Reason to Love Asheville No. 273:
It’s a drizzly, gray, mid-March day, the damp cold seeming to seep into the skin. And on the patio beneath The Laughing Seed awning, the magic taking place goes largely unnoticed by passersby navigating puddly Wall Street, their wet heads tucked against the weather.
Singer/songwriter Wayne Robbins is leading drummer Brian Landrum and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Whitworth — two-thirds of the original incarnation of Robbins’ backing band The Hellsayers — through a few originals.
Robbins’ uncannily enigmatic songs — built atop haunting, noire-like instrumentation and steeped in sundry traditions from folk to rock ‘n’ roll, old-time to sea shanty — seem to linger in the dewy air, bittersweet and lonesome like the day.
“Jesus,” Robbins sings in his high quiver of a voice, steam wisping from his lips, “I don’t want to be free anymore.”
This unamplified public band practice (minus keyboardist/bass player Tyler Ramsey) occasionally snags some scurrying pedestrian suddenly aware that something far cooler than just the weather is happening.
“The swordfish is knocking at my door,” Robbins sings, his shaggy head characteristically tilted, obscuring his face. “He wants my shell collection for sure.”
“Only in Asheville,” comments one transfixed pedestrian.
For right now, yes. The Hellsayers are this town’s hot little secret. And if you’re not yet in on it, then it’s time you sold some piece of your soul to these talented local devils.
“This man should be a star.”
That unqualified praise, direct from my beery notes about The Hellysayers’ acoustic show at Area 45 on March 26, hails from immediately after Robbins’ surreal Dylan-meets-Leonard Cohen swordfish saga, “Edith’s Dream.”
But future gigs and fewer drinks haven’t tempered that well-oiled contention. The Hellsayers create music of startling depth and mood, sonic paintings caked with sea salt and stray scraps of sky atop bold strokes of God and death and yearning. Not bad for a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Robbins’ songs work best when they give his mercurial singing — and Whitworth’s rich lap-steel and Dobro playing — ample room to move.
Whitworth, possibly the least-known musician of the bunch, is the original Hellsayers’ true ringer.
Although stellar sidemen Landrum (also the leader of fine alt-country group Black Eyed Dog) and Ramsey (who formerly fronted his own trio, and has since played with a who’s who of local musicians) bring the expected finesse and flourish to their parts, it’s the burly, wooly-bearded Whitworth who’s most responsible for the band’s complex tone. His lap steel, sometimes augmented with an e-bow, cradles and accentuates the palpable longing in Robbins’ heaven-seeking voice.
The group is currently in transition. Guitarist Jonas Cole recently joined, and Ramsey is bowing out indefinitely in a few weeks to tour with Fisher Meehan’s beefed-up Drug Money. Auditions for a permanent Hellsayers bass player are about to begin.
Ambitious vs. pretentious
Robbins comes across as a songwriter in battle with his own literary tendencies.
He will stress, on the one hand, how he struggles to make every line in a song count. Credit that to years of poetry writing, and to the fact that, when he listens to music, it’s usually to Dylan songs. Particularly Highway 61-era Bob.
And then Robbins will backpedal, thus:
During our recent interview in the Grey Eagle courtyard, with Landrum and Cole also present, the band’s drummer asserted: “Most writers just use throwaway lines.”
“Oh, I do [it], too,” Robbins declares.
One man’s trash, as they say. Consider this, from Robbins’ patently gorgeous “America Is a Church”:
“When I wait tables, I’m waiting for God.
When I pump gas, I do it for God,
That strange shadow when there is no sun
That comes into my room and tells me it’s mine.”
Not exactly “Oops! … I Did It Again,” is it?