"Futurebirds" | image credit: Henry Chong
Certainly some barbaric sliver of my inner bastard yearns to write a piece so brutal, so blindingly scathing, that it chases a band not only out of town but entirely out of the music business altogether. To craft a collection of words so vile that it summons forth the furiously indignant shade of Hendrix. Setting their instruments ablaze while we all cackle with unsuppressed glee. Roasting staypuffs over the smoldering remains of their o’erpriced Gibsons.
But I’ve yet to write a bad music review. By that, of course, I mean not to say that I have yet to write a review of questionable quality. I leave that to others to weigh and measure. More to the point, I have yet to write a negative one.
Maybe I don’t have it in me. Maybe it’s easier to just ignore bad music than beat it like a cheap rent boy after hours in Chelsea. The spirit of Lester Bangs may not approve, but to my mind the battle for the soul of Rock & Roll was more or less won when the money ran out. The music industry has been essentially crushed through the unholy might of the web. And while there will ever and always be suits with checkbooks telling bands what to do – they’re on a tight budget these days. If you’re a musician in this era you’re more than likely out there on your own. Harassing friends with endless GoFundMe posts on Facebook. Extolling the virtues of your latest project and why they should kick you a few bucks to make it happen.
Yesteryear, the bags of money were much larger. Capable of producing some impressively hedonistic lifestyles which in turn inspired some pretty outrageous music. Rock and roll? Well. It’s not dead. But it’s been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. It has to watch its carb count. Quit smoking. Take in a jog after breakfast and cut out anything that remotely resembles dessert.
. . .
Hen Cho is on the phone. “Jeff. All hell’s breaking loose. I need your help, man. We’re totally batshit fucked.”
He appears to be experiencing an elevated sense of urgency: “I’m shooting the Futurebirds. For a feature. The writer bailed on me. Could you..?”
I express to Mr. Cho, a fellow photographer – and a fine one at that, that I’ve never heard of the Futurebirds. That I’m tired. That I just fixed that whole unfortunate Reagan business and I’m looking forward to a well deserved evening of relaxation with a bottle of Tullamore and a recently unearthed collection of Vonnegut letters. But he’s desperate. Insistent. So I throw on some leather and kick the Honda into gear, motoring over to O’Connors through a chill, November breeze.
Entering the brewery where this show’s taking place, I’m greeted by the sound of the opening act: Pleasantly surprised to see that Norfolk’s own ‘Mirrors’ are on the stage. Hen is nowhere in sight. “Where the fuck is he?” I mutter under my breath. Raising an eyebrow at the doorman. His outstretched hand seeking coin of the realm.
I bark. “I’m here to review.” He recoils his mitt and searches the list. “Name?” I give him Cho’s, knowing damn well that with such short notice there’s no way AD got me added to it. Hen can fend for himself, I reason. “You don’t.. Uh.. You don’t look like a Cho,” he ventures. I offer up the name of an nasty ACLU lawyer who would disagree, litigiously. He relents and lets me pass free of charge.
. . .
Safely inside, I grab a beer and kick back to appraise the band on the stage. Their singer also helms the increasingly popular Janks – a kind of resurrection of a certain flavor of nineteen thirties New Orleans style jazz. The Mirrors, in contrast, are more of a Beatles fueled exploration soaked with seedy jook joint psychedelia. The kind of band you’d envision in a filthy, alley ensconced tavern. Smoke clouds of questionable origin billowing out each time one of its illicit patrons furtively darts from the archway to their waiting ’73 Plymouth Challenger or maybe a battered Studebaker.
Ronnie Talman is Norfolk’s ghost of cool. The kind of cat, you get the sense that whatever he just came from is at least ten times as interesting as wherever it is you’re going. And that wherever he’s going it’s guaranteed to be way more hip than the rest of your week. After watching him close out the set, I pull him aside for a few words to the readers.
Talman: “No. I’m not from here. I was born in California, but I don’t remember much about that. Don’t really remember the reason behind the move. Why.. My father. Ended up moving to Albuquerque for about ten years. I didn’t want to live at home anymore. Moved to Minneapolis. And then I made.. I made the conscious decision.. I always wanted to just get up and go.. Without telling anyone..
There were a bunch of reasons I had to leave.. None of them, really any.. good. I was dating a girl from here. This friend of mine, hadn’t seen him for years.. I was just sitting on a curb and he came rollin up.. Needed a guitar player for this thing he wrote. And then we started the band. This was about.. Five. Six years ago. And now we’re, you know.. trying to get some harmonies going as best as we can. We’ve got a record out.”
. . .
Three or four beers later, I’m taking in the dulcet, Wilco inspired tones of the second band – Susto. Checking the web, I learn a few things. That “Susto” is a folklore term indicating the loss of one’s soul from the body through fright. That a fatal form of this can occur, referred to as “Espanto.” And that the southern gothic infused band formed out of a collaboration between Charleston and Havanna, where lead singer Justin Osbourne was exhuming leftist politics while recovering from a broken heart.
Hen Cho appears, looking somewhat nervous after an altercation with the door man. “I think there's someone here pretending to be me!”
I express shock that anyone would stoop so low, and go to interview Susto’s front man after bumming him a smoke.
Osbourne: “I was interested in Latin American politics.. And I had been playing in bands for years. I had quit music, and you know – thank’s for the cigarette, by the way! I had been in another, pop / folk band. Touring. I got frustrated with the grind of it and.. I quit.
