"Just because the audience isn't dancing doesn't mean they don't like the show," says singer/songwriter/guitarist Jeff Markham. The musician admits that he, himself isn't "much of a dancer, but I'll get up and do the robot from time to time."
Chances are, not many people are doing the robot while listening to Markham's band, The Last Call. They are dancing, though. The group's energetic (sometimes bombastic) folk rock offers up plenty of fodder for rug cutting and booty shaking; the upbeat lyrics add to the celebratory air.
Markham is quick to point out that the Last Call isn't about "happy music" in the strictest sense. Instead, "It's truthful. We're true to ourselves." But try watching the band's video for "Baby It's Gone," shot on the LaZoom tour bus earlier this year, and not crack a grin. The song's slow-core intro gives way to a raucous snare and banjo-fueled melee. Bus riders dance in the aisles, pedestrians on the street look on with bemused jealousy, and the band itself looks about to burst with sheer exhilaration.
"We wanted to do a video like a house party. We wanted it to be really chaotic," Markham recalls. "I saw the LaZoom bus drive by and I thought, 'That's it!'"
Bassist John Hamrick describes the video experience (recorded by John Robinson of the URTV show Pleasure Saucer) as "a four-hour party with no expectations."
There is a parallel between that video and another, more famous YouTube clip: The Avett Brothers' live from the tour bus "Will You Return." The slow start, the pulse-racing creshedo, the acoustic instruments. But — and feel free to disagree — the Last Call's bus trip is more immediately accessible, more engaging, more hooky, more happy.
Markham's musical journey hasn't always been so Abderian. His earlier project, the excellent indie-rock outfit Kerouac or the Radio, produced much darker and heavier elements of T-Rex, The Cure and Nirvana songs.
Last Call drummer Jonny Darko was also in Kerouac or the Radio. "In the past we had lots of problems in our lives and we'd play this dark, depressing music," he half-jokes. After a couple years' break from Kerouac or the Radio, Markham and Darko started hanging out and talking music again. Both had gone through a change in tastes: For Markham it was a return to the country music he'd grown up with, and a discovery of Asheville's old-time community.
"I was at Jack of the Wood one night and I saw the old-time jam," he says. "I was like, 'I want to do something like that, because these guys are great.'"
For Darko, the switch from complex, electrified rock to pared-down acoustic folk wasn't necessarily an easy one. "I have a wide variety of music I listen to, from metal to country," he says. "What was difficult was that I had to relearn to play for a simple song."
He adds, "This stuff is like playing naked."
But once Markham and Darko decided to start a band, all the pieces (and players) fell into place. In a period of six months they'd recruited Hamrick, guitarist/banjo player Justin Lee and recent Philadelphia transplant/vocalist Valerie Phillips (who played with Lee in another band, The Curious Crandalls). The group recorded an EP, The Best of Times, and went on tour. And, though still new to the local music scene, the Last Call has plenty of big plans for the future. More touring, festival dates, hopefully a slot at South By Southwest and a full-length album due out next spring.
"People do like to have something to hold in their hands," says Markham. He'd like to record on vinyl in the future (in fact, he muses about the possibility of revisiting the cassette tape) but for the time being the Last Call just wants to get songs to its growing fan base.
"You'll hear rock, you'll hear folk, you'll hear bluegrass," the songwriter says of the band's sound.
Adds Darko, "Individual people have their favorite songs, but there's not just one." Which gets them back to the idea of dancing: As long as listeners are, well, listening, the Last Call seems happy. The fact that their audience often ends up getting down right in front of the stage (robot or not) is a bonus.
For that matter, the Last Call plans to get down, too. "People can expect screaming yelling, and I'll break every string I possibly can," Markham promises. "And somebody's probably going to fall off the stage."
who: Jeff Markham & The Last Call
what: Driving, upbeat folk rock
where: Mo Daddy's
when: Thursday, Dec. 17 (9 p.m. Free. myspace.com/jeffmarkhamandthelastcall or myspace.com/modaddysbar)