Waylon Speed: Higher Ground, South Burlington, VT 4/28/12

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If you’re looking for a benchmark of grassroots support for a rock and roll band, you needed go no further than Waylon Speed’s CD release party at Higher Ground’s Showcase Lounge on April 28th. Guitarist Kelly Ravin and bassist Noah Crowther were probably no more or less earnest than any other local band would be in their expressions of gratitude to a comfortably full house on a return home from tour, but this Saturday night audience responded intelligently to a single set that was as unpredictable as this band is eclectic.

Following the same instincts that prompted the group to record a double album divided into metal and country-style discs, then an EP and then a full length album all within the space of about two years, Waylon Speed spent nearly two hours on a cramped stage alternately broadening and focusing their music and instrumental reach. Joined by violinist Joe Cleary (guesting as he had on the studio album Valance), the quartet took country reels like “Then and Now” and “Silver and Gold” at breakneck speed. But Waylon Speed also chorded their way heavily (but not heavy handedly) through straight rock like “I Heard the Shot” from the new album on their way to thumping and thrashing in such a way the opener, local punkers Rough Francis, seemed like a mere facsimile thereof. With no overt reference otherwise, WS reminded alt-country archetypes Uncle Tupelo’s cover of The Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog” over a decade ago in the hey-day of that movement.

Comments overheard in the venue’s smaller room suggested that the group plays faster live than on record, but that’s only understandable for a group given to trust their feelings live: Waylon Speed have spent ample studio time reflecting on the most potent arrangements for their original material. The drawl in Ravin’s and Crowther’s harmonies doesn’t sound affected in the least and if the ghost of Dave Dudley (author of country standard “Six Days on the Road”) isn’t listed in the band’s self-acknowledged influences, that doesn’t mean their connection to the genre isn’t authentic (or that, likewise, the arch humor in tunes like “Beef Jerky and Beer” isn’t reminiscent of the original Flying Burrito Brothers).

Quite the contrary. In fact, Waylon Speed are perhaps more genuine than most acts you’d see on the CMA Awards or appearing at the Champlain Valley Fair. They may be a bit too rough around the edges to fit any format neatly or hew closely to a specific demographic, but that’s in keeping with the flow of this show: just when it seemed the quartet was beginning to stretch out with successive tunes, The Rev Chad Hammaker’s guitars intertwining with Ravin’s as Noah and drummer brother Justin rumbled ominously beneath them, they pulled back for short quick bursts of structured songs, including “Santa Rosa” and an as-yet-titled new tune, to effectively pace set.

If that winding route didn’t seem like a pure masterstroke at the time, a little over an hour into the show, in retrospect it was an unerring setup for the finale. Within a segue from “Parallels” into “Neck Knife,” by way of a mercifully brief drum solo, sheets of dissonance arising from crescendos of guitars alternated with more metallic frenzy, surrounded by stream of consciousness vocals amidst clouds of dry ice; it was the only concession to stage production and while it might’ve been incongruous in a slightly different context, it worked here to extend the mood of the music.        

A short sweet encore of “Looking at the World Through a Windshield” ended the performance, but it was as if Waylon Speed had undergone a metamorphosis of their own making while they played. And it’s as if Higher Ground knew it too: why else leave the house lights dim, but the stage lit,  long after it was clear the band wouldn’t return, if not to cement the memory of a unique moment in a band’s evolution. Back in 2005 My Morning Jacket created a comparable transformation in the larger room of the South Burlington venue; the effect was eerily similar this chilly spring night.

Setlist:
Beef Jerky and Beer
Livin’
Then Again
Killin’’ Time
I heard the Shot
Cherry Plane
Coming down again
Slow Burn
Reminds Me
Silver and Gold
Smooth the Grain
Koi
Untitled new original
Santa Rosa
Driving Fast
Parallels into Neck Knife

E: Looking at the World through a Windshield

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