Clay Howard’s ‘Ampersand’ show promotes cultural exchange


by Jordan Green

Clay Howard and his band the Silver Alerts had just finished the first song of their set at the Crown in Greensboro — also the lead track off the singer’s solo album Who the Hell Is Clay Howard?a cheeky rocker called “LOL” that resolved with Howard and bassist Tim Beeman gleefully singing, “Yeah, yeah — wooo!

“I was talking to my friend earlier and we were saying, ‘It’s kind of like being at somebody’s practice,’” Howard said. “So that means we have to play a little louder and talk onstage, right?”

It was a pretty good description of the concert, officially dubbed the “Ampersand Show,” thanks the billing of three acts that featured front men with solid backing bands. The audience for Howard’s set, along with those of supporting acts Doug Davis & the Solid Citizens and Matty Sheets & the Cold Rollers, sat quietly and attentively as the musicians relaxed and cut loose.

As promoter Spencer Conover noted, the March 4 concert was the second that Howard had booked at the Crown. The idea is to promote an “exchange” or an “import-export” relationship between the two largest cities of the Triad, Conover said. Howard, who is also the vice president of the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship (where Triad City Beat’s office is housed) is a Kernersville resident, and the members of his band live in Winston-Salem or other parts of Forsyth County. Davis, a producer, recording artist and performer, is a mainstay of the Winston-Salem scene. Sheets and his group, as the only non-Winston-Salem group, received Howard’s invitation to join the bill to give Greensboro some representation.

Without undermining the dignity of his substantial songbook — a canon that covers stubborn defiance (“This Time”), hard times (“Biscuits Ain’t Rising”) and marital devotion (“As Long As I Have You”) — Howard made sure fun was the order of the night. Howard delivered 1987-vintage power-pop vocals over his band’s hard-rock vamp, with Beeman committing with Gene Simmons-inspired intensity, guitarist Aaron Burkey shredding relentlessly and drummer Corky McClellan punishing his kit. Davis also stepped out of the spotlight to support Howard on rhythm guitar and keys.

Howard reinforced the familial setting by not only introducing his band, but also calling out most of the people in the audience by name, while giving a birthday shout-out to a newly minted 21-year-old.

Ken Mohan, Lee Terry and Doug Davis of the Solid Citizens (l-r)

The mutual respect of the two Winston-Salem bands was palpable, and although Davis cultivates a more traditional rock-and-roll sound steeped in Exile-era Stones and Tom Petty, he also doesn’t take himself too seriously. After the band did a brief soundcheck, Davis jokingly announced, “We’re gonna step off the stage and make a dramatic entrance. Get the fog machine ready.”

During his set with the Solid Citizens, Davis bantered from the stage with Beeman — now in the audience and acting the part of the heckler. But during “Missed My Connection” from Davis’ 2008 album Penny Brown Penny, Beeman went into an ecstatic-reverent trance, mouthing the words as Davis gave a gut-churning soulful vocal performance accompanied by Lee Terry’s perfectly sculpted guitar solo.

Davis has assembled a fine body of songs, from Penny Brown Penny to three thematically linked EPs, and his band displayed a devotion to bringing out the best in them. The Solid Citizens were fun to watch onstage, both for their distinctive musical personalities and individual stage presences. Lee Terry was the laconic sideman, literally standing behind Davis in a battered cowboy hat while backing him in the purest sense of the word by accenting him in all the right places. As bassist, Ken Mohan was absolutely indispensible, playing right on time with power and fluidity. Susan Terry, whose black dress and dyed red hair gives her the look of a cool, new-wave librarian, leant a feeling of pathos to the performance with her sublime viola playing; her voice melded gracefully with Davis’ and her viola occasionally played counterpoint to his acoustic guitar playing, creating overtones that almost sounded like an Indian raga. But Dan DesNoyers might be the most essential member of the group as a drummer with a big-band percussionist’s masterful touch, projecting subtlety or bombast as the songs required.

Matty Sheets (foreground) and Jack Carter of the Cold Rollers

As the only Greensboro act on the bill, Matty Sheets and his band were the least likely to have been exposed to the Winston-Salem-based audience. If anything, it made them play with more of a sense of freedom. They were clearly enjoying the opportunity to play with a proper sound technician — Eric Lambe — after only two other performances, one at New York Pizza and another at a house show. The Cold Rollers came about as a result of Sheets recording a new album at On Pop of the World Studios. Sheets said after his set that he’s making a proper rock-and-roll album — a departure from the large folk ensemble style of his previous band the Blockheads. He wrote a couple songs in the studio, and assembled a band on the spot so he could indulge his desire to perform them live.

One of those, “Out of the Blue” — a down-tempo number in the neon-lights-playing-over-rain-spattered streets sensibility of Tom Waits — prompted one of Howards’ friends, sitting in the dark, to murmur, “That’s my new favorite song.”

A veteran of the Greensboro scene, Sheets is performing with a greater sense of assurance. His sandpaper voice sometimes resembles Lou Reed while he employs chord changes on guitar that occasionally suggest late-period Velvet Underground in their deceptive simplicity and surprise twists. That’s not to say that his style is derivative; his vocals often change over to falsetto to give the songs an interesting dynamic. And he sometimes rushes the beat in a frenetic, almost martial style that undergirds impassioned vocals, almost reminiscent of some of Billy Bragg’s work.

“Thanks for listening,” Sheets said, all smiles. “Or maybe you’re just waiting for Clay.”

They were listening.