At 9:30 I loaded my camera bag and headed to the West Bottoms. Ten o'clock start times are rare nowadays, but the crowd at The Ship is young and hip. Young and hip people always like staying up late. Young and hip people didn't care that my alarm was set for 3:30am. Oh they're cruel. So very cruel.
I paid my $10 and walked through, up the stairs into the once-warehouse that that The Ship dubs their "All Else the Sea" room. The wood-beamed annex is full of warmth and glowing lights. But not a lot of people. A DJ was still spinning on the big stage, under the colorful lights. I slipped into a portion of the empty booth hoping to make myself small to discourage a waitress from stopping by. I started the Sunday crossword puzzle and listened happily as the DJ spun ELO and someone's version of "New York Groove." Honestly, I can't distinguish Hello's original from Ace Frehley's cover without listening to them back-to-back. Both are wonderful. But then it was 10:03, and aside from the music taking a sour turn to nineties hip hop, nothing had changed on stage. Realizing my mistake, I grabbed my camera bag and hurried over to the lounge in the next room " the cozy and dark original portion of The Ship. The opener had just started its set on the small corner stage. I worked through the throngs to get close, but closer was all I got.
Field Daze is infectious modern guitar pop (is there still such a thing?) with rock & roll swagger. They're young lads with hooks, chops, charisma, and a lot of fans who scream "Woo!" And they were crammed onto the unlit stage obscured by bopping heads. I jostled my way to the front, planting myself on the floor just below the players, and attempted to photograph the action with all the wrong lenses. After two songs I removed myself from the fray, finding a hiding spot in a doorway to catch the remainder of the show.
Frontman Dan Camino has a mellifluous voice and a stage presence that balances showmanship with casual connection. It's effortless for him, and he somehow grants permission for the audience to have a good time. His guitar joins Rodd Fenton's. Sometimes they both play leads, but Fenton always does. Nothing but leads. Bassist Beau Harris is new to the band. His playing has a bounce to it. Along with drummer Tracer Cauy, he guides the band through complicated rhythms. Occasionally polyrhythms, in a Vampire Weekend sort of way. Keyboardist Kyer Lasswell is active, providing an atmospheric base for some songs, bolstering the melody in others.
The small room is high on vibes, but rough on some bands. Field Daze, however, had it licked. Camino's voice was strong, hitting notes and delighting the audience. The active sound engineer made sure the mix was balanced throughout a ten-song set that included a couple of the band's recent (digital) singles, a few that have been in the formative stage for a year or more, and a handful that seemed to have sprouted recently after the addition of Harris. I've been betting on this band for a while, and this show only made me double down. If the band's not on your alternative radio station now, it will be.
The bar remained packed between acts. This isn't the sort of night where people clear out between bands. In fact, many patrons weren't there for the bands at all, but rather to enjoy a loud and lively night out at bar that was obviously the place to be. I scanned the crowd. Everyone had a look, and everyone had brought their A game. Since I no longer have an A game, I found a chair hidden behind a booth by the wall in a tiny corner and returned to my puzzle.
I've written about the headliners lots. The Whiffs are probably the best power pop band in the country, creating big hooks by mixing infectious melodies, delightful harmonies, ringing guitars, and aggressive leads all in the right quantities. That is precisely why I was nervous when the band alerted me that it would be playing with a different line-up. So that's the big news; let's hit it head on.
The Whiffs are about to depart on a West Coast tour without lead guitarist/vocalist Joey Rubbish (aka Joey Montaro). He's just not able to tour this time around. What this means long-term is still nebulous. Will he be on the next tour? Maybe. Could he become the Brian Wilson of the band, thereupon inviting yet another Beach Boys comparison? Maybe. But for now, we only know that Kyle Gowdy will play lead guitar on this tour, he's not providing any vocals, and the band is not planning on doing any of Montaro's songs this tour. Oh, and we also know Gowdy from KC band Mouthbreathers " a pre-Whiffs garage punk project that also included Zach Campbell.
But enough of what we're missing, let's talk about what we got. A line-up of Zach Campbell (bass/vocals), Rory Cameron (guitar/vocals), Jake Cardwell (drums), and Kyle Gowdy (lead guitar). A fifteen-song set that lasted 45 minutes, that included seven songs from the band's latest Scratch 'N' Sniff, four from the previous Another Whiff, and two brand new ones. No, not the two new ones they just released digitally the day before, but two other new ones titled "Give Me Some Time" and "Is This Love Again?" We got songs of heartbreak from Campbell. Songs of heartbreak from Cameron. We got a jangling twelve-string guitar played at 100mph, snapping drums, and buoyant bass. And we got all the guitar leads we expected. Gowdy might have been looking at his fingers a bit, resulting in a somewhat diminished energy, but he got the notes right. It was impossible not to miss Montaro's backing vocals, or the songs he sings lead on, but the band has an enormous catalog of hits that more than fill a setlist. As I noted earlier, the room is designed for a good time, not a good mix. The Whiffs nailed the former all night long and hit the latter just enough. Actually, "She" and "Now I Know" sounded excellent pouring out of the tiny corner.
I watched the band through bobbing heads, catching only occasional glimpses of the quartet. I cursed the club for putting the DJ in the big room and relegating live music to the lounge. Then Cameron announced he had asked to play in the original bar, recalling fondly how he used to do all sorts of illicit things in that back room when The West Bottoms was lawless and wide open. Fine. I decided I could squeeze my way to the front for a few quick photographs at bad angles, before excusing myself to an inconspicuous spot further back. When I returned to my doorway vista it was fully populated by old guys. My people. Near the end of the set, I watched one of them pull out his phone, snap a photograph for Facebook, and post it with the caption "My son getting after it." My little corner may not have been young and hip, but we know better than to miss The Whiffs play.