April 15, 9:16 PM EST Like Metallica, Rancid, the Dixie Chicks, and Blues Traveler, the Gardener and the Willow is one of those band names that lets listeners know in advance what they’re signing up for. Never mind that the Gardener and the Willow isn’t a ‘band’ in the traditional sense; the name can’t help but conjure images of pastoral gentility. Indeed, the music of sole member Austin Lee, presumably pulling double duty as both gardener and willow, is gentle—even elegant—in spirit. In execution, it’s gentle in the way that someone calmly categorizing all the ways you’ve ruined their life is gentle.
When Lee takes the stage with his guitar, there is only a scattering of people watching from the adjacent floor. The rest are hanging around the bar, shooting pool, or smoking cigarettes on the back patio. The first song sounds both ominous and lonesome. Over the crack of cue balls knocking 10’s into corner pockets and cans of Pabst hissing to life, Lee’s voice remains steady, undeterred, even pretty. You can tell this song means something special to him. By the second number, the headcount of those actually paying attention has increased 100%, making a solid eighteen. Dempsey’s Aaron Reece joins Lee onstage and they sound good together, both vocally and on guitar. Those about to rock are getting antsy; there’s some uncertain shuffling among their ranks. Maybe they’re put off by a confessional, flamboyantly emotional male spilling his guts before their eyes. As the set goes on, a few more people make their way to the floor, curious. But only a few. By the last song, Lee’s voice is all but drowned out by barroom chatter and he leaves the stage as he arrived, inconspicuously and to polite applause. It’s a shame and he deserves better. From the direction of the bar, someone says what is either, “I haven’t heard the Mobros in two years,” or, “I haven’t had Marlboros in two years.” Either way, another shame.
10:11 PM EST Call it the Opener’s Curse. In between the Gardener and the Willow’s last song and Watson Village’s first, the number of bodies at NBT nearly doubles. This is a crowd is clearly ready for some good old fashioned rocking out and, true to form, Watson Village does its best to deliver. Singer/guitarist Tyler Watson, drummer David Moody, keyboard player Zack Cameron, and bassist Tyler Phillips are off to a good start. The first tune—high-energy, riddled with blues—serves as a de facto antidote for the un-ecstatic soul baring that has come before. The follow-up, “Putty In Your Pocket,” means well but loses its way in an overlong jam that never quite finds its climax. Watson Village takes the misstep in stride and soldiers on. Game to cut loose, the audience is right there with them, strong in enthusiasm if not in sheer numbers. The back patio might well boast the night’s highest attendance so far and the bar never really empties.
10:58 PM EST There was a time not that long ago when the Mobros were one of the most talked-about bands in the Midlands. Not yet old enough to buy their own beer, the sibling duo was rightfully hailed as junior blues saviors, soul food you could watch ripen in real time. These claims were validated in 2013 when the late B.B. King picked them as the opening act for a handful of his Southeastern tour dates. Their buzz has died down a bit since then, as buzz tends to do, but spending a large chunk of the past two years on the road has only tightened the chops of a band already known for its proficiency. There’s no shortage of blues-rock bands slumming it in dives and selling out arenas all over the US, but a true blues band is something altogether less common, and that’s exactly what the Mobros are. For them, ‘rock’ is not a verb but, with the addition of Canaan Peeples on bass, the Mobros have evolved into a trio now more at home on a dingy stage. Kelly Morris’ singing voice carries a heft of soul usually reserved for older, wearier men. His fingers fly up and down the guitar neck with avian grace. His brother Patrick on drums is the spine, the foundation, holding the songs erect with crack timing and understated flair. The standing room is swelling to capacity now and the whole place smells like whiskey and tobacco. This is what folks have come to see. With their button-down shirts tucked neatly into their slacks and not a hair in their mini-afros out of place, the Morris Brothers look like professionals. Not showmen by nature, their live appeal rests solely in their talent and the unmasked joy they take in performing. From their opening song until the finale, there is no pretense of innovation, only two young men (and their bass player) doing what they were made to do.
April 16, 12:06 AM EST I battle the despair that comes with settling one’s tab but emerge more or less intact.