Almost Almost Famous
I got an e-mail from Chris Holt, lead singer-guitarist of Olospo, a few days ago, at the very unrock-starish hour of 7:31 a.m. He was responding to my request for some lyrics and a set list. "Can't wait to read your article, as long as it doesn't say anything about Phish or us being a jam band," he wrote, somewhat joking, somewhat concerned.
OK, so for the record, Olospo is not Phish, not even close. They don't want to be Phish. Olospo is just a four-piece band (featuring two guys with scruffy hair and beards) that likes to rock out, sometimes combining three or four songs into a single 20-minute jam--uh, I mean medley. Their lyrics (mostly written by Holt) carry a sort of goofball melancholy. Their instrumentation is crisply skilled. Fine. If you had to ask me, I'd say they sound more like Frank Zappa-meets-Steely Dan-meets-Phish. When they appeared on The Ticket's Hardline a few months ago, the jock-minded skeptics were pleasantly surprised, referring to their songs as "good happy pot people music."
They were one of 18 bands that just happen to jam headed to play the Big Wu Family Reunion in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, on Memorial Day weekend. This fifth-annual three-day event draws some 4,000 neo-hippies and frat rockers willing to pay $100 to camp out in a wooded nook between nowhere and Canada to listen to music the host band, the Big Wu, deems important enough for them to hear. Excited about what amounted to a big audition--and Olospo's first time playing in a state not touching Texas--they rented a 38-foot RV to get there. At least that would ensure a fun road trip and more comfortable ride home if the show turned out to confirm the group's subtle fears that Olospo, together since 1999, wasn't yet ready for the big time, or even the medium time.
On board were the band members--drummer Tom Bridwell, keyboardist Britt Miller, bass player Nick Ramirez and Holt--a wife, a fiancee, a girlfriend, a road manager, the merch girl and me. I wanted to go to the Family Reunion to do a story on the new generation of Deadheads, those displaced Phish fans wandering around the country in search of a new Jerry Garcia, and asked if I could hitch a ride. In the tradition of "gas, grass or ass...nobody rides for free," what I brought to the RV was my uncanny ability to stay awake without drugs for all hours through the night and an eagerness to drive a machine that was longer than my apartment.
After a warm-up gig at Chicago's Boulevard Café, we drove seven hours through the middle of the night to Black River Falls. Upon arrival at the Jamboree Campgrounds, festival organizers directed us to a primo parking space a few steps from the backstage area and on the banks of a lake.
Olospo had to begin setting up almost immediately. They didn't have a particularly good time slot--1:30 p.m. on Saturday, the second of three days. At that hour, after a previous night of heavy partying, the kids who made up their potential new fans hadn't yet taken their Ritalin, let alone their ecstasy (which has replaced LSD as the drug of choice at hippie-ish music festivals). The sun hadn't yet peeked through the morning fog, and though this was the weekend that traditionally kicks off the opening of summer, in western Wisconsin you could just about see your breath. A Texas flag bearing the band's name draped the stage as it was introduced to a crowd of about 40 people. Holt said hello to the audience, which clapped politely, and plugged the band's Web site (www.olospo.com) as they began to play.
After their second song, a cover of XTC's "English Roundabout," keyboardist Miller kind of laughed and said to his band mates, "Are you guys cold?" Bassist Nick Ramirez chuckled into the microphone and blew on his hands. "I'm cold," Miller said.
But Olospo sounded good--in part because it was playing on a sound system that was better than anything it was used to at Club Dada or Trees or Austin's Empanada Parlour or Houston's Fitzgerald's. The music carried brightly and clearly across the lake and through the woods, where people were unzipping their tents for the morning. A few more songs into their two-hour set, 300 or so people had assembled near the stage. They stood there listening, some with their arms crossed, others slightly bobbing up and down. They weren't really sure what to make of Olospo yet. They tasted a little bit like Phish, but different.
They were almost hard-rocking, anchored by Ramirez's bass lines, but easier on the ears. The uppity melodies were carried in the back-and-forth play of Morris' electric organ and Holt's guitar riffs--which had the sharp sound and pop sensibilities that probably come naturally to a guy who's spent week after week moonlighting as John Lennon in the Beatles cover band A Hard Night's Day. By the time Olospo got to its own favorites, like "Chewing on Glass" and "Step Up," much of the crowd was full-out dancing. A festive cover of Steely Dan's "Kid Charlamagne" officially won them over, causing the audience to whoop and scream as if Olospo were full-fledged rock stars. The kids were coming out of the woods by the dozens now, and several were headed to the merchandise tent to purchase copies of their album, Herbal Tea. From here, the rest of the show would be a breeze.
With the audience captive, they closed with songs that the band might call classic Spo--"Aseedafinque," "William and Aaron," "Franks and Beans"--mixed with some creative covers to let their new fans know their un-Phishlike influences: Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same," the Allman Brothers' "Wastin' Time" and the theme music for Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers. Before the set's close, the festival's sound man, who was digitally recording the entire event, was possibly lying with dead-serious Deadhead roadie machismo: "Dude, I've got a couple bootlegs of these guys."
Done working early, for the rest of the weekend the band got to party like rocks stars. With good beer flowing steadily, our RV gang ventured out backstage and amid the crowd to hear other up-and-coming bands--including The Slip (think The Police meets Phish), Particle (think Tool meets Phish) and host band the Big Wu (think Phish). The rest of the time was spent milling about the campgrounds, retreating periodically to the RV. In a tent city like the one that sprouts up in Black River Falls each year for the Big Wu Family Reunion, a monster RV that expands several feet wider at the press of a button and has a rooftop that can double as a sundeck is like a Hyatt Hotel.
There the Ben Folds Five DVD The Complete Sessions on W. 54th seemed to be playing on an infinite loop, interrupted only occasionally for intense bouts of football and golf on PlayStation 2, and on one occasion by Bittersweet Motel, the movie by and about Phish. While it was playing, Ramirez, Miller and Bridwell paid only brief attention, instead passing around a set of headphones attached to the six-track recording of their performance. The guys now being referred to as "that Texas band" felt almost like rock stars, but not quite sure. "Did they like us?" Ramirez asked shyly. "Yeah, I think so," answered Holt. He looked down for a second, then looked back up with a big grin. "Dude, that was fucking awesome." Indeed, Olospo now had its own small identity in the Midwest.
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