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Thursday December 20th, 2012 at The Radio Room in Greenville, SC
Sun Brother, Sympaticus, 72nd and Central, & Joie
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Stumbling into a random concert while travelling is always a mixed bag. I'm excited to see the differences between scenes, yet it's boring standing at a show where I know no one. And while the particulars of the venue may vary, at this point I've seen them all, from stadiums to laundrettes. The real variable is, of course, the bands; will they be any good? Will I happen upon the next Mogwai, or a tired Sublime tribute band? Let's roll the dice.

I can't even recall how I heard about The Radio Room, but after hearing it described as "Greenville's favorite rock'n'roll dive!," I couldn't resist throwing my camera in a rental car and heading south. Sure I had work very early the next morning, but the website promised the three-band show would start at 9pm and over by "11:59." "That'd still give me four hours sleep," I thought. "I can do that."

I left a bit early for the show, hoping to see a bit of Greenville, and crossing my fingers that the venue would be nestled in a strip of independent book stores, used musical instrument sellers, book stores, independent craft stores, and vegan-friendly cafes. Instead I arrived a nondescript brick building on a state highway surrounded by empty lots and the occasional gas station. Maybe Greenville has charm, but I wouldn't find it on this outing.

Right off, I must say that The Radio Room delivers on its dive bar reputation. The club is a single exceptionally smoky room with a few mismatched tables and chairs, a bar with stools along one wall, a well-used pool table, spent carpet, stained ceiling tiles, and a small, low stage lit by several hardware store lamps with coloured bulbs. The crowd was similarly rough, but we'll leave it at that. A tall man who would later introduce himself as a co-owner of the club took my $5 as I walked through the door, and then followed me over to take my money at the bar. It was minutes before 9:00 but I could tell I was comically early. I claimed a table and examined the dozen or so patrons in the club, entertaining myself by guessing which were in bands, which were there for the show, and which were there for the special on Bud Light.

Just before 10pm I overheard bits of a conversation between the bar staff and the members of Joie. It appeared as though the band was being asked to go on first, because the opening acts had not yet arrived. The band acquiesced without drama or ego, set up its gear, some custom lighting (table lamps without shades to highlight decorative clear bulbs), and began immediately.

Describing a band after a single 35-minute performance is a fool's errand, but I've been called worse, so let's give it a shot. Joie (it's French and pronounced as such) are a three-piece Greenville band voiced by vocalist Myra Hendley, built by Ginny Wolfe's guitar and synthesiser, and rounded by Ashley Moreira's keyboard. The band's music is slow, textural, and dramatic. There are no good comparisons though some elements reminded me of a subdued Tara Jane O'Neil. Hendley's clean, solid voice sits front and centre in the band's compositions. While she never pushed its range, and seldom varied it dynamically, I imagine she's had formal vocal training. Unfortunately, despite a friendly audience that had swelled to nearly 50 patrons, Hendley's performance was cold. For the majority of the night she stood rigidly behind the microphone stand, occasionally reaching her arms upward, but never losing herself in the music. For the final song she removed the microphone from its stand, but then wasted this new mobility by turning her back to the audience to perform for her bandmates. Wolfe was forced to be a bit more animated as she was responsible for various guitar duties (strummed, bowed, and heavily processed picking that twinkled nicely), as well as providing low synthesised bass, and triggering occasional pre-recording percussion. The rolling soft piano work of Moreira tied the two together nicely. After a half hour set, this opening-band-by-default decided to (in one band member's words) "push [its] luck" with an encore that was well received.

There was a half-hour break between acts as one band's gear was lackadaisically replaced by another's. If I've learned anything during my visit, it's that South Carolinians are never in a hurry.

At 11:15 the Greenville trio of 72nd and Central began a 40-minute set of loose rock & roll that often split the difference between garage and grunge. The band is led by animated frontman Chapman Suther who provided '90s-styled slacker vocals, as well as a noisy electric guitar. Bassist Joshua Padgett plays high on the neck of his instrument, adding funk overtones to the band's music, as well as very pleasant clean backing vocals. It was obvious Padgett is a principle songwriter in the band, as his thundering bass was often given more prominent placement than Suther's guitar solos. Kylon Tyner's drumming, on the other hand, was simple and purely utilitarian. The band's material was nearly all mid tempo or slower, and he only had to keep time. While not exactly the same audience as that which came forward for Joie, this one was similarly enthusiastic, and the band's slightly-adorned celebratory cover of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" was particularly well received.

