LONG BEACH — A platoon of record company scouts came to Bogart's on Friday night, mainly to see Water, a promising recent arrival on the Orange County rock scene.
As it turned out, scouts from our new expansion hockey team, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, might have found it a profitable evening as well, thanks to the headlining band, Wood and Smoke.
The veteran Wood and Smoke has been popular on the local scene for five years. Powered by a bracing new rhythm section, it more than held the stage while following a newer band that at the moment is enjoying a bigger industry buzz. But if Water's set wasn't entirely convincing, it wasn't disappointing either, and it hit a brilliant closing peak when the young foursome played its strongest cards.
Wood and Smoke's volcanic hour climaxed during the closing song, "Static," with some bruising action in the best tradition of Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe. With a wicked grin on his face, Lance Whitson, one of the band's two front men, delivered a hard, blind-side body check to his counterpart, Gary Williams. Williams shook it off, then retaliated in kind and with a vengeance, taking a running start and sending his supposed buddy sprawling into the wings and onto his back. Whitson jumped up smiling and in a moment was singing spot-on vocal harmony with his attacker, as if nothing had happened.
Drummer Billy Stobo and bassist Scott Evers, playing only their fourth show with Wood and Smoke, kept hammering all the while as if all this body contact was just a normal extension of the song.
And, in a way, it was. After an hour of rock that was satisfyingly physical and supremely heavy, acting up in a fashion that would land a Pittsburgh Penguin or an Anaheim Duck in the penalty box almost seemed the necessary thing to do.
initial,2 Wood and Smoke has always had strong musical assets--founders Whitson and Williams both are slashing guitarists and strong, complementary singers with an admiration for Neil Young. With time, they have boiled away the air of pretension and self-importance that lingered in their early days. This performance was the hard, honed and brutal work of four guys playing to get their ya-yas out. It was heavy, slow-tempo rock done the old-fashioned way, with none of the metallic whine and monotonous sludge that can mire trendy Seattle Sound purveyors.
In one of the best hard-rock sound mixes possible, Whitson's grainy snarl and Williams' clear, theatrically dread-filled delivery cut cleanly, adding further impact to the tremendous wallop the four players were laying down. Even the dreamlike excursion "Sway" had forceful underpinnings. The rhythm evoked swaying motion, all right, but it was the swaying of mighty oaks in a gale.
Taking turns, the two singer-songwriters offered a series of songs that kept coming back to the theme of desire--burning with it, and getting burned by it. The impressionistic lyrics weren't as fully developed as they could be, but there was enough there to lend a double-edged spin to numbers such as Whitson's "Queen of the Barstool," which viewed a barroom beauty with both lust and disgust.
The new rhythm section has given Wood and Smoke more ways to burn. The Neil Young & Crazy Horse influence of old is now augmented by Experience in the Hendrixian sense. "Everything" was powered by the old "Captain Walker didn't come home" Who riff, delivered with enough savagery to have pleased Pete Townshend himself.
In addition to being sharp, muscular instrumentalists, the new guys were a visual treat--Stobo and Evers were both the sort who respond physically to the physicality of their sound. Evers was an engaging character: on his face, the curly-haired bassist sported the bushiest sideburns since Neil Young's Buffalo Springfield days, and on his feet he wore little, red, curly-toed elf's booties--in which he jumped and capered at show's end with so much delight that Santa must have just announced a bonus.
In all, it was a satisfying concert from a band that has stuck to it without a record deal, developed, changed, and reached an impressive new peak.
As Water gets courted by record labels (its handlers, including former Agent Orange manager Steve Levesque, who recently negotiated a big-bucks deal for L.A. hard-rockers Greta), it still needs to keep developing.
The band has some obvious strengths, especially an appealing idealism and emotional forthrightness that offer a welcome contrast to today's fashionable sourness. But it has to broaden and hone its musical resources. It also has an important decision to make: whether it wants to serve up run-of-the-mill, densely textured, darkly driving music, as it did at times during the first half of its 40-minute set, or go for the pop appeal that allowed it to soar at the end.