Ambushes can be vastly underrated. Worthy waylays include surprise birthdays (sans the weak heart), a shot of whiskey in coffee and occasional opening-act rock bands.
I headed to the Grey Eagle on Saturday, July 5, to review local upstarts The If You Wannas, with supporting acts The Baker Family Band and The Royal Bangs. The festive vibe of the show came complete with projection screens emitting dysfunctional Japanese anime, black-and-white buffaloes and assorted psychedelic-fueled art.
The ensnarement came early, courtesy of the Royal Bangs, a band based out of Knoxville. The octopi-tasking quintet rode into town fresh off Bonnaroo and rave reviews from Rolling Stone (“Royal Bangs, our new favorite rockers …”) and Spin (“Though only one day in at Bonnaroo—rates as the best show I’ve yet to see”).
I ambled into the Royal Bangs’ set lacking familiarity with their sound. Running on sitcom time, the quintet delivered more punch in 30 minutes than a factory time clock. Lead bearded beast, Ryan Schaffer (percussion, guitar, synth etc.), summoned Stephen Malkmus vocals while hammering away on a lone percussive skin. Instrument-switching between members highlighted each number. Categorization seemed futile—punk leanings, New Wave synths, dance beats ala LCD Soundsystem and gut-kicking rock ‘n’ roll all found their way into the set. With so much expended energy, concern rose that all the members collapse from fatigue after the set.
The If You Wannas rose admirably to the challenge of following a musical tornado. Their set, pulled from their self-titled debut EP, chugged with locomotive intensity, leaving influential steam trails of The Cars, Gang Of Four, The Clash and any number of ska bands.
The resumé reads well: Ryan Cox (vocals, guitar) returned to Asheville to work at Moog Music after employment at Mixmaster, an Australian record label. Cox’s Aussie stint molded his musical direction and soon drew the attention of drummer Jason Baumann (The Trainwreks). Bassist Trevor Stoia (leader of Trevor Trio as well as a member of Ashes In Order with the Ahleuchatistas’ Shane Perlowin) joined soon thereafter. The quartet solidified in summer 2007 when Gavin Conner added his Moog Synth and guitar.
Rationed on genre inbreeding, the If You Wannas shed labels in favor of making the crowd guess the next time signature or genre. They also come complete with the segues and false endings to which numerous jam bands aspire. Fortunately, the group does it well by encapsulating all the madness into three-minute songs. At one point, the band managed to incorporate riffs from “Stray Cat Strut” and Kansas’ anthem “Carry On” into one tune. If someone told me beforehand I would enjoy a group that melded two songs on high-cheese alert, I’d have considered more meds.
“She’s So Mean,” the song highlight of the set, was characteristic of the band’s forays into label shredding, using hints of ska with an Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western twang. Equally entertaining was bassist Stoia, who bounced around the stage with little regard to bodily or equipment injury.
Despite their creative power, the If You Wannas sometimes suffer from venturing in too many directions, the songs sometimes evoking a soundtrack beset by ADD. The hooks are plentiful, but rarely catch for a song’s entirety. The quartet’s identity seems hidden as they search for a permanent muse—a common trait with groups just coming out of the crawling stages. Their shared enthusiasm and sheer love of music helps to eclipse these shortcomings, however.
If commitment remains, the If You Wannas should find that elusive epoxy that some bands obtain in creating a whole show. Hopefully, they’ll be the next group veiled in the shadows, ready to ambush an unsuspecting crowd.