Remembrance of bands past

North Carolina's Whiskeytown meshes the best of '60s Brit rock with '80s post-punk

Ryan Adams at 23 is Paul Westerberg at 23: equally mischievous and irreverent, literate and cynical. Mascara blotting a flannel shirt, unkempt hair ratted from an overnight (and into the afternoon) couch. A gifted singer with a weary voice scorched by whiskey and cigarettes. And since Adams formed Whiskeytown in 1994, his band’s live performances have been likened to those of the Replacements, vintage 1985. You never knew which Whiskeytown would show up. One night its unrehearsed spontaneity and double-barrel guitar barrage could make your hair stand on end. The next the band could spontaneously combust in a pool of broken bottles. But as with the Replacements, you always took a chance on Whiskeytown because of its leader.


Showbox, Friday, February 13

Like the old Westerberg, Adams writes about alienation and loneliness, empty bottles and broken love affairs, with a knack for a sharp turn of phrase, a hummable riff, and an irresistible chorus. Pop nuggets, country shuffles, and soul keepers, all evoking the lonely guy looking to shake his past.

Adams has successfully shaken his immediate past, and there’s a new Whiskeytown headed this way. Since its appearance in Seattle last September, the Raleigh, North Carolina, six-piece has reloaded like an NFL team in the off-season. Gone are original guitarist Phil Wandscher and the entire rhythm section, booted in midtour last November, leaving Adams and fiddle player/singer Caitlin Cary to carry on as a duo.

“There was a lot of tension for a long time with the old band,” says Adams, who has never tried to hide his dislike for Wandscher, and vice versa. “We just weren’t getting along. With the new band, we’re all very comfortable around each other. We just know what we’re gonna do, and chemistry is everything.”

Wandscher’s replacement is Ed Crawford (a.k.a. Ed fROMOHIO), former singer and guitarist for fIREHOSE. Original drummer Skillet Gilmore has returned, while Jenni Snyder, who also plays with Crawford in a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, trio called Grand National (with Superchunk drummer John Wurster), is on bass. Mike Daly, formerly with Amy Rigby, is new on lap steel guitar and keyboards.

“We’re not as radio-friendly, but go back to the roots of 1984 post-punk, American rock ‘n’ roll,” Adams said last week by telephone from College Station, Texas. “Ed’s guitar playing leaves me open for a lot more. We both play very much from Keith Richards’ school of rhythm guitar. I really missed playing with Skillet because I sound better with him. His drumming and my guitar playing go hand in hand. He plays very much like Charlie Watts.”

The Richards and Watts references are no coincidence, magnifying Adams’ continued infatuation with the loose, bluesy style of late ’60searly ’70s Rolling Stones records. He says he often gauged the strength of the band’s latest record, Strangers Almanac, by playing it back-to-back with Beggar’s Banquet.

“I’d like to make records that are more Stonesier, and I’m sure the next one will be a lot more rough,” Adams says. “Strangers Almanac was romantic, a strange, unbefitting record, but if I had made it yesterday it would sound like Beggar’s Banquet. We’re actually doing the Beggar’s Banquet version of that record on the road.”

Reports have the new Whiskeytown revealing added rock ‘n’ roll skills and on-stage spontaneity; a happier Adams again armed with a pocketful of bravado first acquired during his teenage punk-rock days as a member of the Patty Duke Syndrome. That band lasted, on and off, for five years before a 19-year-old Adams formed Whiskeytown.

When dB’s singer and co-founder Chris Stamey, a neighbor in nearby Chapel Hill, passed a copy of Whiskeytown’s first record, Faithless Street, to Outpost/Geffen honcho Mark Williams in 1996, the deal was done. The band recorded 36 songs in Nashville, though only 13 fit the theme Adams was seeking for Strangers Almanac. (Four outtakes were later released on the EP In Your Wildest Dreams.)

Filed strictly into the alternative-country bin, Whiskeytown stands unjustly accused. While it have obvious country leanings, that’s too narrow a label for a group whose leader lists Black Flag, Salem 66, the Embarrassment, the Clean, and Hsker D among his influences.

Like the Hskers, Adams is extremely prolific. Already in the can are contributions to upcoming tribute records to Big Star (“Give Me Another Chance”) and Tom T. Hall (“I Hope It Rains at My Funeral”), and the new incarnation has written and recorded 13 songs, though they’ve yet to perform them.

“I still write a lot of sad songs, a few angry songs, and some storytelling songs,” says Adams, who estimates that it will be at least April before his band begins recording its next album. “But right now, I’m just trying to finish up the Strangers Almanac tour to give people their dose of that record. Then I can move on.”

Unofficial Whiskeytown site, with sound clips

Whiskeytown page