This year’s celebration of Last Chance Records head honcho Travis Hill’s birthday, like every year, was also a celebration of life in general. The pins given out in the VIP package summed up the 2014 that so many of us had: ‘Hard Work And Plenty Of It’. I’m sure by now most of you who read this site have been inundated with Holiday Hangout 2014 tweets, photographs, or drunken text messages, and now that the event is over may be breathing a sigh of relief. But not so fast; I still have a few things to say.
The Holiday Hangout is much more than a simple concert, or mere festival: it’s a rock and roll family reunion. This year four 9bullets writers (Charles, RSV, Scott, and myself) gathered with dozens of our closest friends and sang our hearts out to our favorite bands. Those are the things you may have picked of from the never-ending Instagram updates from Little Rock that got less frequent and blurrier as the night, and weekend, went on. I want to tell you about a few things you may not have been able to perceive from over the internet. There may be some friends I made or artists who played that I don’t mention, and for that I apologize. I think every Holiday Hangout might require a novella (and spare liver) to cover adequately, but I have the time and space I have. What follows are the key moments, observations, and musings from my White Water Tavern nights this December:
- Austin Lucas – Just as this year has been hard for some of us, it sounds like it’s been a hard year for the smooth-voiced Lucas as well. For his set (backed by his band The Bold Party), Austin pulled out all the stops to deliver a powerful rock and roll performance. He also played songs from his new record, which I’m already unbelievably excited for. Those songs have a distinctly more country feel than Stay Reckless, but their true defining quality is the incredible songwriting. Austin has always been a storyteller, but what was on display here was an attitude and clear-eyed determination pouring through his lyrics that I haven’t seen from him before. He also joined in with Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires for their barn-burner “Dirt Track”, and watching the passion with which he sang “Keep on working, keep it on the dirt track” was inspiring. Now is the time to pay attention to Austin Lucas.
- John Moreland – Yes, yes, you know. John was amazing, and his new songs hit you in all the places you thought In The Throes had already thoroughly covered. It’s like Robin Hood hitting the bullseye with another arrow. The general consensus is that John’s mainsteam success is a matter of when, not if, and I for one am glad of it. John Moreland’s music comes straight, no chaser, and the rest of the world could use plenty of it.
- Magic Mike – Some of you may be wondering who the magician hanging out with bands all the time is, and why he’s there. Go see his show and you’ll see. Mike loves these bands as much as any of us (he got Red Collar their first gig at the White Water years ago), and he knows how to show a crowd a good time. He also threw a knife at me. It was a good weekend.
- Jkutchma and Red Collar – I was ill-prepared for seeing Red Collar. Last year JKutchma had to play two solo sets, an ice storm preventing the rest of the band from making the Hangout. I’d listened to Red Collar’s albums and liked their music, but wasn’t a new convert. This performance may have changed that. Red Collar is a powerful band, full of explosive energy and straight-to-the-point lyrics. Their fans, unconditionally devoted, were unbelievably excited to see the band and it showed in the messy, sweaty, almost conversational relationship between those on the stage and those in front of it. I spent the entirety of their set wanting to get to know the band’s music better so that I could take part in that relationship. JKutchma also played solo, and I can tell you this about his new songs: you want to hear them.
- Two Cow Garage – This is the band that will not quit. Micah Schnabel and Shane Sweeney keep turning out new songs that are as catchy as they are visceral, lyrically potent, emotionally charged. When you see them on stage you cannot doubt that they mean every word they say. The musicianship and energy of their drummer, David Murphy, have propelled them to a new sonic plane (which I think is a D&D thing, actually). You would hardly recognize some of their older songs the way they play them now, and all the change is for the better. Micah and Shane both played new songs during their solo sets, and demonstrated the range of their songwriting. Two Cow Garage is not a peanut butter/chocolate situation, folks: these are two men who have been writing songs for years, managing to grow both on their own and together as a band. It’s a wonder to behold. And speaking of peanut butter, for their full band set they were joined on guitar by 9bullets reader favorite Todd Farrell, and speaking of Todd Farrell…
- Todd Farrell – It’s hard when your friends make music. First off, what if it isn’t good? Second off, what if you think it’s good but that’s just because you’re friends and the rest of the world hates it and your friend has to become an insurance salesman? Well after the Holiday Hangout I can safely say neither of those cases are true for our friend Todd Farrell. In addition to playing guitar for Two Cow, Todd also played solo at the Arkansas Record Exchange In-Store show (trading his guitar off with Austin Lucas), and one song on Sunday at the demand of Micah Schnabel. The response that Todd received, not just from the crowd but from his fellow musicians, was incredibly heartening. You could see the bonds forming, the songwriters nodding to each other over a clever turn of phrase, laughter and applause mid-song from a crowd on the edges of their proverbial seats because they were seeing something new. The first night of the Hangout, Todd was walking up the stairs at the White Water as Otis Gibbs, grey-bearded bastion of folk, was walking down them. They stopped at the landing and spoke with each other for a few minutes, I have no idea about what. But then they shook hands and they headed their separate ways. That moment felt important to witness.
So there you have it, my take on this year’s Holiday Hangout. Thanks to everyone at the White Water who made it happen, everyone who played, everyone who went and sang and shouted and danced and swore and shook. All we have to do to get to the next one is make it through another year.
Here’s a video of Micah Schnabel, Brent Best, David Murphy, Todd Farrell, Joey Kneiser, Ben Nichols, John Moreland, Travis Hill, and Shane Sweeney playing “Like A Rolling Stone”. If you have to skip past the first three minutes of laughter and terrible jokes because Shane forgot to plug his guitar in, that’s what you have to do. But I don’t recommend it.
Did you have any favorite moments this Holiday Hangout, or questions about the shows? Leave a comment and let’s talk! Or hit us up on Twitter, @Real9Bullets!