"I guess we are kind of an alt.-country type of band," admits I See Hawks in L.A. singer Robert Rex Waller Jr., cozying up to a label that by now means whatever you want. When he says it, though, you can almost hear FaithlessStreet-eraRyan Adams sing " . . . so I started this here country band," yodeling a bit.
Hawks is that kind of band: high, lonesome vocals (they're also a bit guttural and twangy) and sparse, spare, slightly psychedelic guitars. It's a sound that stands out and more than stands up to Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich, Toby Keith, and whoever else Nashville's pitching this week. I See Hawks in L.A.—who play Wednesday at the Blue Cafe with the not-unsimilar Randy Weeks—push all the right buttons: name-checking Merle Haggard, and sounding like a mess of Whiskeytown, Gram Parsons and Uncle Tupelo, with maybe a little Wiskey Biscuit thrown in to spark things up. All the regulars, but it's deeper than that.
"I think with a lot of the alt.-country bands, they're trying to revive something that's past. And we're not like that. We're not wearing the clothes. That's not something that we do or are interested in," Waller says. "Honoring the song and honoring stories. For me, that's always been the big thing that makes me remember songs."
And if there's one song you'll remember from their latest and second release, Grapevine,it's "Humboldt." From that one infamously potheaded place name, you already know what it's about, but they help you just enough: Waller bellerin' lyrics like "Forty pounds in the back of my van/It's all part of my master plan" and "I'd be glad to plant corn in the ground/But corn don't go for $3,000 a pound." This is the single, or it should be: played with a stone-faced wink that makes the joke. Thankfully, the rest of the album—amply bolstered with the steel guitar of ex-Bonedaddy Paul Lacques, bass by Rose Maddox sideman Paul Marshall, drums by Shawn Nourse, and fiddle from Brantley Kearns—sobers up.
Sadder, but just as filled with light and sound, tunes like "Grapevine" (about relationships and the freeway pass) and "Harvest" make this collection sound all mature, like a Son Volt record. Then up-tempo tracks like "Wonder Valley Fight Song" emerge, channeling the musicality and lyric wackiness of the Waco Brothers, making you hit the repeat button on your CD player so you can soak in its splendor endlessly.
"All our songs are increasingly stories—different characters in different stories, and that's one of 'em," Waller says of "Humboldt," which grew organically. Like his band, which started when a group of session players got together during a hike through the Mojave (they took the name from a remark someone made about hawks). "I think there's a long tradition of outsiders telling the most interesting stories—in American literature and music."
He's right; it's just as long as his own tradition, of setting these stories to music.
I SEE HAWKS IN L.A. AND RANDY WEEKS AT THE BLUE CAFE, 210 THE PROMENADE, LONG BEACH, (562) 983-7111. WED., 8 P.M. $5. 21+.