Retro-rock groups are a dime a dozen, so when one breaks off from the pack, you take notice.
And for the past few years, J. Roddy Walston & the Business, who play The Grey Eagle on Friday, June 12, have been slowly emerging as the next great rock ‘n’ roll saviors. The band has been building a reputation on a ferocious live show that takes the heavy throttle of AC/DC and Led Zeppelin and filters it through gospel fervor and Jerry Lee Lewis-style keyboard antics. Walston actually insists on touring with a 300-pound piano in lieu of a keyboard. The group also has made a legitimate play at the dwindling arena of rock radio, with “Heavy Bells” and “Take It As It Comes” from 2013’s Essential Tremors. With those songs, the musicians briefly made their way onto the alternative charts.
But bassist/vocalist Logan Davis is reticent to put his finger on a particular reason for the band’s upward swing. “I don’t think it’s something too contrived. It’s not something we sit around and discuss,” he says. “We have this theory that people have forgotten how to dance to rock ‘n’ roll music. They think dancing has to be done to hip-hop or EDM or something, ya know? So for this last record, it was definitely like, ‘Let’s write rock songs that people can dance to.’”
Such attitudes are particularly evident on the second side of the album, when the group slows down to showcase a more direct affinity for the midtempo country and soul aspirations of The Band or midperiod Rolling Stones than they had previously evinced. Tracks like “Boys Never Can Tell” trots out a strum-along folk-rock figure that gradually builds up to ecstatic shouts. The closing number “Midnight Cry” sees Walston reaching for soul ballad glory completely free of DIY punk clothing for the first time.
“There was this thing early on where we were being called ‘the best bar band in America,’” says Davis. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think we’re more than that. We can get up on a big stage and take people through a fuller experience. That was definitely something we wanted to achieve with Essential Tremors.”
And in truth, the transition-record nature of the album is abundantly evident. It opens with “Heavy Bells,” a hard-rock number that has the band bursting at the seams, only to challenge that archetype to a greater or lesser extent through the rest of the record. While past records have always shown hints at such range, particularly in Walston’s cracked vocals and old-school piano ramblings, a balance between classic rock posture and roots- and power-pop range has never been more apparent in the band’s sound.
“That [self-titled second] record comes across as a very ’70s rock, in your face thing, and it was a period when the band was still playing small shows,” says Davis. “One of the ways to win people over is to just hit them hard with rock ‘n’ roll songs. But after a while touring on that and having that mentality, we realized, ‘We’re broader than this, we can do this.’ But also that you can play a slower song … with maybe a dance-y R&B vibe underneath, instead of slamming [the audience] with rock songs the whole time.”
The band hit the road hard after Essential Tremors, working the radio circuit and wowing big crowds at festivals like Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Coachella and Lollapalooza, but is currently taking on a light load of dates this summer as the musicians prepare to go into a recently built home studio this fall.
Davis is aware that the next album has some formidable expectations given the group’s buzz. “It always sort of feels this way — ‘All you have to do is go in and make a great record,’” he says. “Last time, I feel like we were saying the same thing — ‘All right, we’ve finally built up a live crowd, let’s make a really good record and maybe we’ll try and go after radio this time.'”
He adds, “Now we have all of these radio relationships, all we have to do is make another great record and we’re already in the door, essentially. They’ll be more willing from the get-go to back us, as long as it’s good. That’s always the pressure for a band, you’re only as good as your last record.”
WHO: J. Roddy Walson & the Business with Sleepwalkers
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Friday, June 12, 9 p.m. $15