I know it's cliche, but last Friday night at The Hideaway Cafe and Recording Studio, I got yet another lesson in not judging a band by its appearance, which is something I have always struggled with.
It was your typical busy night in downtown St. Petersburg — Rays game goers milling about along with people out enjoying First Friday and the area's menagerie of shows, bars and restaurants. I found myself at Hideaway Cafe (1756 Central Ave.) and was not quite sure what to expect from the bands scheduled to play that evening: Spark Notes and The Wholetones. Owner John Kelly made me curious with his overtures about how young and extremely talented the bands were.
Gene and Lalo [pictured right] make up the lively Spark Notes, and they opened the evening with a short set of acoustic alt-rock tunes. Gene plays acoustic guitar and throws in some harmonies while Lalo slaps the bass and belts out insane lead vocals.
The duo emanates infectious energy, making it hard not to smile. Lalo is both animated on and off stage. Their first tune had a punk vibe to it (I immediately thought of The Matches) and one of its lyrics — "The sun is imploding" — got stuck in my head all night. The next song had a softer vibe and really showcased their abilities to harmonize. Gene added somewhat old school, Flamenco-style touches with his picking and casual strumming. And Lalo — who's got an amazing set of pipes — hit notes I didn't know guys could reach (well, save for Adam Lambert). A song about their hometown, "Sarasota," proved to be a crowd favorite, and got the audience clapping and even singing along to the refrain: "Forever I adore you oh Sara, Sarasota."
At first glance, Wholetones [pictured left] look like scruffy punks — black shirts, patched-up pants, tattoos all over. Their approachable demeanor and sound were far from what I was expecting. The band's myspace dubs them as "Folk/Jazz/Metal" and their Facebook page says "FOLKCORE," but their sound leaned more towards jammy bluegrass and roots rock.
The band, from Naples, consists of four guys. Alex Dorris sings lead and plays the cello, guitar and banjo; Taylor Freydberg adds guitar, harmonica and backup vocals; Russ Depa brings upright bass grooves; and Mayo Coates offers up rhythms on drums and percussion — and also adds a few shouts here and there.
"We also bring our good-looking attorney, Jeb, to every show," Mayo told me later. "He teaches us life lessons and plays the mustache." This large ensemble barely fit on the small stage at Hideaway Cafe, but they filled the room with a down-home atmosphere. For a group of guys that grew up in a generation full of Nirvana and Blink 182, they have definitely brought something new and exciting to the table. Alex's skill on the guitar are almost god-like. He played so fast at some points that his hands were a complete blur.
The entire band possessed absolutely insane musicianship. WMNF plays their music proudly, and Peter Gallagher even came to the gig to show his support. After a cover of The Decemberists' "Mariners Revenge Song," I was addicted. This was the first song that really showed off their skills and range in the vocal department. They had three-way harmonies, eerie minor chords, and a simple backbeat that pushed the vocals up front where they should be. Most of their set up to that point was instrumental. And don't get me wrong, their instrumentals were flat-out freaking fantastic — but I really wished they would add more vocals to the mix, especially by the end of the night, when it felt like my ears would bleed from the intensity and loudness of their set. I would have loved a slower-paced song that just showcased lyrics and vocals, but even so, these guys proved themselves talented and have definite potential to rise above the rest.