When Grammer School (sic) took the stage at The Orange Peel back in June — the last act of four finalists to compete for the title of WNC Magazine's Last Band Standing and winner of the opening slot at this year's Bele Chere — two things happened. One, they didn't win the competition. And two, they totally won over the crowd.
In fact, with an arsenal of bouncy indie-pop tunes, turn-on-dime tempo shifts and raucous energy, Grammer School seemed right at home on the Orange Peel stage. To see them a few weeks later on an over-sized Oriental carpet in the café room of Marshall's Good Stuff Grocery was nearly cause for a double-take. Still, the Asheville-based trio seemed just as comfortable against a backdrop of wine bottles and specialty olives, playing to a crowd of 10.
For those who caught the Orange Peel set, that performance only told half of Grammer School's story — the part where singer/keyboardist Justin "J.B." Bowles fronts the band. At Good Stuff, singer/guitarist Mike Clair demonstrated his contribution the group's sound: A louder, less-measured, more-emotive group of songs than the tightly composed pieces Bowles brings to the table.
On "Still Standing," a song the group debuted at Good Stuff, Clair explained, "It was written on Tuesday, June 22, the day before we played at the Orange Peel." He sang with his eyes closed, his vocals sometimes muddied in the sound mix, but his passion evident. The song followed a jazz/funk-informed trajectory, Grateful Dead meets Steely Dan.
Which is not to say that Grammer School is a jam band: Another offering began as a chaotic, punk-fueled screamo song (tempered by a classical-flavored keyboard melody) and melded into a rocked-out instrumental (with cowbell accents) that recalled Vince Guaraldi's Jazz Impressions Of A Boy Named Charlie Brown.
But, for the antics and experimentation of Clair, it's Bowles' songs that ultimately define the band. The keyboardist’s compositions rely on a build of tension that lead into interludes and movements. Crisp instrumentation, elastic beats and catchy lyrics tether the music into the pop realm while unusual subject matter (neighbors, "old folks dying in retirement communities") keeps it safely away from formula.
Influences seem varied and far-reaching — a hint of Paul and Linda McCartney, a touch of Elvis Costello, maybe even a nod to Dimitri Tiomkin. As wildly diverse as these elements are, Grammer School effectively chorales them into pithy, concise songs (thanks in part to the tasteful, spot-on percussion of drummer Bill Cooley). So, whether as rock show at the Orange Peel or as backdrop to shopping and socializing at cozy Good Stuff Grocery, Grammer School provides an apt soundtrack.
Yeah, they didn’t get to open Bele Chere this year. It’s a safe bet that bigger, better stages await.