It might just be my imagination, but it seems like rock is in a bad way these days. Anything with loud guitars and drums tends to get relatively little mainstream attention, and I’ve noticed especially that Millennials haven’t quite taken up the task of creating the rock music of the future in the way we have with synth-based music. I want to keep believing that rock could come back and make music interesting again, but hope and faith leave you open to disappointment. So I had slightly cynical attitude heading into the Cobalt this Saturday to hear a bunch of new bands.
L.A.-based singer-songwriter Pearl Charles and her band started the night off. Charles played a big ol’ electric guitar at the front, in a long-sleeved Western dress and cowboy boots. Her chord structures are pretty basic, her melodies decently pleasant, and her voice did the job just fine. The sound of the band was driving enough to call it “alternative” country (whatever that means), but hardly roaring. I hate to use the term “generic” in a pejorative way, but the music seems to have been written with conscious reference to country genre conventions.
As the Shelters (also from L.A.) took the stage, they didn’t immediately give me much more hope. My thoughts was, “Oh, no, not another bunch of walking clichés.” Well, I’m glad to say that I was quite wrong, and my fear did not come true. The truth is that the Shelters are an honest-to-God, homespun American rock band. They know how to write anthemic, glammy catches that demand to be cranked up and sung along to.
Musicianship was a huge part of their appeal. They happen to have one of the most badassed bass players I’ve heard in a new band. The minimum for being a good bassist is to have a solid sense of groove and to hold down the low end, but this guy has something really good going on. His sound is big and mean but not overwhelming, and it holds the sound of the band together like superglue. The lead guitar-playing was also particularly exciting, and it was a joy to hear evidence that the art of soloing has not been left up to metalheads and jazz-fusion virtuosos. It all added up to a brilliantly executed performance of road-inspired American rock ‘n’ roll. While none of the Shelters’ songs stuck with me as things I’d want to hear over and over, the strength of the band was in their musicianship and chemistry, and that is something worth applauding.
Broncho, hailing from Oklahoma City, crafted a show with a lot more elements than wither of the openers. Their darkly lit stage setup included smoke machines and fake plants draped over the amps, with blue and purple lamps hanging over the “bud.” (I have to admit, it looked pretty cool.)
I describe Broncho as a band with sensibilities similar to both The Cars and Queens of the Stone Age that plays unreleased Bruce Springsteen material. Their sound is obviously centered on the guitars, which are sometimes depraved and grinding, sometimes sugary, and sometimes both at once. Lead singer Ryan Lindsey’s vocal style is, frankly, a little annoying: like a rejected Looney Tunes character on speed. However, it’s the songs that really do the trick here. There are some awesomely catchy melodies in Broncho’s catalogue, as well as intelligent harmonic touches that listeners will tend to feel more than consciously hear. Songs like “Class Historian” and “Stay Loose” aren’t just earworms (although they really do stick with you); they’re pictures of what rock can be when smart artists care to push its boundaries.
Although the Shelters gave what I consider the superior performance that night, it is Broncho that has most revived my hope that rock actually has a future. I’ve since become addicted to Broncho’s recorded tunes, and those have made it clear to me that bands like them are needed today. I’m rooting for them in the hope that they’ll keep working hard and refuse to be boring.