By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"Hey; kids, let's put on a show!" has been a hallowed pop catchphrase since Mickey Rooney played Judge Hardy's sincere but trouble-prone son Andy. Rock 'n' roll reduced the prerequisites to a few instruments, drums, and electrical outlets, and youngsters across the globe have been cleaving the night with their version of that earnest presentation ever since. For a band not quite four years old, birch county has been doing an uncommonly good job of staging their version of "the show," albeit one that features more pot-smoking and casts Judy Garland as a foxy earth-mama with a nose ring.
It's Saturday night at Trees, and birch county is occupying the middle slot in a local-band lineup that will culminate with a CD release-celebrating set from Quickserv Johnny. As the band starts their set with "15 Seconds," they present the crowd with a mixed bag of rock imagery: guitarist Paul Reid shoulders a black Les Paul, his shaven head and sharp profile conjuring up a picture that drifts from hardcore to Krishna; given his blissed-out mien--head back, eyes shut--it appears that for the moment the third eyes have it. On the other side of the stage, Brett Bledsoe--straight brown hair down to his shoulder blades and a soul patch beneath his lip--chops his hand back and forth across the pickguard of a big black Gibson hollowbody.
The guys in the rhythm section do what they're supposed to do--work. Drummer Robbie Dibble bounces solidly behind his trap, riding the beat as if it were a horse, and bassist Gary Burkhart stares out over the crowd as he plays with a look of detached concentration. As visually arresting as the players in the band are, however, it's a while before most audience members are really cognizant of them, thanks to Lisa Taylor, birch county's vocalist. Slight, lissome, and exotically pretty, the singer holds center stage, leaning into the microphone stand one minute, then leaning back as a descending wall of sound falls around her with a crash, pogoing away in front of the drum set as "Me Myself"'s guitar solo takes flight. Her long black dress billows around her bare feet as she bounces hyperactively, her nose ring catching the light.
"People always say 'what's that chick fucked up on?'" a sweaty Taylor will later say with a laugh. "But it's just the music and me letting myself go." She doesn't let herself go too much, however; possessed of a surprisingly powerful voice for such a slender frame, she works it expertly, her brows furrowed as she matches the big, two-guitar sound of Reid and Bledsoe and helps integrate their different parts into a nicely surging whole that's pushed forward by Dibble and Burkhart. Sometimes she stands stock still, leaning to one side or another, and then she's off again, like a pinball. Burkhart--despite his staring off into space as he plays--will occasionally swing the body or neck of his bass aside to afford her safe passage past him.
"This song's about doin' all the right things," she says by way of introduction to "Present." "From talkin' to all the right people to smokin' the right kinda bud." This elicits whoops of recognition from the same hempocentric hipsters who hooted their approval to "Mary Jane"--a longer, guitar-driven stirring whose central riff cycles through the song like a foam-covered triphammer--a number Taylor had said would be "definitely a groove-oriented song."
Birch county is no mere jammed-out stoner band, however. Even the heavy groove of "Mary Jane" clocks in at around five minutes; like most of their songs, it gets the feel of jamming across without the quarter-hour of noodling that sends people to the bathroom, to the bar, or down the street to Club Dada. Their self-titled debut EP, produced by Dave Castell (Course of Empire, etc.), was released last July and featured a remarkably mature sound, streamlined and even but still directed. Although their live material is more rocked-up--live, birch county's "Paris" has a locomotive-like forward momentum not quite as apparent on disc--it's heavy without sounding overloaded. "The Measure of Time," also off of the EP, keeps the even, mellow flow of its recorded version.
Although the level of background babble is still high, the band seems to have little difficulty keeping the attention of their audience, which is a nice mix of folks with a definite preponderance of females, both singly and in groups, no doubt responding to the unabashedly feminine (but no less powerful) vibe that Taylor puts out. The guys are responding to it also, although in a different way.
Not too bad for a group that has its roots in what Bledsoe calls "big-time metal in Grand Prairie." The group's historical core is high school buds Bledsoe, Reid, and Dibble. Looking to guiding lights like Metallica and Slayer, they practiced in storage spaces and--in various combinations--formed a number of bands like Black Pig; at one point Reid and Dibble were in a band called Naught, which opened for Pantera. In 1993 Dibble and Bledsoe formed Wonderland with Taylor, who had been introduced to them by Reid. Taylor, who'd met Reid in a music store, had actually tried out earlier for a spot in Black Pig. She'd moved to Dallas from Fairfax, Virginia, where she'd developed an interest in drama and performed in school musicals.