The Bye Bye Blackbirds at the Ivy Room, by Patric Carver
The Bye Bye Blackbirds (photo: Patric Carver)

I recently read about a growing trend to buy vinyl records and never play them, keeping the record forever in its cellophane prison as a kitchy relic of bygone times.

Personally, I can’t think of anything more tragic and totally foreign to my relationship with vinyl. A few years ago, I found an original pressing of The Replacements' Let it Be — still in its shrink wrap. Before my receipt had printed, I had torn through the plastic covering and was asking to hear it on the record store’s sound system. Records are meant to be played. Music is meant to be enjoyed. To me, every record is a potential lesson — grooves filled with another layer of insight, wonder, and soul. Leaving it locked in plastic? Horrific.

I don’t have much evidence to confirm my suspicions, but last Saturday night, the tiny stage at the Ivy Room welcomed some acts that I believe share this viewpoint. In their sound, you can hear a parade of influence that only comes from living a lifetime as a music lover — from being a listener, not a collector.

David Brookings and the Average Lookings went on first. In their first song, "If I Don’t Make it Back," I got a strong Nick Lowe vibe. As in Lowe’s "So It Goes," Brookings and company had an effortless look while producing pop perfection that is not overly saccharine. When I sat down with frontman David Brookings after the show, he said he most wanted people to know his, “sole mission is to write catchy songs, songs that you will find yourself humming in the shower the next morning.” I admit that I found myself doing just that the next day.

A Virginia native and former tour guide at Sun Studios in Memphis, you can hear the footprint of Southern rock tradition in Brooking’s sound (think Tom Petty without the slurring mixed with the heaviness of Big Star and you’re almost there). Like most rock from regions below the Mason-Dixon line, Brookings' work is also charmingly biographical. Though not always telling his own story, Brookings' lyrics add to the chapters of musical history. Sometimes this comes off as purposefully hokey as in "I’m in Love with Your Wife," a ballad about Eric Clapton’s feelings for George Harrison’s wife, and sometimes it has more of a simple in-the-moment feel like "Big Gun," a would-be self-defense tale. Either way, it always works when the Average Lookings are the storytellers, their musical acumen blending together a perfect mix of story and song.

The Bye Bye Blackbirds had their work cut out for them following such a talented opener, but passed with flying colors. It is hard to believe that singer Bradley Skaught is from the Pacific Northwest. Like Brookings, his musical sensibilities seem to be from a lower latitude, like his heart was somehow steamed in Southern humidity and then later galvanized in the cool winds of the Atlantic coast. However, Skaught proves that you don't have to be a native to sound like one — producing smooth but strong harmonizing is the crux of The Blackbirds' sound. It’s beautiful — rock with a touch of gospel that isn’t rivaled by any band in the Bay Area. Perhaps I feel this way about The Blackbirds' music because it has that get-up-and-dance, soul-filling quality. It’s permeating; charging. It’s lovely. The melting quality of "Don’t Come Back Now" is enough to make even the most cynical, hardened heart skip a beat.

That said, there is a little bit of a dark side to The Blackbirds — almost a Chris Isaak edge that comes out in songs like "Butterfly Drinks" or the heavy-yet-hoppy baseline of "Earl Grey Kisses." There’s a little tempering to the sweetness that makes you think twice; listen harder. If The Blackbirds’ sound was a person, it would be that smart, passionate young man your daughter is engaged to that you just found out got a DUI a few years ago. You like him still, but you’re aware he has a past.

The Blackbirds were joined by guest drummer Jozef Becker (The Loud Family) who kept a steady, solid beat. It was a treat to see someone with such a storied past in rock history perform with The Blackbirds. He wore his role in the band like an old coat — seeming like he could step into any musical outfit and appear to have always belonged there — a real professional. It’s a shame he can’t perform with them on a regular basis, as their sound deserves it. Becker also chatted with me about his love of music — pinpointing the moment his hearing started to decline to a 1977 Devo show and somewhat affirming my theory that you don’t get to be that good without listening hard.

Sadly, the last band of the night, The Ardent Sons, did not pack the punch of their supporting acts. Their set seemed to be a mismatch of talent and insecurity as the members mumbled through some pleasant background music. It was impressive that they could produce such steady sound without seeming to try or care, but the ultimate result was just not quite enough. Uncertainty hummed in every note as the band wasn’t that together, and it seemed to be an unfortunate case of the parts being greater than the sum. In another venue, say a house party, the performance of The Ardent Sons would have seemed more appropriate. After the first two bands of the evening, though, they just seemed watered down.

You can see David Brookings and the Average Lookings perform at Amnesia on January 19 and The Bye Bye Blackbirds at Bottom of the Hill February 24.

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