The quartet of young men who make up New Madrid came late to the Garage and took their time setting up their gear.
It was a Wednesday night, and no one at the Winston-Salem listening room — band, staff or audience — seemed to be in any particular rush. Scruffy, clad in worn jackets and sweatshirts, they came off the road quietly triumphant, young but seemingly seasoned, confident but not cocky.
They took what seemed forever to tune up, set their levels with the sound tech and arranged an array of effects pedals before they were ready to play.
When New Madrid finished their sound-check, the audience — including members of the Nashville band All Them Witches, in town to shoot a video — burst into applause, whether to signal their impatience or as an indication of their appreciation for the band’s musicianship was unclear.
The members of New Madrid play with loose yet studied warmth that suggests My Morning Jacket, with vocal harmonies that interplay with the tremolo of their guitars. Their collective sound creates a geothermal bath that is at once cosmic and earthy, creating a bed for the occasional stinging guitar solo to rise from the ether.
Some performers focus on showmanship, establishing a rapport with their audience while using their wits to deflect attention from their imperfections. The laid-back Southern dudes in New Madrid take the other approach, displaying a casual lack of interest in superficial formalities while getting their sound right. The dynamic between musicians comes before the relationship between band and audience. In a way, it’s a form of respect for the fans.
Once they got right with each other and the music, bass player Phil McGill warmly greeted the crowd and thanked the Garage, noting that this was their first stop on what is to date the band’s longest tour. They’ve done short swings for a week or so before returning to home base in Athens. But with the release of their new long-player, Sunswimmer, in late February, they have dates lined up in the Southeast, the Plains and Rocky Mountain regions, with a swing through Texas for South by Southwest, notably not their first appearance at the showcase.
New Madrid’s music rewards the patient concertgoer. The constant tuning between songs can be tedious, but then the songs blossom fully formed, the rhythm section creating a powerful undertow and the two guitarists creating textured washes that surge at unexpected moments.
It was unclear whether the band treated their Winston-Salem show as a practice run for bigger venues and more fruitful vineyards, but at a few points their attention to technique came across as distraction. Perhaps in other settings they display more charisma, or maybe that trait will take hold as their career unfolds. But the band often seemed disconnected from the dozen or so people who came out on a Wednesday night and gave them an enthusiastic reception.
Some songs were just a little bit too shoegazey, but others soared. One number in particular, with an embryonic development in a tightly controlled wash of distortion, manifested a true catharsis. Guitarist and lead vocalist Ben Hackett swayed like a man possessed. The guitars soared and made a siren call. The song coalesced in the aural equivalent of an ascending UFO. In a word, they rocked.
To underscore the lack of momentum in the show, after playing for an hour, the band took a break at 11:30 so McGill could change a string. Returning to the stage, they reprised the duality of the first set, with one song featuring ponderous instrumentation followed by another with spot-on harmonies and combustible guitar interplay.
They said goodnight and prepared for the journey. One imagines there are many more revelations to come.