Inside Swampbird (pt. 1)


Last month Trent Whitehead, lead guitarist of the rambunctious alt-country outfit Swampbird, abruptly sent me a facebook message asking if I wanted to fill in for him on Swampbird’s East Coast tour (Trent couldn’t get away from work for the necessary two weeks). Though I had never played with the band before, I knew from previously seeing their energetic shows and meeting all the band-mates that it would be a fun time. I said yes. After confirming it with me, Trent asked his bandmates Dylan Vernon (guitar, vocals), Zac Hale (bass, vocals), and Paul Fennig (drums) if it would be ok if I substituted for him. They said yes.

There is a symbiotic relationship between myself and the band. I play lead guitar, filling out their sound, and they take me around the country, letting me continue to live out my dream of traveling and playing music (if you ask me I think I’m getting the better end of this deal). I certainly hope Swampbird continues to grow and have great success, and I hope I can contribute to that success while I’m on tour with them, but because I’m not actually in the band, I also have a close eye on how this tour is benefiting me personally and musically. Namely, I am getting to witness and sample other music scenes around nation (I may want to move to one of these places someday) and practice playing a country-rock guitar style that I don’t often get to perform. I am thankful and humbled that they’ve agreed to bring me along and am looking forward to the wonderful highs and lows of life on the road.

Though late nights and ample adult beverages will surely threaten my productivity, I aim to keep a consistent tour diary as we travel to some really cool places:

7/31— Birmingham, AL | Secret Stages Festival

8/1 — Knoxville, TN | Barley’s

8/2 — Asheville, NC | Jack of the Wood

8/4 — Washington, DC | Hill Country

8/5 — Brooklyn, NY | Bar Matchless

8/6 — Cambridge, MA | Middle East

8/8 — Portsmouth, NH | The Press Room

Friday July 31st, 2015. Day one.

We met at 10:00am to pack up the tour van at Dylan’s downtown Little Rock apartment. There I met the fifth Swampbird Pete Campos, a self-described “cog in the machine” for Sticky’z and Rev Room in Little Rock. He’ll be handling the driving, merchandise-dealing, and kitten herding for the duration of the tour. We were on the road to Birmingham by 11am. The spirits were high, and the jokes were base. I was happy to be on the road again.

Our soundtrack for the first leg of the journey was Canada based singer/songwriter Daniel Romano. Romano’s songs are all about heartache and call to mind singers like Faron Young and Merle Haggard. Though he has an absolutely classic-country sound, Romano feels that most of the artists we refer to as “country” today have strayed from the genre’s roots. Thus Romano has coined a new term to describe his genre: Mosey. It’s great driving music.

Dylan was already a huge fan when he heard that Daniel Romano was playing a show at J.R.’s and needed an opener— he quickly assembled a band to play the show, mainly so he could hear and meet his idol. Months later, Dylan was looking at Romano’s tour schedule and noticed a two day gap between his shows in Shreveport and Nashville. He contacted Romano’s manager Kay Berkell and asked if they wanted to do a show in Little Rock with Swampbird. She exclaimed that they had in fact been trying to book a show in Little Rock and would love to. More meetings and correspondence followed and culminated in Kay asking Dylan if he wanted to record an album of his own originals with Daniel at his Ontario studio. After Dylan checked multiple times to see if she was actually serious and not just being nice, she insisted that she was and said they would be free to start it August 9th, the day after Swampbird’s last show of the tour in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Thus, after we wrap up the tour, Pete, Paul, Zac, and I will rent a car and travel home to Arkansas and Dylan will drive the van to Ridgeville, Ontario to cut an album with his musical hero.

I am naturally the outsider in Swampbird (having spent only a handful of days around them), so I enjoy getting stories on the background and futures of my momentary bandmates. Although the band currently resides in Little Rock, it turns out that all of the members are transplants. Dylan is originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana but moved to Arkansas in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. He finished up high school at Subiaco Academy and then attended Hendrix for college. Zac grew up in Huntsville, AL and chose Hendrix because it gave him a nice scholarship. Dylan, Zac, and Trent met at Hendrix and quickly began to hangout and play music with each other. Though, the band was at first just “an excuse to drink whiskey on weekdays,” by the end of college it was a musically viable entity and they decided to pursue it in Little Rock. Paul is originally from Des Arc, AR but moved to Little Rock in 2003 after finishing college at Lyon in Batesville. He had been in numerous Little Rock bands such as Frown Pow’r, The Modedz, Tsar Bomba, The Yips, and Life Size Pizza by the time The Swampbird dudes were in need of a new drummer. He joined them in 2012 and his first gig with the band was at Riverfest that same year.

