Snacking on Romantica & American Aquarium at the ‘Bird

There are a few things you have to love Facebook for: keeping up with people you don’t get to see all the time, seeing your friends and their families through pictures, and getting updates from your favourite places in Macon.

It was on this past restless Monday, when I was working on my word count for NaNoWriMo, that the Hummingbird Stage and Taproom sent out a message announcing that two bands would be playing there that night. The decision to go was a last minute one, so I walked around the house gathering up quarters to pay for the entrance because I don’t ever have cash, but which I never used because no one was at the door – they put it on my card with the two Guinness I got.

The crowd was pretty sparse, which is to be expected on a Monday night and I’d come down with my pen and paper to try to get some words in before the music started. There were a couple of guys walking around music equipment, smoking, drinking, a group playing darts, a guy at one of those bar game machines tapping the screen and empty tables along the wall. I picked up my beer and settled down at one of those empty tables. Near the sound booth, there was a table full of theatre people, or at least I assume theatre people because Jim Crisp was there, who were being a mild (and good) form of rowdy, but the feel in the Hummingbird was pretty laid back even as Vic ran around making sure everything was plugged in or sounded good.

I watched a bunch of guys standing around with a bottle of something (I found out later it was whiskey). One guy, his dark hair disheveled, his jacket hung on his body like it was a last minute addition out of respect for the cold, handed it to a tall, blonde guy with a stereotypical television midwestern look – think Dauber from Coach or pre-New York Marshall from How I Met Your Mother. The blonde tips it back and chugs it like tea. I laugh at the spectacle as each guy after takes a drink, trying to hold it up as long as possible, but never reaching the level the blonde guy did. They handed the bottle to a guy with dreadlocks, who takes a sip of his beer, prepares himself to drink, then shakes his head and laughs, giving it back to the guy from whom the bottle originated.

There began to be a sense of nervous energy in the bar after a while and you could see the people getting ready for their set. They played all their notes, hit all their drums and got off of the stage after the sound check. The tall blonde guzzler comes up to my table and shakes my hand to thank me for being there. Then he sits down.

Jim of Romantica reminds me of so many musicians I know. He wants to do this music thing, has to do it. He has a supportive spouse who hides love notes in his things. A few float out of his pocket when he grabs his pack of cigarettes and he can’t help but smile. He worries about his kids when he’s away, but the music, he says, keeps him honest. He asks me if I’m a writer, that existential question I ask myself every time I sit down at my computer or pick up my pad and paper. He asks me if I write for myself or for anyone else, which is the very question I’ve been struggling with. He tells me how for him, doing anything creative well involves trusting that how you’re made and the experiences you’ve had actually matters. He goes on, I think out of nervousness, to talk about how people have flaws, music has flaws, creativity has flaws, but people trust flawed beauty. The flaws are what make some things beautiful. As he got up to join his bandmates, he told me to keep it real and for the first time, that phrase actually meant something.

There were four members of Romantica, Ben Kyle – singer/guitarist, Tony Zaccardi – bass, Jim Orvis – drums, and Luke Jacobs – guitar/lap steel. I loved this band from the first note to the last. Romantica can be haunting and at times heartbreaking. The music had a comfortable ebb and flow, a sweetness and a wistfulness at times, and Ben’s voice was a simple, beautiful thing. He felt the things he wrote and as he sang them, his bandmates backed his vocals with an intensity of their own. After they played, while talking to Tony, I learned that Romantica is a more pop version of Americana.

Americana, a roots oriented reaction to the slick style of country music that started being released in the 90s – sprung from revival of dormant country styles, western swing and rockabilly – did not break with country tradition but embraced it. I got that from a music dictionary. Think Bruce Springsteen with the E-Street Band or John Mellencamp (does he still add the Cougar or not?) although you can tell that Romantica also had some influence from Ryan Adams’ alt-country style and Wilco.

The next band, American Aquarium, fronted by BJ Barham, was very Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band but heavily rockabilly and very country, which was a good thing. American Aquarium is a little bit bitter and they’re not afraid to use it and are the better for it. They started with a song that BJ said was the only pretty song they had, something about a cold wind blowing through his soul that left me a little cold – and not in a good way. I didn’t like it so much.  But the next song, a song about women who feel they are too good for the men they’re with, had the warmth of his anger to bouy it well past boredom. I only met a few guys from this band; BJ, Ryan Johnson and Zack Brown. Because my husband plays keyboard, I often find myself paying more attention to the keys when I listen to a band that has them. You could tell Zack was having fun playing and I almost got up and danced on one song, Clark Avenue, which felt like Jerry Lee Lewis was playing from the other side through Zack. By the time they got to the end of their set, I was jamming right along and wish I’d just pulled my chair to the middle of the floor like everybody else, and been more actively involved in my listening.

I don’t know enough about music to tell anybody what they would or wouldn’t like. I find that it’s much easier to hear a group you know than to try a group you don’t know, but I often find more pleasure in the discovery of new music. While I enjoyed Romantica the most, American Aquarium was good as well. Maybe if you are a real fan of Americana – which I can’t claim to be since the first time I heard the word used to describe that type of music was in the email that brought me down – American Aquarium could have been the better band. Their sound was more authentically closer to the resurgence of country. Yet I found their sound dragged a bit, especially in the middle of those more country songs. Romantica, on the other hand, played songs that kept my foot tapping, even on the slower songs and those slower song did a lot to highlight the pleasure that is Ben’s singing voice. But it’s not a contest and I got real pleasure from listening to both bands and meeting some of the guys afterwards.

I tried to stick around and talk to as many people from the band as I could. I was interested in how they started or why they did what they did, etc. We talked about how, as creative people, we end up in multiple part time jobs so we can have some semblance of freedom to do what we love. All the guys were super nice and Ryan, the guitarist from American Aquarium spent some minutes talking about movies. Then one of the bartenders put on her music and the guys sat at the bar – Ryan, Luke, Tony and Ben – all sang along with Gram Parson, harmonizing in one of the most beautiful renditions of drunken bar singing I’ve ever been fortunate enough to be a part of.

I’m a nostalgic music listener, someone whose enjoyment can be based on so many factors, not only the quality of musicianship. I like songwriting and beautiful singing voices. I’ve learned to appreciate those interesting voices that may not be technically beautiful because I appreciate the added feeling that voice gives to the music. When it’s all said and done, this girl had a good time and isn’t that what it’s all about?

American Aquarium will be back in Macon in January – click their name above for the link to their myspace page to check all tour dates. Romantica have no Macon dates yet, but they all said they would like to come back. Keep an eye out for both groups in the future.

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