Humble Thumb, the fragmented version of The Brothels from Knoxville and Asheville, recently opened for Buffalo at Fred’s Speakeasy. The small crowd—surprisingly quiet for a Saturday night—finally hit its enthusiastic stride when Buffalo took the stage with a young but mature approach to old-time roots, country, and bluegrass.
It was evident that Humble Thumb, performing as a tight group, was missing some integral elements. Although the band exhibited a fine array of musicianship, it seemed as if it was waiting for something to happen (for instance, another band member to beef up the sound) at several moments throughout the evening. Multi-instrumentalists James Butler and Jeff Micchelli effectively traded off on guitar, banjo and vocals. Micchelli also performed on trumpet and saw, and Butler played fiddle as well. “Bad” Bill Cooley offered accompaniment on drums, and Brian Smith joined for a few songs on guitar. Although Humble Thumb has the necessary ingredients to create rowdy bluegrass (as evidenced by a rousing Hackensaw Boys cover of “Keep it Simple”) with a little bit of a punk undertone (a cover of the Dead Milkmen‘s “Punk Rock Girl”), the band struggled to find consistency within its songs. A short instrumental, “Tears of a Jackal,” was one of the more intriguing songs of the set, illustrating that Humble Thumb may have something to offer beyond the technical difficulties.
Buffalo has been creating ripples regionally, recently playing at Shakori Hills music festival in Silk Hope, N.C., and their influences—from the Stones to Conway Twitty—are as varied as their style: Succinct but exceptionally arranged tunes capable of evoking a wide array of responses. The musicians—Grant Waters on vocals and banjo, Kyle Mendenhall on upright bass and Brantly Tyson on vocals and guitar—craft coherent songs that fit together in a well-orchestrated and enjoyable journey of a set. It’s as if Buffalo was encouraging each listener to hop in the car and embark on a road trip with the band.
“Where the Buffalo Roam” is a catchy ramblin’ walking tune, echoing Johnny Cash in his heavy-boozing days. Other tunes, like “Chasing Arkansas”—regarding being left behind the morning after—are catchy and sweet (but still gritty and raw) songs for lovers.
One of the real gems of the set was the opening tune, “Alimony Rag,” which contains a cascade of one-liners: “A shotgun wedding and a Pontiac, I’m leaving this scene and I ain’t coming back.” The song goes over like a call to the fight or flight mechanism, promising that “there ain’t no raisin’ like raisin’ hell.”
The players who comprise Buffalo are musically wise beyond their years, and their instincts are right on the money for the recent rekindled interest in alt-country, just as bands like Blitzen Trapper and Neko Case begin to gain national recognition.
At press time, the Buffalo line-up has changed, and future shows may present a selection of different and interchanging members. It would behoove a smart listener to keep an ear on the subsequent incarnations of Buffalo.
Learn more about Humble Thumb at www.myspace.com/humblethumb and Buffalo at www.myspace.com/rowdyamericana. Lydia See is a freelance writer based in Asheville. More of her music reviews and live photography can be found at lydiasee.com