The Constellation Room (at the Observatory)
It was Labor Day, and the Pawnshop Kings began their month-long residency by keeping it simple. No drums. No bass. No slide guitar. It was just the two brothers -- Scott and Joel Owen -- with an acoustic guitar, a tambourine and a sweet Gibson hollow body. Each new Monday, the Owen brothers plan to add a new instrument, culminating in an epic final performance with a full band -- a sort of build-a-band crescendo. And with each new show, they'll will bring a new cause to promote. This week, they promoted World Vision and child homelessness. Beware: if you're a hipster or are just overly cynical and freaked out by goodness, cause bumping, and stories about grandma, then this show just isn't for you.
At the Constellation Room of the Observatory, the crowd was somewhat small but understandably so for a Monday after a long weekend. At first, the show seemed like a middle-school dance; the crowds hung to the walls and looked awkwardly at each other for someone to make the first move. It stayed this way through the first two acts, but once the Pawnshop Kings came to the stage with their tight harmonies, the crowd motioned somewhat towards the stage.
The Pawnshop Kings are a blend of rock, pop, country, folk and gospel, and their musical style is emblematic of their cultural and geographical history. While they were born and raised in SoCal, their family in Arkansas also impacted their music and lives. The Owen's grandfather worked on a plantation in Arkansas, and they spent time with family on both sides of the Mississippi River. And everything about them was impacted by this place. At one point, Scott Owen said, "We're nothing if we're not honest." You can hear the south in their harmonies and their viewpoints. You can hear country in Scott Owen's lead guitar riffs. And you can hear the gospel, pouring out of their lyrics. And while Joel Owen wouldn't want anyone to consider the Pawnshop Kings' music religious, because Joel finds the word religion to have many different connotations depending on an individual's use, their music is heavenly influenced by the spirit they found in churches in the south. Some of their songs have lyrics like "I want to love like Jesus" and "Hear the people singing to their god."
For some, references to religion might make people uncomfortable. But there are far many more aspects to notice about the Pawnshop Kings' music. Joel and Scott Owen, together, harmonize their voices so seamlessly, you would think that there was one person up there, except he had learned to throat sing like Tibetan monks. Plus, Scott Owen's voice is reminiscent of a singer like James Morrison or Paolo Nutini--strong, powerful, and able to take large leaps in range but always in control. While sometimes their harmonies rubbed the wrong way and the acoustic guitar cut out for a second, the sound was excellent and filled the small room with warmth and vitality.
Listening to the Pawnshop Kings, it's difficult to feel depressed. Their blend of blue-eyed soul seeps into your skin, even if you don't want it too. They're up there, stomping on the stage, banging on their guitars, running off into vocal runs filled with so much passion you just feel that it's necessary to scream out, "Hallelujah." But the voice in your head that reminds you to be cool stops you. The brothers, truly, are talented musicians. Joel Owen plays the rhythm guitar, and his chords are pretty straightforward. He does a great job of creating large dynamics in sound. But what is most impressive is Scott Owen's lead guitar work. In a song like, "She Sings," you can hear a style reminiscent of George Harrison. Scott's guitar work is extraordinary live--precise and turgid melodic sentences highlighting their vocal work.
In between songs, the Owen brothers had a lot of shtick. They told stories about how their song, "Child," was dedicated to their grandmother and what an influence she had on their lives and music. Scott Owen told a story about writing a song for his wife and the difficult journey of marriage. They even told stories about a competitive past full of sibling rivalry. A few girls in the front row kept "awwwing" at their stories, and somewhere between song 5 and 6, they'd fallen madly in love with the Pawnshop Kings. Overall, the show was enjoyable, and you should check them out on Mondays of this month. They're a band with Southern roots incubated by the California sunshine. Go hear Memphis, Arkansas, and Irvine in their songs.
Critical Bias: Songs referencing Jesus make me a bit uncomfortable.
The Crowd: Clean-cut girls and boys, hoping to be moved by some blue-eyed soul.
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Overheard: "They're like a group of earthy-gospel hippies."
Random Notebook Dump: Scott Owen has a sweet hat that makes him look like he jumped out of Dublin, Ireland where he worked as a cab driver.