"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.
The group started practicing and working on songs together. Although Taylor writes all the lyrics and Bledsoe writes most of the music, "everybody adds their own colors" when hammering out a song, according to Dibble. Songwriter Bledsoe in particular is a fervent believer in "vibe," symbolized by his early admiration for the whole Seattle (at that point not yet a bad word) scene. "When I was working in the record store, I was totally into Pearl Jam," he recalls. "I remember when they played the Bronco Bowl--I met Eddie [Vedder] in the parking lot! They just seemed to me to be the essence of 'soul rock,' where besides the grooves, you had to have the emotion, you had to be for real." The band recorded one album with Denton's Eric Delegarde that was nearing release when the band met Roger Bishara after a particularly energetic gig at Trees.
"I'd heard the album and I knew that they could do better than that," says Bishara, an aspiring entertainment lawyer who was in law school when he saw the band at rehearsal and was impressed. "I told them that I'd start a label and pay to record another one if they'd let me, and of course they said yes." He then started up both Bishara Entertainment and Pilot Records with that goal in mind, "...[but] it's a completely cooperative thing; I help unload and put stuff up after the show."
Dave Castell was high on the band's list to produce the new work, but there were problems: after a number of local successes with acts like Course of Empire and Deep Blue Something, Castell was leery of working with another local band.
"We really liked what he'd done," Bishara says. "We'd gone to other people, but nobody felt right."
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"We sent him like half a million letters, saying we'd pay him to come out and hear us," Taylor recalls. Castell finally relented, impressed by the band's sound and cohesion. His signing on wasn't responsible for all the changes that involved the morphing of Wonderland into birch county, but much of the band's growth clusters around that linchpin event.
"He had such a cocky attitude; we just loved that. He was the one," Taylor remembers. With Castell at the controls, they cut the EP. "I've always liked that groove-rock thing," Bledsoe explains. "I was into bands like Satchel, Tool, Blind Melon...the Black Crowes, and we decided that to get that deeper texture--that 'fat sound'--"
"That massive groove plane," Dibble interjects.
"--we'd have to add a player."
The band turned to Reid, signing him on in time for the EP's release party in July; he's played with the band ever since. "We don't sound like a Dallas band, or a Texas band for that matter," Taylor admits, noting that Castell will also produce the band's upcoming full-length album, due out this summer. "[Castell] definitely expects a lot--he takes us to places we hadn't anticipated--but that's what we wanted, and it's worked out really well."
Birch county plays Thursday, February 27 at the Casey Hess benefit at Trees.