Last night's show opened with 2011 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase finalists of late, This Holy House — now a four piece, having added an awfully talented, cowboy-booted and paisley-cuffed lead guitarist, who, like the true Wilco fan he is destined to be, skillfully pushed the guitar to its scroungiest sonic limits.
THH, despite having noticeably improved since last year, still seem divided over the band's aesthetic. Even with this new lead guitarist's twangified contributions, the frontman remains married to his Sunny Day Real Estate-style crooning over lush rock 'n' roll thrashing. Of course, this devotion was betrayed when they launched into their best song of the night, a straightforward ballad. And that's when I realized: Really, somebody should give this man a grand piano. He could move a venue to tears, probably, as an emotive balladeer, what with his song pleas for "a good woman" and all. His vocal capabilities — expression and clarity of tone — aren't as effective in rock 'n' roll as they want to be. That being said, his stage-presence enthusiasm is nothing short of admirable — in their finale, he managed to stamp up an impressive cloud of dust from the token area rug on White Water's stage.
Atlanta's Gringo Star peeled out much as expected, with a decidedly Southern-garage number recalling '60s forebears like Zakary Thaks. The band is made up of four dapper gents, but with five instrument stations onstage. I say "stations" because part of the band's performance is rapid switching between positions for each song. That is, there seems to be some murky notion of a regular bass player, regular rhythm guitarist, and regular drummer, but they all alternate between each other. All except one share vocal duties, three take turns on the keyboard, and only two switch off between playing drums. While this displays a swaggering kind of showmanship, it seems to tamper with the band's cohesiveness. Some numbers are peppy garage riffs and tinkling keyboard flourishes with "oooh la la" backing vocals and gut-thumping percussion. But when the regular drummer steps to the front of the stage, however, GS takes on a more flannel-shirted, ’70s Southern rock appeal, wrenching out alt-country songs that would be dusty and tired if it weren't for refreshingly complicated vocal melodies.
It's a great show, though — the somehow endearing hospital smell of their readily dispatched fog machine, their intricate song structures that move between facile pop chords abruptly into key changes, or the rhythm chugging quickly into a lonely-boxcar rockabilly-style syncopation. The lead guitarist's work with a Rickenbacker is phenomenal, garnishing certain songs with a complexity that might risk sounding too conventional without him. The biggest issue, quite in contrast with THH, is their stage personas. Maybe they were in a bad mood, or something's come to sour on this tour, but I think I saw only a single smile from one of the band members during the entire set. They're obviously self-serious kind of performers, engrossed in the instrument at hand, but it occasionally conveys a joylessness that a naturally ebullient genre, such as garage rock, feels kind of heartless without.