Doc Aquatic’s finely orchestrated chaos

The Life Aquatic: Asheville-by-way-of-Boone indie-rockers Doc Aquatic put on a high-energy performance with a psychedelic spin. Photo by Raul Rubiera

There’s something so buoyant and blithe about local indie/psychedelic band Doc Aquatic that it’s pretty near impossible to watch them on stage and not smile. The band started off its Grey Eagle set, opening for The Baker Family Band, with lots of bounce and energy.

In fact, the crowd for the opener was sizable — a little larger than the group that hung around for Austin, Texas-by-way-of-Asheville group The Bakers. It was a testament to the following Doc Aquatic has built since relocating to Asheville from Boone in 2009, and the audience was rewarded for its devotion.

Doc Aquatic’s sound, on the Grey Eagle stage, engineered by Mars Farris, was the best this reviewer has heard to date — and that crisp clarity made all the difference.
      The standard rock setup of Doc Aquatic (J.C. Hayes on vocals and Guitar, Adam Grogan on guitar and piano, Charles Gately on bass and vocals and Zack Hayes on drums) can grow muddy when the band launches into its trademark, psychedelic-tinged instrumental breaks. It’s that effect that gets labeled “jam.” But on the Grey Eagle stage, with each instrument differentiated, Doc Aquatic’s nuances came to light.

“Headin’ West” was a tightly-crafted work of doubled vocals and turn-on-dime tempo changes, underscored throughout by a sense of space and light reminiscent of California country rock.

Not that anyone could call Doc Aquatic a country-rock act. Its ‘60s and ‘70s nods are more Cream than Flying Burrito Brothers. “Rattle Snake Shake” combined soul rhythms with J.C.‘s trippy lyrics: “Stars hover down sharp, stung my eyes. They are electric eels in summertime.”

“Go Ghost” took an appropriately darker turn, turning up the intensity, the melody reminiscent of the clang and grind of Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Gately’s bass line was prominent in the song and yet he kept his playing simple and tasteful, only adding exactly what was needed.

The bass was equally strong on “Sea of Trees,” a new song slated for the band’s summer release. High, shimmering guitar parts toe the line between structure and abandon, a kind of orchestrated psychedelia — which pretty much sums up the band’s sound.

Frontman J.C. was a pleasure to watch because, on stage, he conveyed such a sense of audacious fun. If his glasses and shawl-collar sweater seem out of character for a rocker, his loose-limbed movements and experimental guitar parts were fully realized. “Run,” another new song, showed J.C. in full form. The melody was languid and layered, the song’s formula a combination of a simple lyric (highlighted by J.C.‘s apt falsetto) leading into the extended barely controlled chaos of instrumentals. But even as J.C. threw himself into an unabashed dance, the music was never less than taut.

“Lost at Sea,” another new offering, was even more of a juxtaposition of volatile emotion and controlled burn, with Zack’s three-quarter sway on percussion and J.C. singing the anguished refrain, “I kill my only love, with the poisons of the man I’ve become.”

The band’s final number, “Summertime,” was lush and aptly summery with a kick drum opening and washes of descending guitar scales as the band clustered around Zack. From there, the music opened into something primordial and jangly, sprawling into to Steve Miller/“Wild Mountain Honey”-esque psychedelia as J.C. hit the verse, “Yes, I believe in summertime, even though it’s snowed for days.” Gately played the bass with one hand and hit a drum with his other, the song’s tightly coiled tension swept over the audience in a perfectly timed apex. The end of the set came all too soon.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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