There’s something so buoyant and blithe about local indie/psychedelic band Doc Aquatic that it’s pretty near impossible to watch them on stage and not smile. The band started off its Grey Eagle set, opening for The Baker Family Band, with lots of bounce and energy.
In fact, the crowd for the opener was sizable — actually a little larger than the group that hung around for Austin, Texas-by-way-of-Asheville group The Bakers. It was a testament to the following Doc Aquatic has built since relocating to Asheville from Boone in 2009, and the audience was rewarded for its devotion. Doc Aquatic’s sound, on the Grey Eagle stage, with sound engineering by Mars Fariss, was the best this reviewer has heard to date — and that crisp, clarity made all the difference. The standard rock setup of Doc Aquatic (J.C. Hayes on vocals and Guitar, Adam Grogan on guitar and piano, Charles Gately on bass and vocals and Zack Hayes on drums) can grow muddy when the band launches into its trademark, psychedelic-tinged instrumental breaks. It’s that effect that gets labeled “jam.” But on the Grey Eagle stage, with each instrument differentiated, Doc Aquatic’s nuances come to light.
“Headin’ West” is a tightly-crafted work of doubled vocals and turn-on-dime tempo changes, underscored throughout by a sense of space and light reminiscent of California country rock.
Not that anyone could call Doc Aquatic a country rock act. It’s ‘60s and ‘70s nods are more Cream than Flying Burrito Brothers. “Rattle Snake Shake” combines soul rhythms with J.C.‘s trippy lyrics: “Stars hover down sharp, stung my eyes. They are electric eels in summertime.”
“Go Ghost” takes an appropriately darker turn, turning up the intensity, the melody reminiscent of the clang and grind of Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Charles’ bass line is prominent in the song and yet he keeps his playing simple and tasteful, only adding exactly what’s needed.
The bass is equally strong on “Sea of Trees,” a new song slated for the band’s summer release. High, shimmering guitar parts toe the line between structure and abandon, a kind of orchestrated psychedelia — which pretty much sums up the band’s sound.
Front man J.C. is a pleasure to watch because, on stage, he conveys such a sense of audacious fun. If his glasses and shawl collar sweater seem out of character for a rocker, his loose-limbed movements and experimental guitar parts are fully realized. “Run,” another new song, shows J.C. in full form. The melody is languid and layered, the song’s formula a combination of a simple lyric (highlighted by J.C.‘s apt falsetto) leading into the extended barely-controlled chaos of instrumentals. But even as J.C. throws himself into an unabashed dance, the music is never less than taut.
“Lost at Sea,” another new offering, is even more of a juxtaposition of volatile emotion and controlled burn, with Zack’s three-quarter sway on percussion and J.C. singing the anguished refrain, “I kill my only love, with the poisons of the man I’ve become.”
The band’s final number, “Summertime,” is lush and aptly summery with a kick drum opening and washes of descending guitar scales as the band clustered around Zack. From their, the music opened into something primordial and jangly, sprawling into to Steve Miller/“Wild Mountain Honey”-esque psychedelia as J.C. hit the verse, “Yes, I believe in summer time, even though it’s snowed for days.” Charles plays the bass with one hand and hits a drum with his other, the song’s tightly-coiled tension builds and crescendos swept over the audience in a perfectly-timed apex. The end of the set came all too soon.