us all an opportunity to almost say goodbye to the songs as much as the players. There were two standouts of the night. After Doud’s, “Tow Truck” had finished, Willy Tea called out Kelly Jane from an up and coming Tuolumne County group The Little Fuller Band. I knew what was coming. Years ago I had introduced Kelly to Willy at Strawberry Music Festival because I had heard a version of “Hummingbird” that Kelly had recorded. As the opening chords issued from the stage it was hard to not get the goose bumps going. Kelly crushed the song in her own way and in the only way that someone with a voice like hers could. She was at once edgy and strong but then soft and respectful. It was also incredibly gratifying to witness my friend Kelly’s debut on the Fillmore stage backed my other good friends. This was not a moment I expected.
The other standout was Willy’s song from his new album, Kuckleball Prime, entitled “California.” It is the song of the Dustbowl migrant, giving up the dehydrated, dust-choked home place for the then fertile fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Within the lyrics is the promise of hope only to be dashed by the reality of what this influx of pilgrims would one day mean to the land that promised them life. In that promise, California was sealing her own fate to a future of too many people and not enough water. The words are poignant, but tonight it was about the band and, more specifically, Chandler Pratt’s beautifully filthy guitar work that matched Willy’s high falsetto in screams and moans, balanced only by that heavy bottom end provided by Taylor Webster. The arrangement on the album is masterful but that arrangement was matched and maybe even superseded on the Fillmore stage. It was one of those experiences where you turn to your buddy and look at him with the same look of dumbstruck, “holy shit did they just do that?” look that he’s simultaneously giving you.
The set began to wind down with “Marshall Law” and took an evocative, thoughtful turn:
This may be my darkest day; I may one day have another
Don’t you worry about your baby boy Mama; I’ll be walking with my brothers
We’ll be walking over hills and through valleys
Well be sleeping with the stars
We’ll be fighting off the wicked and the whatnot with our hearts and our guitars
And we gonna shine, we gonna shine we gonna shine
This may be my final hour, I may never get another
Don’t you worry about your bouncing boy Papa; I’ll be walking with my brothers
We’ll be walking through the streets in all the cities
We’ll be sleeping with the sun
We’ll be killing all the wicked and the whatnot and we won’t stop until we’re done
And we gonna shine, we gonna shine we gonna shine
But it was not over. They left the stage the way they should have, in a whirlwind of guitar infused testosterone laden rock. “One Yard” is the song of commitment and striving for the forward step no matter the length and difficulty of the journey. It was an exclamation point on an otherwise reserved set that reminded all of us in the room of the days when we could gather and forget the struggle in the insanity that only loud guitars and an uncompromising stand can make. And with that song it dawned on me. The exclamation point of “One Yard” just put a real question mark on the fate of The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit. Done?
This is a band of immeasurable talent. This is a band that is yet poised to not only take over a genre of music but create one. Some of the best musicians I know count The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit as a seminal influence. Alt- Country? What is that? An alternative to mainstream country? If that is the case, The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit has been delivering the goods since day one. This is a group of guys that have been around longer than the Beatles and their collective history of playing roadhouses, weddings, The Great American Music Hall and rooms like the Fillmore deserves more! Maybe a hiatus is the very best thing that can happen for this band? Maybe a hiatus, as it should be, can be a collective breath to take a moment and realize that creating new music in all its vibrancy and relevance is bigger than the potential of existing as a nostalgia act. I cannot be alone in that sentiment. If there’s one thing I hope, it is that there is something new and mind-blowing yet to be created by some of the most talented players I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. The music world deserves to hear more from The Good Luck Thrift Store from Oakdale, California. Hell, Oakdale deserves that! Make it happen, fellas; your brightest chapter has yet to be written. Take the time to write the masterpieces, you’ve done it before and, by God, you’ll do it again.