All Them Witches casts a spell

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by Jordan Green

Four bands spilled onto Seventh Street, lined the side of the stage and made forays back to the bar and the sound booth, overflowing the tiny green room behind the stage at the Garage last weekend.

Musicians from the various bands — two local acts from Winston-Salem and two touring bands from Nashville — chatted pleasantly with one another. Tucker Tharpe, the venue’s co-owner, darted along the stage, conferring with the musicians. Throughout the evening, he would make sorties onto the stage between sets to stash bottles of cold water for the bands, snap photos with his phone and throw his arm around the shoulder of a familiar. After all, he’s a fan himself.

Tharpe might be the most hands-on music venue operator in the Triad, curating a booking list that reflects his personal enthusiasms and actively promoting his bands.

Back in March the Nashville band All Them Witches had recorded a video at the Garage at Tharpe’s suggestion. Now, they were back to record a live album.

“We have a really good relationship with Tucker,” guitarist Ben McLeod said later in the night, while manning the merch table after the show at 1:30 a.m. “Every show we play here we have a ton of people because he promotes it really well. The live album was actually his idea.”

The fans — guys with various lengths of facial hair and sweatshirts paying homage to Minor Threat and Joy Division and ladies wearing skirts and black leather jackets — gradually filled the room. Friends and acquaintances greeted each other in a warm fraternity, fusing into a communal tribe over the course of the evening.

The local acts and out-of-towners alternated sets, with Winston-Salem’s Tusker opening at about 9:30 p.m. Genial singer and frontman Michael Bright dispensed with his hair tie and glasses, transforming into a Norse god onstage as he growled his way through a set of songs anchored by the band’s Sabbath-like slow, heavy sludge.

Buddha Myers contributed bluesy slide over the band’s pulverizing riffage. They closed with “Disappearing Act,” a song with a melodic intro and monster groove that hints at Skynyrd’s “The Needle and the Spoon.” They call it “whiskey rock,” which is a fitting enough descriptor.

After the set, bass player Mike Tyson noted with satisfaction that Tusker played its first show with Echo Crush, the other Winston-Salem band on the bill.

If any element united the bands — or at least three out of four — it would probably be a debt to the corkscrewing, heavy sludge of early Black Sabbath. Across Tundras, the Nashville band on the undercard, treated the crowd to a shellacking set of psychedelic metal that built on the Sabbath template with reverb-laden twang that suggested Neil Young’s mid-’90s soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

True to the band’s name, the soundscape produced by their power-trio combination of guitar, bass and drums, suggests an unending arctic expanse, with occasional bursts of blinding light.

Winston-Salem’s Echo Crush shared the other three band’s heavy undertow, but overlaid with a Brit new-wave aesthetic that was particularly evident in Chris Chafin’s stylishly agonized vocals on “Dirty Black.” The band’s chameleon-like ability to synthesize seemingly incompatible sonic textures proved to be its most persuasive quality. James Tuttle, a guitarist of understated charisma, contributed chiming leads and atmospheric slide, with the rhythm section cycling through propulsion, heavy riffage and shards of sonic deconstruction.

With audience members clapping hands overhead, Chafin sang in a baritonal moan: “First it gets harder, then it gets easier again.”

By the time All Them Witches started after midnight, the mood in the crowd was electric with anticipation. Notwithstanding the smoke machine and colored lights that set the stage for them, nothing about the band members’ appearance would have signaled star status to someone who had seen them milling in the crowd earlier. With bass player and singer Michael Parks Jr. front and center, an everyman hunched over his instrument, their submission to the music elevated them to shaman status. Alongside Parks, McLeod’s guitar playing was virtuosic but not flashy. Allan Van Cleave, playing a Fender Rhodes keyboard, gave an atmospheric and expository performance that created a sparkling interplay with McLeod’s overture. Robby Staebler — almost immediately shirtless —anchored the band with powerhouse drumming, while Parks’ bass playing moved stealthily under his vocals.

It was left unsaid that the show was being recorded. There were no incitements to engineer excitement in the crowd. The band and the audience simply submitted themselves wholly to the music.

The second song of the band’s set, “Swallowed by the Sea,” was representative. Beginning with an incantatory mantra with vocals distorted beyond recognition, the percussion tumbled out while the guitar ranged about — harnessed chaos — before the band locked into a monster groove and exploded into heaviness. By the end of the roughly six-minute song, the crowd was exhausted and ecstatic.

All Them Witches’ music makes a trance-like study of the precipice from heavy blues to metal, just a click or two back from Sabbath, but the band members play with an appreciation of texture and mood that is more common in the jazz world than in metal or indie rock.

Building up and breaking down, exploring feedback, floating into extended jams, the music transported the audience to a place of darkness and sensuality. The musicians so thoroughly inhabited the music that it became like tanned leather. Throughout the set, the ratio of female-to-male fans steadily increased, with the dozen or so people standing near the front undulating in a collective loss of inhibition.

Performing a cover of the blues standard “Born Under A Bad Sign,” Parks’ vocals submerged under the groove while McLeod’s mellifluous playing pointed more towards Carlos Santana than Albert King’s torrential guitar on the original.

Perhaps looking for an alternate track, they came back for an encore and tackled another cover — opting for the more obscure Abner Jay.

“My middle name is natural-born trouble,” Parks sang. “My last name is the blues.”

As a final testament, it seemed to point the way forward.