We rolled into Birmingham around 6pm, set to play at a German restaurant and bar called Das Haus as part of the Secret Stages festival. We met a kindly artist and festival worker named Soso who clued us in to the location of the Secret Stages VIP room where we could have our fill of food and drinks. After satiating ourselves with delicious Tacos and local beer, we loaded in our equipment and prepared to play the first show of tour (and my first real show with the band). I comforted myself by using a cheat sheet taped to the back of my guitar to remind me of all the songs, chords, and keys. We played well, and the crowd was extremely supportive. Our 45 minute set blew by in no time because we were having so much fun.

In fact, the fun continued until well after our set. Still riding the high of the performance, we bounced between the VIP room and the various stages to check out the other bands. Secret Stages is not an outdoor festival— it exists within about a square mile area of downtown, and all the shows are at actual music venues in the area (Parthenon, Rogue Tavern, Pale Eddie’s, M-Lounge, Lobotomix, Easy Street, Das Haus). Quality control at the festival was extremely high— I didn’t see a single band I didn’t enjoy, and a couple of them truly blew me away. A band called Twin Limb performed immediately after us at Das Haus and had a lot going for them: 1. The Look— the band consisted of two pretty girls and dude who looked like a caveman from the future. They arranged themselves on stage with the girls sitting facing each other at the front of the stage and the dude standing in the back, forming a radical triangle. 2. The Instrumentation — The girls played drums and accordion and both sang, while the future-man in the back played guitar and electronic-sample sounds. 3. The Sound — despite being just a three-piece the sound was large and rapturous with beautiful vocal melodies ringing out over big beats and heavily effected guitar and accordion.

After the Twin Limb show, Lacy, the accordion player/singer in the band, recommended we check out their friend’s band called Landlady. Pete confirmed that Landlady was definitely a worthwhile show, but before we could do that, we needed a refill at the VIP station. Two hilarious things happened there. First, Paul discovered an unwrapped (yet hopefully unused) condom in the diet coke cooler and very politely informed one of the festival volunteers of the situation. Second, Dylan, while chatting up a local PYT, knocked over a large precariously built display of all the Secret Stages bands arranged like the periodic table with the brim of his cowboy hat. It seemed an accident waiting to happen, but he profusely apologized to the staff to prove he wasn’t a complete drunk idiot.

After the VIP room shenanigans, Dylan and Zac went to see an interactive psychedelic band called Space Face while Pete, Paul, and I went to check out Landlady. I really can’t remember the last time I was so swept away by a musical performance. The lead singer/keyboard player was a short guy, with a huge voice who bore a striking resemblance to Rod Serling. He was supported by a bass player, guitarist, and two drummers who traded turns playing drums and auxiliary percussion— all were extremely proficient on their instruments and provided backup vocals as well. The songs shifted seamlessly between composed, precisely executed sections and free-for all percussive freakouts. Many bands are talented but not very original. Many other bands are original but not very talented. Landlady was both— the songs were intricate, difficult, and unique, and they executed them flawlessly. I recommend them.

After the shows we reluctantly regrouped at the van and drove to Zac’s high school friend Nick’s house to crash. Exhausted, I laid my sleeping bag on the floor and passed out, while Dylan, Zac, and Nick talked, drank, and reminisced into the wee hours.

Saturday August 1st, 2015. Day Two.

We woke around 11am, still groggy from the night before, but the promise of free lunch got us on our feet and moving. Another of Zac’s childhood friends named Rachel invited us over to her house for BLT’s and delicious homemade cookies. She and her husband are sponsors of Secret Stages and enjoyed hosting bands as they travelled through. It was a big happy lunch with two bands and family members all eating and talking. We filled up to our heart’s content and then hit the road to Knoxville.

On the road we entertained ourselves by sharing shameful and hilarious high-school stories. These I can’t print, but suffice it to say that Zac Hale was a rockstar long before he was in Swampbird and I know the whole band a lot better now.

