"Running High" from the album My War Cry is Amor
If the mid-'90s saw people checking out the Columbia band scene as the ground-zero for breezy, strummy, Hootie-styled campus pop, folks aren't so quick to define things so comfortably these days. Fifteen years after Cracked Rear View's success, the rock underground of the S.C. mid-state looks healthily chaotic, with the club situation in constant flux, bands trying to establish various degrees of indie/punk/emo cred, and a few durable songwriters pursuing their own idiosyncratic paths.
One Columbia-based songsmith with an accidental "Carolina sound" worth noting is Josh Roberts, the main singer and fiery lead guitarist with the American-rock band the Hinges. Hearing the band on stage these days, it's not so easy to define the mix of styles. One can't sling a simple term over the funky blend of raucous blues-rock, honky-tonk, gospel, soul, and reggae. One might detect a bit of Stones circa 1973 here, or the Funky Meters there ... a touch of Crazy Horse or the Golden Palominos. Their rich style mixes elements of many.
"We have a natural connection to this place just like other musicians do in other places all over the world," says Roberts. "Danielle Howle once said that the Columbia 'sound' has no sound. Maybe that can be extrapolated for the whole state. There is a pretty free exchange of ideas going with all different types of groups in Columbia and Charleston and around, so that's cool."
Roberts, 32, was born and raised in the "red rose" city of Lancaster (in the Waxhaw region, just south of the N.C. border). In his early teens, he lived on Hilton Head Island before relocating to Irmo (near Columbia) during his high school years. He's been in the Columbia area ever since.
Roberts first started playing guitar when he was 15. "I wanted to be Jimmy Page and Neil Young, you know?" he laughs. "I listened to Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home over and over again when I was about 13 and 14, because it was like the transition period between going from acoustic to electric, and the first side is the long, acoustic stuff full of imagery, and the lyrics are just inscrutable, and you're just diggin' into it ... then the other side is just raunchy blues songs and rockin' stuff. That particular record made me say, 'Man, I wanna do that.' I became a total blues freak right after that, too."
In high school, Roberts joined a few garage bands, learned a pile of classic rock and blues standards, and gradually gained confidence on his six-string and on the mic. He played alongside Ryan Monroe (currently of Band of Horses) in a band called Captain Easy during those years.
"I wish I still know now what I used to know about the blues in high school," Roberts laughs.
Currently, the Hinges feature Leslie Branham (guitar, banjo, vocals), Robert Walker (guitar), Corey Stephens (bass, vocals), and newly-enlisted drummer Jon Joiner. The band spent most of 2008 traipsing around the region in support of the band's second studio album, My War Cry Is Amor. Produced by Alan Moon, and recorded mostly at Tom and Julie Hall's 1860 plantation house, the twang and yarl on My War Cry Is Amor animates a sense of mid-state ruralness. On stage, however, the quintet roars and sways dynamically — from massive power-chord anthems, punkish country rockers, to swing-beat love ditties. Robert's expressive guitar work bounces across all of it.
"I think it's fun to take a bunch of musicians from completely different backgrounds and have them play the same songs," says Roberts. "Corey is really a gospel player — on organ, bass, drums. Robert is a punk rock guy, and he loves the trashiest, dirtiest punk rock, old reggae and ska, and old stuff from the '60s. Then we have Jon, who's a jazz-trained player who's well versed in different styles and knows Latin beats and stuff. Then, there's Leslie and me. We're song people [laughs]. I always wanted to be like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Mahavishnu Orchestra all in the same band. There's plenty of room. I love what I consider to be real improvisation — the kind where you jump off the cliff and hope that the parachute opens up.
"I've been singing harmony for years and years with Ryan Monroe," he adds. "I need people around, like Leslie and Corey, who can do that. They can just pop off a great harmony at any time with no problem. They deserve a lot of credit for that."
The balance of melody and groove — and of song craft and improvisation — isn't a new act in rock 'n' roll. Vintage rock groups like the Who, Zeppelin, and Hendrix could improvise within even their heaviest moments on stage — jamming more freely, expressively, and chaotically than most of the wanky acts on the current jam band circuit.
"We're communicating instrumentally with each other," Roberts says of his current team. "We have good listeners in the band, and that's the key to real improvisation. We certainly speak the same language. It's funny that Zeppelin and Zappa and bands like that aren't considered jam bands when they jam way more than most jam bands do ... or way better, anyway. You can't write a whole new set of new songs every night, so improvising keeps things interesting and exciting — especially when you get in the habit."