Billyfolks form tribe while fundraising for new album

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by Jordan Green

The economics of live, original music in a market such as Greensboro dictates that if one band can’t fill the venue, then you book four, five or even six bands. That spread often suits relatively young bands, whose repertoires don’t necessarily stretch much further than an hour and a half, with two hours onstage a challenge for even the most seasoned performers. It beats the alternative of having one band play two sets, which is often grueling and sometimes repetitive.

The math is simple: To cover the bills, the bar needs a steady stream of patrons buying drinks for as much of the six-hour period from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. as possible.

The result is not always coherent.

Thus on Saturday, Oct. 11 at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro, the straight-ahead rock of High Point’s Bambino & the Kids led into the ukulele-laden folk rock of Raleigh’s My Brother, My Sister, which transitioned to the Southern rock of Greensboro’s Hot Lung.

Through talent, demonstrated audience draw and perhaps sheer longevity, the Billyfolks landed at the top of the heap. It was their eighth appearance at the Tiger.

As Hot Lung and their crew removed an arsenal of guitars and assorted gear, the Billyfolks and their friends took to the stage with giddy anticipation.

Forged around the songwriting partnership of high school friends Jeff Wysosky and Joe Richardson, the Billyfolks formed from a cohort of students in the music department at Greensboro College three years ago. Like fellow alumni Holy Ghost Tent Revival, the Billyfolks play with rawness and energy, incorporating elements of folk. From there, the comparison breaks down.

Belying his mellow persona offstage, Wysosky proved himself a flamboyant frontman, presiding in a crimson kimono picked up from a thrift store. With each set changeover, the respective followings of each band had switched out accordingly. The Billyfolks fans who replaced Hot Lungs’ supporters moderately filled out the room, but still left a gap in front of the stage.

“We’re the Billyfolks, and if you don’t get up here and jam with me, I’ll be really upset tomorrow,” Wysosky exhorted, and the crowd enthusiastically obliged.

Both his unguarded mannerism and leonine mane brought to mind My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, especially when he announced the band’s three-year anniversary. “If you’re a first-time comer, welcome,” he said. “And if you’re an old-time friend, you’re always welcome just the same.”

The band opened with “Our Life the Coloring Book,” the title track from the band’s debut album, which then consisted of Wysosky and Richardson. Fleshed out into a five-piece band, the song assumed new vitality. Guitarist Chris Trogdon, a new addition to the group, contributed a power-chord progression while bass player Nathan Collins betrayed his metal roots by giving the song a solid crunch. Richardson’s jazz-influenced lead guitar flitted in clean dispatches over the production.

Drawing from Our Life the Coloring Book, their newest album Folk Yeah and the forthcoming Passing Tides & Lullabies, the band’s Blind Tiger show alternated between power ballads and simmering rockers, displaying poppy finesse and jammy virtuosity throughout. The Billyfolks’ power balladeering tapped into a Greensboro tradition that includes House of Fools from the last decade and, going back to the 1990s, Athenaeum.

The band kept the show interesting by frequently changing instruments, while various members augmented Wysofsky’s primary vocal duties. Wysosky and Richardson switched between guitars and keyboard, and at one point Richardson surrendered the keyboard to drummer Davis Cahill. While Cahill sang a song called “1468,” Richardson took a seat behind the kit.

Wysosky, who carries a bit of the carnival barker within him, incited the audience to sing along and clap in time with the music. At one point, while Richardson was singing a ballad called “Silence,” Wysosky held his guitar overhead, displaying the back with the inscription in taped lettering “Go crazy.” With appreciative applause and hoots, the fans did more or less as instructed.

The set moved lithely into “Train,” another new song that swings with a light-jazz touch and features a clarion trumpet solo by Richardson. Another new song, simply titled “New Punk Song,” flashes back to the pop-punk of bands like Alli With an I that thrived in the scene that anchored at Ace’s Basement in Greensboro circa 2004-05.

There was one more song on the band’s setlist, reserved as an encore, but the band’s intentions to leave the stage must not have made an impression. The audience seemed distracted as the band members awkwardly hung around the stage waiting to see if they would be asked to stay. Then they shrugged and played their last song, a mid-tempo rocker called “Untitled Collaboration.”

When they finished, the crowd went nuts, chanting, “One more song.”

“Hey, did you guys realize what we just did was an encore?” Wysosky asked. The band conferred for a moment, trying to come up with another song. They found one from early in their career that had been dropped from the setlist, Wysosky said, “probably for good reason.”

Raucous and profane, the bros in the audience linked arms and danced. The rock-operesque piece opened a capella with the band singing, “This world can chew you up and spit you back out/ But what matters is who’s by your side when you go to die.”