by Jordan Green and Naari Honor
Daniel Womack lost himself in the excitement of putting a new set of strings on his acoustic guitar as the Athens-based band Futurebirds loaded their gear into the Garage.
The Georgia-Tennessee football game was streaming over the Winston-Salem venue’s sound system, and Womack looked up and smiled as Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason made a 47-yard clutch pass to teammate Riley Ridley who made the touchdown, putting Georgia ahead with 10 seconds left in the game. Thomas Johnson, one of the band’s three songwriter-vocalist-guitarists, paused in front of the stage, leaped and punched the air in exaltation as the announcer said, “This one will live for the ages in Athens if they can actually win this game.”
Then, a “hail Mary” pass from Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs to wide receiver Jauan Jennings put Tennessee over, 34-31. “The Georgia fans are in shock,” the announcer said. “They thought they’d won this game.”
Womack pulled out a brand-new A string, wound it through the low-E position, and clipped it. Then, realizing his mistake, he threw his head back and laughed. He pulled off the useless A string. Trimmed to length, it was now too short for its natural position. Womack got up to retrieve another pack of strings.
Relaxing in the green room after sound-check, Johnson took the snatched victory in stride.
“We’re used to it,” he said. “There’s four seconds left on the clock — you know, there’s still time to lose.”
Since the release of their 2010 full-length debut, Hampton’s Lullaby, Futurebirds has evolved from a folk-Americana act through a reverb-laden country phase into a full-frontal rock-and-roll band. Rather than cycle through those three phases, they’ve managed to incorporate all of them into a sound that showcases rich vocal harmonies, an explosive live act replete with rousing guitar interplay and an increasing strong brace of new songs. With the release of Hotel Parties a year ago, they pared down their sound and brought the vocals to the forefront, in contrast to the lush instrumentation and heavy reverb on its predecessor, Baba Yaga. Now, the band is on the cusp of releasing a new batch of material.
“I don’t know if it’s a change in direction,” Johnson said. “I think in a lot of ways we like to feel like we’re all trying to get better, to hone in on the sound. We feel really strongly that our last record was the best yet, so we’re always just trying to get better.”
The Oct. 1 show in Winston-Salem was part of a string of dates across the Southeast — a sweep from Virginia, through the Carolinas and into Georgia and Alabama — over the next three weeks that was initially booked in support of a new EP.
“Forces outside of our control pushed back the EP,” said Johnson, displaying the equanimity of a college football fan used to sudden reversals. “That’s why it’s a random kind of in-betweener show.”
When Futurebirds hit the stage at 11:30 p.m., they opened with one of their new songs, a trance-like mediation by Womack called “For Your Love,” while another new song, tossed out in the first handful of numbers, nailed a mixture of sadness and catharsis in a squall of distorted guitar reminiscent of Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Signposting the loose, wild energy to come in the show, a female audience member yelled to Carter King, one of the band’s three songwriter-vocalist-guitarists, as he introduced the third song: “I want to pinch your butt.”
By midnight, the crowd had thinned significantly, with many of the fans who had turned out to see two local acts debuting new material departing. The members of Futurebirds didn’t seem deterred, showing themselves to be all the more resolute about putting on a great show for the rabid fans who stuck around and danced with drunken abandon. One of them, who had been staggering moments earlier, became so inspired that he climbed on his friend’s shoulders before the sound tech intervened.
The band’s ability to read its audience, or maybe just to continually change up to keep things interesting manifested in reworking of older material. They transformed “Battle for Rome,” a banjo-tinged Americana anthem from Hampton’s Lullaby that features Johnson on lead vocals,into a five-alarm rager, while “Yur Not Ded” from the same album went from a dirge-like psychedelic desert epic to a rousing power-pop song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Big Star album.
The members of Futurebirds have accepted the label “psychedelic country” because it captures the dichotomy of rootedness and weirdness in their music, but King said they wouldn’t want the term to become a limitation. Johnson added that he doesn’t necessarily embrace the stoner connotation of the label. He said he considers Futurebirds “a song-based band,” explaining that every song should be strong enough to sound complete played on a single guitar or piano without additional instrumentation or production.
Johnson said all the varied strands of Futurebirds’ music create a Southern sound as a composite.
After closing with a rousing rendition of the melancholy “Hotel Parties,” Garage owner Tucker Tharpe delivered PBRs to the band. Opening a can and raising a toast, King introduced the encore, a cover of the truck-driving anthem “Six Days on the Road.”
A staple of country-rock bands in the early ’70s, it would have made sense for Futurebirds to tackle it with a hippie-rockers-trying-their-hand-at-honky-tonk approach of the Flying Burrito Brothers or New Riders of the Purple Sage. Instead, stripping down to the loose, chaotic impulses of a bar band in ragged glory, they throttled the song like Thin Lizzy might have — a demonic boogie performed on a satellite on collision course with a meteor.
A band equally comfortable in the murky past and the hazy future, Futurebirds proved their sound is a moving target.