A couple years ago, I was absolutely ecstatic to learn that one of my all time favorite musicians would be playing a solo show just hours away from me. Yep, I purchased tickets immediately to see Mark Burgess play in San Francisco.
After seeing the above flier, I wondered what/who James Oakes and the Bellows were. I didn't care, honestly. I was going to see Mark Burgess. Maybe he'll play 'Perfume Garden' and 'Second Skin.'
Fast forward to the show. It was not packed. Not even at capacity. And for a small venue like the Great American Music Hall, that was mildly disappointing because as a huge fan, I feel like Mark Burgess does not have the sizeable following he should. Anyway. It was a double-edged sword because, despite my disappointment, I would be treated to one of the most intimate and flat out best shows I've ever seen. And that wouldn't be all on account of Mark's performance — though he was fantastic and the highlight of the bill. Played audience requests, all the old Chams songs I wanted to hear and was an amazing presence.
But that's not what this post is about.
At the time, I did grow a little impatient, because I saw Mark hanging out at the bar during their set, but in retrospect, James Oakes and the Bellows were amazing.
When they came on stage, admittedly, I thought they were a group of four very mediocre looking fellows. My cynicism kicked in and the memories of seeing countless awful opening bands came rushing back into my brain. I have to admit this genuinely affected me through the first two songs to where I don't even remember what songs they played.
My first real memory of the band is James, in a between song banter moment, being completely overwhemled and genuinely speechless when trying to explain to the audience how important and influential Mark's music had been on himself and the band. It compelled me to be a little more open minded.
And then they played 'Way Down.'
Needless to say, I paid very close attention to the rest of their participation in the remainder of the evening's music (the band came back out later on and backed up Mark for great renditions of Chams tunes). The other three members of the band were all very competant, but not really flashy in their performances (and in the case of second guitarist Mike Arntz, seemingly a little terrified to be on stage; but that didn't show at all, especially when he played 'Tears'). James, however, is a captivating frontman. Throughout the band's set, I kept thinking how good he sounded vocally. And maybe it was just because he wisely uses his voice within the restraints of the music the band plays, but I was genuinely impressed.
Well, time has passed. I wanted to buy some CDs right then and there at the show, but there was (very disappointingly) no merch table. Upon visiting the band's page out of curiosity periodically and checking out the MP3 songs offered on the page, I finally decided recently I should contact James and purchase the band's two albums properly.
And am I ever glad I did.
They sort of sound like a hybrid of the Smiths jangly guitars meets the more spacious moments of the Chams, all with a distinctive hint of Americana thrown in. But, in James Oakes venerable vocals, the band's sound takes on a completely different vibe. He's got a vocal style that recalls no one I've ever heard before, but with a similar timbre and cadence to Archer Prewitt (of all people, possibly explaining why it appeals to me so much). With songs like the ambitious mini-epic 'Outside' (from the album of the same name), the boys create something that is distinct and resonating, but always with heaps of catchiness and amazing riffs. It's not jangle pop, it's not power pop, it's not guitar rock, it's just good guitar-oriented music.
The first album (Outside, 1998) is mostly James playing everything (except drums) and singing. A mound of fifteen excellent strummers, it's highlighted by: the two openers; sunny "Liberty Bell" and the slow loping breeziness of "Policeman", along with the previsouly mentioned amazing title track and the rolling Cure-ish melancholy of "If You Can Find Me." Truly not a bad song in the bunch, the only real criticism I have of the album is its nearly too-samey production. Even though the songs are good enough to overcome it, it may take a while for them to all develop identities of their own.
The follow-up, Color the Wheel (???2002???), on the other hand, follows through on the potential previewed on Outside. Although the sound is largely unchanged, there are slight variations that provide a more well-rounded and overall better record. Starting with "I Don't Want to Fall", a flat out great strummy pop song, and then launching immediately into the album's (and possibly the band's) climax "Way Down", it's a wonderful record to accompany you in just about any scenario. "Way Down" is kind of surprising because its chunked up guitar tone and and near twang is very uncharacteristic for the band. But James' refelctions of "Trying to forget and trying to remember... trying to find some piece of mind" provides a stark contrast to the musical backing's otherwise sunny persona. With such a highlight so early on in the record, I initially thought it would be the case of the band firing all of its shots too quickly. But, instead, the rest of the album is just one vintage sounding song after another; except all of them are absolute stunners. Other standouts for me are "I Don't Know Why", "Wouldn't it Be Nice" and the time signature switching "Call Me", all surely album highlights on any lesser project, but here they are each just more strong supports in the album's rock solid consistency. The production is chunked up and much more varied here and the songs feel completely developed. Just a wonderful record that sounds like something that should be a lot more well known than it is.
It's such a refreshing thing to hear bands like the Bellows making music that is so timeless and honest. And while they certainly have their audible touchstones and points of influence, it is a case of a band understanding where influence should end and inspiration should begin.
Absolutely wonderful music.
Check it out.