Thursday, August 17, 2017
“I asked the Wish Man / to make me a dog / and he said, ‘your wish is my command’ / and I said, [sound effects of dogs barking]”
Those are all of the lyrics to the sub-minute “Wish Man,” a song that Rozwell Kid played six times the other night at Mr. Smalls Funhouse, and would’ve played more if it could. It takes a certain type of artist to even record a song as nonsensical as that, let alone slap it in the middle of the most important record of their career thus far—in this case, the long-awaited SideOneDummy Records debut, Precious Art. However, to then play that song six times in one set during your first nationwide headlining tour, and receive a greater, more impassioned crowd response on each successive playthrough, is a feat only Rozwell Kid could accomplish.
In fact, many of the West Virginia quartet’s most beloved lines would result in a proverbial “smh” if they belonged to any other band. “Simpsons season 3, and a thing of hummus / this is all I need, I’m like super low-maintenance,” singer/songwriter Jordan Hudkins croons during the first lines of fan-favorite “Kangaroo Pocket”; “You’re 28, baby-face / legally a man but that don’t mean / you’re gonna be a facial hair machine,” he belts during “Baby’s First Sideburns”; and “I’m down to my underwear / cause I threw it all away in a Wendy’s trash can,” he carols right before the careening main riff of Precious Art opener, “Wendy’s Trash Can.”
Rozwell Kid have the innate ability to make the truly pathetic sound truly epic, and they do it with a simple serum of riffs and hooks; age-old ingredients that Hudkins and co. have concocted into one of the most perfectly distinct sonic identities in modern rock music. Borrowing from the horns-up licks of Van Halen and ilk, merging them with the infectious harmonies of Blue- through Green-album Weezer, and delivering it all with the swagger of Weird Al Yankovic (whom they dedicate their most ostentatiously hard-rockin’ song to), Rozwell Kid is its own special breed of excellence.
The band gradually amassed a following through a handful of pay-what-you-want releases via the now-defunct emo/indie powerhouse Broken World Media, eventually breaking out upon its 2016 signing to SideOneDummy, whom subsequently reissued its stellar 2015 EP Good Graphics. Now, the band is verging on selling out 200-300-cap venues like Mr. Smalls, and this summer tour was an auspicious example of what a future with Rozwell Kid as headliners might look like.
Regardless of whether it was the band members themselves, or their booking agents, this tour package was some ingenious planning, as both openers represented a different side of Rozwell Kid.
The first was technical abilities, as demonstrated by Seattle up-and-comers Great Grandpa — a five-piece that noodled its way through a good portion of its recent full-length debut, Plastic Cough. A lot of the record’s intricacies benefited from the spaciousness of the stage, the jerkiness and sudden shifts within the songs appearing more impressive and less muddled with the band right in front of you. The band has yet to exude the confidence and swiftness of its tourmates, which is to be expected given its youth, but there’s a lot of promise there for something great down the line. The band’s got chops.
Chris Farren, a man who rivals puppies for universal adoration, was up next, zooming through an abundant slab of material from his catalog, particularly last year’s Can’t Die—another SideOneDummy release. Although most of his recordings blend acoustic and digital instruments, he played solo with just his guitar and a backing track of glitzy, ‘80s-y synths and drum-machine effects that transformed pop-rock bangers like “Say U Want Me” and “Human Being” into straight-up pop anthems. Although at first an awkward contrast to Great Grandpa, who filled the stage both sonically and physically, Farren’s disarming demeanor and pureness, as both a personality and a lyricist (he doesn’t mince words whilst singing about crippling self-doubt), made it impossible to take your eyes and ears off him.
With more than a decade of experience on the stage, Farren knows how to hold a crowd’s interest like few other solo performers within the indie/punk field. He creatively used the backing track to his advantage by inserting a pre-recorded bit of stage-banter that had fill-in-the-blank sections, allowing him to comically fumble the location of the show (“wait ... uh ... Pittsburgh!”) and smirkingly tune his guitar in silence while the recording announced how much his tourmates “already feel like family.” At one point, he strolled off stage mid-verse and walked all the way to the back of the venue, lifting a copy of Can’t Die from his merch booth above his head in the ironically self-absorbed fashion that’s charmed so much of the indie/punk Twittersphere.
Rozwell Kid are legitimately the only other act in mind that could possibly follow up a performer like Chris Farren without coming across as stiffs. The band members modestly climbed on stage, readied themselves, and ripped into “Wendy’s Trash Can” after a brief introduction from Hudkins that completely disregarded the two plaid button-downs he was wearing. He later made a bit of it, begging the crowd to let him disrobe, though ultimately keeping them both on and visibly sweating for the remainder of the hour-long set.
Somehow this wasn’t a hinderance on his playing ability, as neither he or any of his bandmates missed a single note all night. Not a single one. Whether it was new songs off Precious Art, classics off Too Shabby like “Halloween 3.5” and “Birthday Sombrero,” or real deep cuts like “Van Man” and “Rocket,” each member nailed the respective parts to the point that “so tight” is a dramatic understatement.
The band was having fun with it, too. Guitarist Adam Meisterhans took every opportunity to stick his axe out into the crowd and arc his body backward, his fingers tapping and arpeggiating succinctly without him even having to look. Such showiness would come across as bragadocious for most bands, but when your bandmate’s singing about eating sandwiches in parking lots and apologizing for opening the door for strangers, it’s hard to see these antics as anything less than endearing.
The might of the band's riffs and the succulence of the solos were expectedly gratifying while cranking out of the monitors, but it was actually the vocal harmonies that were bolstered the most by the live setting. Bassist Devin Donnelly undertakes substantially more singing duties than one would assume from the recordings, his voice either blending effortlessly with Hudkins’, or accompanying him gorgeously during one of the many “oo-oo” sections that make up some of the grandest climaxes in Rozwell Kid’s discography.
Even when the band were intentionally messing up, it sounded incredible. During the final bridge of “Kangaroo Pockets,” Hudkins began calling out, “Give me an M!” “Give me a U!” Eventually, he had enough letters to spell out “musicianship,” and purposefully stumbled over his words, cutting the band off for a cringe-worthy few seconds—then instantaneously clicking back into place, the entire group re-entering on impeccable time. Like a great Nathan For You scene, it was painfully well-done.
Although the band expressed both its gratitude and bewilderment for the turn-out, I got the vibe that the group would’ve rocked just as hard if only 10 people had showed up. The title of its 2013 album, Unmacho, still characterizes them today; guys who’ll hang out in the crowd for opening bands and dart off stage right after their set to go graciously run their own merch booth. At one point, the band let a couple get engaged on stage, inspiring Hudkins to casually say, “Sorry, I was thinking about love during that song,” a little while after.
It was one of the few statements he made all night that wasn't tinged by silliness, and it was that little sliver of human vulnerability—which can be found sprinkled throughout each of the records—that really brought it all together. That contrast between foolhardy and earnest, is the appeal of Rozwell Kid.