In the long-delay between acts I eyed the clock nervously. It was already Midnight and there were two bands left. I wondered if it wouldn't be prudent to abort my plans and return to the hotel. As I stood wavering in the wings of the room, one of the bar's owners came forward and introduced himself, his staff, and provided me with details on both the bands playing that evening, and the club in general. Later, other members of the staff would do the same. After some cajoling and encouragement, I relented, resigning myself to a little more rock and a little less sleep. If I've learned anything during my visit, it's that South Carolinians are friendly.

It was nearly 12:30 when Sympaticus took the stage. The band was a last-minute addition to the lineup, and opened its set by announcing that this was its first real show. Not a bad spot for a debut. With no information (not even contact information) yet published about the band, I can't provide you with many details, but again, let's see what I can come up with.

Sympaticus is, at its core, a progressive power trio where the active bass player is matched by a drummer dedicated to fills and rolls, and balanced by a guitarist focused on technical wankery and finger taps. The band opted to skew this formula by adding the steady hand percussion of a fourth member playing a floor drum of some African origin. While the first song leaned hopefully toward precision math rock, later tracks devolved to jam band explorations with less tooth. A cover of Rush's "Working Man" returned the band to the progressive side of the page, but after the first verse, the vocals were ditched to add room for a mountain of solos that even Alex Lifeson would have found excessive. The audience, however, were thrilled by the band's half-hour performance. I was conflicted.

As Sympaticus packed up, I noticed the club had thinned out from his peak nearly two hours ago, when almost a hundred bodies cramped into the club. Staff attributed the evening's bigger-than-expected turnout to revellers out for one last hurrah before the (not really) Mayan-predicted apocalypse. I imagined that for many of them, a fiery death would have been preferable to the hangover they would carry with them to work the next morning. While not tempting a hangover, I was certainly feeling the effects of the second-hand smoke that enveloped the room. If I've learned anything during my visit, it's that South Carolinians love to smoke.

At 1:15 local Greenville band Sun Brother began its headlining set to dedicated concertgoers riding the emotional roller coaster of inebriation. The crowd began as two dozen fans happily cheering for the trio as it celebrated its one-year anniversary as a band. Later they would get insistent, belligerently commanding everyone in the club to dance. And ultimately, they would end up sloppy and emotional – hugging everyone within reach. But I'm getting ahead of myself there.

Sun Brother is led by Zebraylon Deonte' Woodruff who provided the band with staccato guitar riffs, occasional finger tapping, big power chords, and falsetto-rich vocals sung through an infectious smile. He was a dynamic frontman, making his way into the crowd several times during the band's set – more than once to mug for my camera. Bassist Joel Walter provided a fingered five-string bass that thumped into focus on rare occasions, while drummer Sheldon Bird played along without demanding any attention at all. It was obvious that this lopsided trio were playing songs arranged with their absent second guitarist in mind.

Musically, the band was either uniquely beyond the realm of categorisation, or I was simply too tired to note any useful description. I can safely say it was rock, and I remember it leaning towards commercial alternative, but beyond that, I can't recall a thing. Sorry.

After a one-song encore, Sun Brother finished its 40-minute set, spewing its members into an audience of friends and congratulatory drinks, and releasing me to pack up my gear. I thought about rushing back to the hotel, but after doing the math, I'd barely have time for a power nap. As I stood weighing my options, I was blindsided by an embrace from a native expressing his love for me, and offering to "smoke me out" the next time we met. Friendly? Maybe, but this is the same guy who accosted me earlier when he decided I wasn't taking enough photographs of the headliner. Friendly maybe, but weird friendly. I took that encounter as my cue, and headed for the door.

As you have now learned, I didn't find the next Mogwai, but there was exceptionally good people watching, some good music, and plenty of friendly locals. So as far as mixed bags go, I think I got a good one. Let's hope I fare as well in North Carolina next week.

Too Much Rock / 4027 Locust Street / KCMO 64110