We pulled in to Knoxville with plenty of time to load in our equipment, explore a music shop next door, and kick a soccer ball around before showtime. We played at a pizza restaurant & bar called Barley’s, and unfortunately the people seemed more into the pizza and beer than our music. It was a nearly polar opposite crowd reaction than the previous night in Birmingham. We chugged along through our set, but it was difficult to not feel deflated by the crowd’s apathy. We regrouped after our first set and agreed that we should just be playing for each other and not for the indifferent crowd. We started off our second set of music with some of Dylan’s solo material that he’ll be recording later this month. I sat in with him, filling in the spaces between his words with little melodies and chords, and all of a sudden we began to have fun playing. Paul then joined us on stage, providing a nice back-beat for the songs, and by the time Zac got up there I think we felt like a whole new band. Our second set was very strong even though the crowd never really came around. We comforted ourselves with the thought of the nice guarantee we were promised by the venue and the five pizzas they cooked us (eat your heart out Maxine’s).

After the show we drove through a surprisingly active downtown night-life scene on our way to our Marriott Hotel. Pete has the hookup on the Marriott’s family rate, so we can sleep for relatively cheap in relative comfort (five dudes in one hotel room is neither the best nor worst) once in a while on tour.

Sunday August 2nd, 2015. Day Three

I woke up early and snuck out the room to go work out and swim at the hotel’s outdoor pool area. After two days of long cramped van rides, shows, and beer drinking, my body was feeling a bit stagnant, so it felt great to run around, swim, workout, and stretch. I returned to the room as everyone was waking up and we ate cold leftover pizza for breakfast as we packed up our bags.

The drive to Asheville was short and beautiful. Though I have toured like this before, I forgot that one of the most amazing parts of the experience is watching a new city or landscape roll into view— I was reminded of this wonderful feeling as we approached the Appalachian mountains. As we drove through the hills, I texted the one person I know who lives in Asheville. Simon George is an incredible keyboard player and full-time musician living in Asheville and the brother of my good buddy and Oxford American editor Max George. I met Simon last year when he was visiting Max in Little Rock and we had a brief but entertaining jam together on acoustic guitar and Casio keyboard.

I told Simon I’d be in Asheville within the hour and he invited me to come to Burial Beer Co. where Simon’s jazz-fusion trio was playing until 4pm. I suggested it to the Swampbirds, and they all agreed. I greeted Simon and he invited me to join the band for a song on the condition that I play him a solo classical guitar piece first. So I took the stage after their set break and serenaded the beer drinkers with some Carcassi etudes played on a Telecaster guitar. Next Simon and his drummer joined me and we played a jazz-funk tune called Red Baron. It felt musically nourishing to get to dip into my jazz style for a moment during this country-rock tourgasm. I do love to play with Swampbird, yet I’ve incorporated a lot of different style into my musical life (Classical, Jazz, Funk, Soul, Hip-Hop, Country, Rock, R&B) and I am left wanting if I am away from any one style for too long. I reluctantly passed the guitar back to its owner. After they finished the set we bid Simon and his mates a fond farewell and they gave us a tip about a good spot to swim in the nearby French Broad river.

Pete and Paul then went to guitar center to buy some drum gear, while Dylan, Zac, and I went for a refreshing swim. We checked in to the Springhill Suites hotel (another chain in the Marriott family where we get the good discount), and were pleasantly surprised by a large room with two full-sized beds and a massive fold out couch. I took a quick soak in the hot tub (it was a rather leisurely day), and then showered and got ready for the show.

We played at a charming little spot in downtown Asheville called Jack of the Wood. Though we were again playing at a bar/restaurant, the Asheville experience was completely different from the dead night in Knoxville. For one, Dylan and Zac had some friends come and show a lot of vocal support throughout the whole show which was very energizing. Yet many of the people who had never even heard us before payed close attention and enjoyed the show. Despite playing only for tips, we ended up making plenty of money to get us to our next stop of Washington DC. Even more satisfying was the fact that many of the audience members came up and paid us compliments. I had heard a lot of good things from artists and musicians about Asheville before visiting, and based on my brief experience it does seem to be a wonderfully supportive community for anyone pursing art. I think I’ll be back.

After the show we drove back to the hotel where we took full advantage of the fact that we did not have a show the next day. We stayed up into the wee hours talking, drinking, joking, and sending out world-class snap-chats. Some things shouldn’t be written about here, and those are the things you should ask us about in person.

By the way, if you want to follow all of the action during our tour, the best way to do that is to add us on Snapchat (if you don’t have it, get it) at SwampbirdTV. The snaps are golden.

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