Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Big Payoff

Band of Skulls / Ponderosa
Monday, October 15
Old Rock House

God save a touring band. There are nights when you play to a handful of people, thankful that you have one of the most fun jobs ever, but really wishing you had a few more people there to make it feel less like work. Those nights are hard. They make the tour almost not worth it, a real ego-killer. You pack up your gear hoping against hope that next time it'll be better.
photo bandofskulls.com

Ponderosa arrives in St. Louis from their home in Atlanta, GA, and referred at one point to playing here to exactly four people their last time out. Happily, this was much closer to that hoped-for night, as there were plenty of St. Louisans out to catch the early band. Ponderosa is a study in strange mashups that wouldn't work on paper—lead guitarist Kris Sampson draped himself in what looked like an Afghan rug, while the rest of his band leaned into hipster or rockabilly costuming. The music blended AM radio vocal harmonies with Ian Moore/Nick Lowe-style songcraft and washes of very loud surf guitar. Despite the strange-sounding combinations, the best songs recalled a heady mix of Kings of Leon's early work and Band of Horses, which points to great things in their future.

By the time Band of Skulls stepped up onstage, the Monday night crowd had closed on about 150 souls—not a bad turnout for a Southampton, UK band whose main successes have been a pair of stellar rock albums (Baby Darling Doll Face Honey from 2009 and 2012's Sweet Sour), touring with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and appearing in the background of numerous video games, movies and TV shows.

Despite the Cardinals playoffs displayed on every TV in the Old Rock House, and their own tale of a tiny STL crowd back in the day, lead singer/guitarist Russell Marsden and bassist/vocalist Emma Richardson had the crowd well in their hands as the lights came on. The band is known for being "alternative," though one wonders if that means anything anymore. What they really are is a small band with a big sound, full force blues-rock that stomps and sways and crunches in all the right places. It's the kind of alchemical mixture of heavy and pop that brings to mind the southern rock traditions of archetypal rock n' roll distilled by current practitioners like Band of Horses and Kings of Leon.

Marsden certainly was aware of all rock n' roll traditions, stomping around the stage with his long hair, beard and Gretsch guitars while blazing through some impressive playing. All this while the rest of the band—Richardson and drummer Matt Hayward—played it cool and kept the beat alive. Their songs were greeted with huge cheers from the audience. Highlights include "The Devil Takes Care of His Own" and the new single "You Ain't Pretty But You Got It Goin' On," as well as "Friends" and "Fires." But "I Know What I Am" got some of the loudest response, likely due to its near ubiquity three years ago. From TV's "Friday Night Lights" and "Degrassi : The Next Generation" to videogames like "MLB 10 : The Show" and "Guitar Hero : Warriors of Rock," this song was everywhere.

And, like all of Band of Skulls' music, there's good reason. Their songs and records are streamlined American-sounding rock grab bags that constantly surprise and delight with both elegant simplicity and a deeper, darker undercurrent. This should play well with fans of fellow UKers MUSE, whose tour Band of Skulls jumps on starting this spring—and who are going to continue turning up in droves for this kind of music, hopefully banishing Band of Skulls' single-digit crowds for good.

by Jason Robinson

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