Eleven Hundred Springs: Live and Boozy

Six months ago at the Granada Theater, the much-adored local alt-country kings in Centro-matic took to the stage to—big shock here—blow away its die-hard audience's mind with yet another impressive live show.

Yada yada yada. Pretty much par for the course for Will Johnson and crew.

But on that summer night, things were slightly different too: The band was dolled up just a little bit more conscientiously than usual, and the stage, as well, was a little less no-frills-y than one might've anticipated (Chinese lanterns adorned the stage, casting something of a stunning, if thrifty, ambient glow onto the performers). The attention to detail wasn't for naught: The band was filming a still-unreleased live performance DVD that evening. Fixed cameras rose from tripods set up in various spots on the floor and a handful of stealthy camera operators scurried about the sides of the stage and the rest of the venue, their recording equipment hoisted onto their shoulders and almost permanently aimed at the stage.

No doubt it all made for fine, fine footage—and let's be clear, it was a fantastic show (one of the best of '08 in my book)—but if the cameras panned out, or if they reversed the angles of their shots, an ugly truth would've been revealed: The 700-person-capacity floor of the venue (the 400-capacity balcony was closed off on this night) was only maybe half full. The audience was energetic, responsive and captivated, yes. But only so strong in numbers. A shame? You bet. On so many levels. Again, though, it was still a great show. The band members prowled about the stage with smiles plastered on their faces and confidence bursting from their every motion. It was a spectacular display in the most literal sense, and certainly, the environment at the Granada went a long way toward presenting this image.

But perhaps it would've played out slightly better—for the cameras, at least—in a smaller setting; why film on the moon, when there's a passable soundstage mockup of the landscape in your backyard? One that can be filled (quite easily, mind you) with fans?

This past weekend, the always effervescent fellas in Eleven Hundred Springs seemed to understand as much. On Saturday night, they took to the Double Wide for an affair similar to the Centro-matic show. There were no video cameras present, but with some help from Sorta and Olospo drummer/sound engineer Tom Bridwell, the band was recording the festivities for potential future release.

And the energy running throughout the venue on this night was far more palpable. (It helps that the Double Wide's about one-tenth of the size of the Granada, if that.)

Before the show, the venue's main barroom tipped the evening's hand: When the doors to the showroom opened at 10:30, the barroom crowd all but vanished. Within seconds, the masses had reappeared, organized in a line five people wide and at least four times that many long—laughably stretched out below the "Capacity: 36" sign that hangs beside the door.

No surprise there: Over the past year, Eleven Hundred Springs has capably filled the much larger theaters at the Granada and the House of Blues, captivating audiences with its merry blend of marijuana-cum-moonshine boot-skoot on the heels of its Country Jam release. Surely, it could have mustered the clout to record this venture in either of those spots if the band so desired—but not doing so just made more sense, says bass player and founding member Steve Berg.

"We had free rein of everything at the Double Wide," Berg says. "Tom was set up about 10 feet from my right hand—and that's just not possible at the other, bigger venues. Plus, we were able to have it there on such short notice, after not being able to advertise because of a clause in our contract for our December 28 show at the House of Blues."

But notice, clearly, was of no concern on this night. Long before frontman Matt Hillyer announced to the crowd the band's intentions to record the show, everyone already seemed in on the bit. Hell, they'd arrived for that very reason, if their ear-piercing screams after each and every take was proof of anything.

It was an ardent group of listeners; this wasn't the usual walk-in-off-the-street, maybe-we'll-see-what's-happening-at-the-Double-Wide-tonight crowd. The pearl snap shirts were less trendy, more embroidered; the cowboy hats less ironic, more weathered; the liquor darker, the beers stouter. And the thick, backroads accents with which the crowd sang along to Hillyer's lyrics about cars and beers and girls and Texas seemed to signal that many in this crowd had ventured in for the show from beyond city limits. They raised their bottles in appreciation, well, constantly throughout the almost three-hour-long performance. And though the crowd seemed to sway more to its own inebriated beat than the band's as the night wore on, it remained enthusiastic, merry and near-familial.

("My buddy wants to go home and have sex with his girlfriend," one drunken reveler confided late in the night, "but I just wanna buy a T-shirt from these fuckers onstage!")

"It was definitely a cool energy," Berg says, with a laugh. "The only con is that it's such a small room, so some fans couldn't get in, and it was pretty cramped."

He laments some notes he knows he missed ("I just would rather we'd come in after playing 12 days straight and not after having taken 12 days off"), some mistakes the band—and likely only the band—noticed as it ran through Country Jam's catalog, three new tracks, and a slew of older songs such as "Long-Haired Tattooed Hippie Freaks" and "The Only Thing She Left Me (Was the Blues)," the latter of which was crammed into a medley alongside classic fan favorites. And, as such, he notes that there's no guarantee that the show will ever make it onto an album—not until the band hears the recording and approves its quality, at least. Still, he knows the fans are eager to see a live disc.

"A long time ago, we recorded a live album at Adair's [Saloon], and we only pressed a small amount of 'em—maybe 2,000 or 2,500 copies," Berg says. "People have still been asking about them."

It may take another recording—maybe in California, Berg says—before there's enough quality-controlled material to merit such a release.

"It's definitely a no-lose situation, though," he says. "Some of it will see the light of day, even if it's just as bonus tracks you can get for free off iTunes or something."

The audience better hope so. It was a sloppy crew in attendance on Saturday; releasing the live recordings would go a long way toward preserving the phenomenal show's memory.

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman

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