I had been reading all about the Zapatistas. Latin America peoples’ movements. That kind of thing. I ended up in Cuba. I went there.. My intention was to get involved with social movements, but I’m a musician. So I started hanging out with musicians. And then people were like, you need to go back to America and tour again. My Cuban friends convinced me to go back.
The record’s been out for a year and after a year and a half, the band’s starting to pay off. We were hearing from some professional musicians that we really had something. That we were good, so we’ve been pursuing this. There’s a lot of talent in Charleston, where I ended up. It’s kind of a destination city at this point. There’s a lot of transplants out of Athens, Georgia. We started to playing with some great bands. Futurebirds. Iron & Wine. None of us have any other jobs now. We travel in a shitty ’98 Dodge van. It’s real comfortable though. I sleep in it sometimes. It’s been great!”
. . .
I’m on the ninth beer. I’m feeling surly. Cho is lit like a napalm dipped firefly. He’s been shooting the Futurebirds as if he’s some kind of demented whooping crane. Wildly gesticulating as he pops the flash, grabbing moments from the stage. Security is monitoring him closely, seething. They’re not completely convinced he is who he says he is. I expect a beating to land any minute now. Poor guy. I hope he has decent insurance.
The band has, to this point, underwhelmed me. They’re not bad.. Certainly its members have all the right moves. They’re more than competent musicians but nothing they’ve done so far has captured me. “It’s not you, it’s me.” I mumble, turning to leave early and re-connect with that Vonnegut book I have waiting at home.
I’m halfway to the door when it happens. Something catches me at the last possible moment. A wave of feeling. An emotional resurgence. Something with echoes of greatness tumbling out of the music like a burst open piñata. I turn back to the band. Study the crowd. Invisible tendrils of connection intertwine. A kind of becoming. Three feet away, I observe what looks to be the beginning of a young romance between a pretty, waif-like blonde and a gruffly bearded hipster boy. I glance to my right to notice a man in his thirties, weaving to the closing number. A beatific smile on his face. Eyes closed. Beaming light and love.
Later, still shaken by the experience, I chat with the Futurebirds’ acoustic guitarist, Daniel Womack, while his bandmates close up shop. The Semisonic’s ‘Closing Time’ blares in the background.
Jeff Hewitt: You guys are out of Athens. That’s a place with a pedigree.. With a huge history. You’ve been around since aught eight. What’s different between your band now and your band then?
Womack: “Oh wow. Well. Let’s see. Seven years of touring the country with all kinds of awesome bands? I’d say a lot has changed. But the vision has remained the same.”
And what is that vision?
“Really, just, ah. To create genuine.. Interesting music that we all love collectively. And never sell out. To continue to do this and build a career. That’s our goal. We love.. The Rolling Stones. The Grateful Dead. The Flying Burrito Brothers are a huge influence, honestly.”
I hear a lot where you’re tagged with the label, “Psychedelic Country.. but it seems to me.. That that’s not..?
“That was something.. It was thrown around when we first came out.. but..”
I hear more of a jam component to what you’re doing?
“There’s definitely a jam element. Some of the songs on our older records are definitely longer. But We’ve shaved some of that off this go’ round.”
Seven years is a long time to be in a band, touring. I would imagine you’ve cut all the bullshit?
“Yeah.. Sure. We’re getting older. Our girlfriends are ready to get married. We’re all 29. I guess, we’re getting older and our sound is maturing. I would like to think.. As a group we’ve been writing really.. Our latest record is our most cohesive record to date. I’m really proud of it.”
Just to give me a sense of.. What would selling out look like to you? What’s the thing you don’t want to do?
“Well.. We don’t want to have a big label come to us. I mean, we’d like extreme success like anybody does.. But we don’t.. There’s a trade off in this industry. You have to sell your soul, man. They own your music. They tell you how to cut your hair. We don’t want to have to do all of that. We recorded this record on our own. We funded it and everything. And now we’re signed with ‘Fat Possum’ out of Mississippi.. They share our vision and we really see eye to eye. We’ve signed with them for a three record deal.”
How long are you on tour for?
“We have one week left. And then we’re done for the year.”
Ten years from now, what are you gonna say about today?
“Oh man.. You know.. ‘Those were the glory days.’ I mean.. It depends on what you mean by glory days, I guess. If you’re in it for the money. Then no. But there’s been a lot of success. It’s hard to stay relevant. Especially when you take two years to record an album. But we’re really happy with where we are and it feels like we’re set to go on to even bigger things.”
. . .
In the afterglow, I muse that the days when one could sell one’s soul to Rock and Roll are over and gone. Rock and Roll can’t afford your soul anymore. It’s flat busted. It can, however, on a pre-winter evening in a dusk driven brewery hall wedged between Llewellyn and Monticello in old, industrial Norfolk, cough up spare change enough to rent it for a couple of hours.
In that time I could forget the myriad troubles that afflict me during the daily grind. I could forget about Paris and Kenya. That there are people in the world who wish us harm. I could forget that I still owe the Cat & Dog Hospital four hundred bucks to stitch up Muppet. That I’m never really sure how much longer I’ll be able to pay the mortgage. That I need to get up early tomorrow to make phone calls and try to find new work.
I’m sure there’ll eventually be some other bands that deserve savaging down the line. These three had it in them to chase the blues away, at least for a little while. That’s a rare enough thing today in this world. Valuable as its weight in something, if not gold. Not a bad way to spend an evening. Not a bad way at all.
Vonnegut would approve..
And I reckon Lester can be held silent at least a little while longer.