“Out of all the bands we’ve heard in Asheville in the last eight months, we’d rate them in the top three, absolutely,” declares a Texas transplant, from the depths of one of the high-backed wooden booths hugging the walls of Biltmore Avenue’s Hannah Flanagan’s Pub.
It’s almost 11 p.m. on a Friday night, and the place is packed to the limit.
Like many of her fellow bar-goers, this dark-haired, 30-something commentator has come downtown solely to savor the sounds of the Laura Blackley Band, one of this area’s newest groups — fast becoming a well-deserved favorite.
Considering the bunches of requests for Blackley originals throughout the evening, it’s surprising to learn that the band has actually existed for only eight months. The group began to take shape last September, when Blackley — an acoustic guitarist and singer/songwriter for more than 10 years now — approached drummer Julie Couch, a 22-year veteran percussionist from Florida, about a new musical endeavor. The two then added bassist Tony Harp, jack-of-all-strings Larry Cole (who contributes guitar, mandolin and dobro), and backup vocalist Liz Morrison, and the resulting dynamic collaboration has fired up local crowds at Be Here Now, Cafe Raven Moon, The Grey Eagle Tavern and Music Hall, and The Basement, among other venues.
“I’m really amazed at how it’s all come together,” effuses Blackley, a Virginia native who moved to Asheville three years ago. “I played these songs acoustic for years. Adding all these [new] elements — drums, bass — it was like hearing [the songs] again for the first time. It breathed new life into them.”
Wearing a white tank top, green pullover and jeans, the band’s namesake and frontwoman projects a casual and unassuming stage presence. Then comes that soulful voice, pouring out an appealing set of originals that includes the lonesome “Train Whistle Blues” and the oft-requested “Best of Me.” Interestingly, more melancholy tunes, such as “Woman Breaking Down,” inspire as many whoops and hollers as more energetic offerings, like the angry and passionate “When a Woman’s Got the Blues,” which has people off their chairs and on their feet.
“[A lot of] Laura’s stuff is upbeat. People can get up and dance to it. That’s unique for original music,” puts in Morrison (thinking, perhaps, of the more-predictably mellow strains of so many singer/songwriters).
“I like that they play their own material. I’m tired of hearing the same old thing [around town],” concurs one bar-stooled devotee, who’s attended nearly every show to date.
Blackley’s vibe has been compared to that of such disparate divas as Natalie Merchant, Melissa Etheridge and Sarah McLachlan. And the band’s overall sound remains tough to pigeonhole:
“It’s not folk, it’s not rock — it’s a nice in-between mixture,” muses another fan.
Blackley names the Allman Brothers, the Beatles, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan among her influences, but is quick to note: “[That’s] a tough question, because it changes from day to day.”
Devoted fans and newcomers alike will have a chance to enjoy the group’s homegrown sounds at their leisure come July, when a six-song debut EP is scheduled for release. Featuring titles like “Daddy’s Little Angel,” “Sidesteppe” and “Rockabilly Blues,” the compilation is billed by Blackley as rock ‘n’ roll-inspired songs with a strong nod to the blues. (Several of the tracks may also appear on a 12-song disc, which the band hopes to record this fall.)
But like the trio of young men hunkered inside a booth near the front of the club that night, many fans may have their own reasons for hoping the band’s upcoming recording projects won’t totally replace its frequent in-the-flesh performances.
“[I came to see] the drummer,” confessed the trio’s baseball-capped spokesperson, observing, “She shreds.”
Motioning to his companions, he added, “And they’re in love with Laura Blackley.”