Last Thursday, Birdman Records held their annual holiday party at the Make-Out Room, and after releasing eight solid albums in 2007, the label had much to celebrate. In the beginning, however, this evening seemed as though it would be more about the label’s future than their past accomplishments.

Howlin Rain – fronted by Ethan Miller of Comets on Fire – kicked things off with a brief acoustic set. I’m used to seeing pretty high energy sets from these guys, however their Lynyrd Skynyrd-by-way-of-noise-rock sound lends itself well to many different incarnations. A new Howlin Rain record will hit stores in the new year on Birdman and American Recordings. Apache – the latest addition to the label – took the stage next, opening with their brilliant new single, “Boy’s Life.” For a label that seems to have a good deal of psychedelic nostalgia, both Apache and Howlin Rain succeed in extending the sound into the next decade, while still fitting in amongst the rest of the roster. Watching Lou Lou and the Guitarfish next – who also have a highly-anticipated release due in 2008 – it struck me that their sound just might be getting darker.

But despite all excitement surrounding future releases, the night truly belonged to one of the label’s most successful artists. As the clock approached 11, it was soon revealed that the advertised Greg Ashley set would not be happening, and instead we would be treated to a performance from his band, The Gris Gris. According to their MySpace page, The Gris Gris are “not a band anymore,” which I can only say is a terrible shame after witnessing what I did. Though they only played for 20 minutes, the magic and the chemistry between the three members was magnetic and undeniable. The songs, which veer from psychedelic ballads to all out improvisational experimentation, sounded fresh and alive. Greg Ashley’s distorted vocals were especially chilling, but the high point came when he picked up an empty beer glass from the stage and began using it as a slide for his acoustic guitar. In recent years, The Gris Gris have graduated to bigger venues, so seeing them perform in such a tiny space was absolutely unbelievable. Hopefully, such a performance will lead them to reconsider their plans to break up.

It was a near impossible act to follow, but Brian Glaze and his new backing band the Night Shift closed things out well. With a Bay Area all star team that includes Andy and Garrett from The Cuts, Glaze’s once minimal acoustic numbers become bigger, brighter, and louder. Quite surprisingly, the transition is seamless. Seeing a band comprised of musicians who play in multiple Birdman bands was a poignant statement of what this label is all about. Birdman really is a tight-knit rock and roll family dedicated to preserving the classic rock sounds, while allowing their artists to experiment and veer in new directions. Quite a rare find these days.