LOCAL ACT ‌ Hometown Harmonies 

Flatt City boys have a good ol' time

click to enlarge All the young dudes ... pickin' & grinnin' (L to R): Chris Robinson, Stephen Schabel, Dave Okey, John Svenson, and Michael Bruner headline this weekend
  • All the young dudes ... pickin' & grinnin' (L to R): Chris Robinson, Stephen Schabel, Dave Okey, John Svenson, and Michael Bruner headline this weekend

Flatt City
Sat. Dec. 9
9 p.m.
West Ashley Bait & Tackle
1117 Magnolia Road

Often, the best parties are pickin' parties. Whether it's a bonfire or a living room, after the milling about and catching up, it's time for all capable hands to find an instrument and chuck, strum, or bang away.

The guys in James Island-based Flatt City agree. They've taken the drink-and-play impulse, polished it up, and put it on stage. They recently bought suits ("It feels good to play in a suit, as long as you're not sweating too bad," they say), adding an air of respectability only slightly contradicted by the multiple cans of PBR strewn about the stage at a typical show. Their fingers only seem to move faster as the night goes on, unfazed by the multiple whiskey shots folks seem to buy them at every performance.

"It takes a lot of practice," explains mandolin-player and unofficial spokesman Stephen Schabel. "But I heard the recordings sober, and there were still people clapping."

Schabel and bassist Dave Okey both came to Flatt City from the Homeboy Discount Band, stalwarts of the Charleston bluegrass scene since the '70s and "advertisingly the drinkingest band in bluegrass music." When that band finally split apart, the pair picked up John Svenson and Chris Robinson on guitar before meeting banjo player Michael Bruner, rounding out the quintet.

How these five players came together is a puzzle of mixed bands, gigs, and chance meetings. Okey and Svenson grew up together in Charlotte, playing together in a blues/punk/rock band in high school. Schabel was half of the acoustic duo Wheelhouse, who won City Paper's best album of the year award in 1998. He hooked up with Okey, who was living with Svenson and Robinson, and late night jam sessions soon commenced.

"They lived in a party house where we could go and pick until four in the morning and not have to worry about making anybody mad," says Schabel. "Except for that one guy who threw a log in the window."

Bruner was playing with the Frogmore String Band at the time, "doing a lot of kitchen picking," so the transition to the living room was only natural. It wasn't until fall of '05 that the band chose the name Flatt City (named for Lester Flatt and Charleston's lack of contour) and began booking gigs. By last spring they were packing the West Ashley Bait & Tackle for their rollicking Saturday night shows on the porch.

Judging by the quality of their songs and their synchronicity with each other, you'd think Flatt City played full-time, but it's really a just-for-fun, couple-nights-a-week hobby. Svenson's getting a PhD in molecular biology, Schabel is the education director at the International Center for Birds of Prey, Bruner is an award-winning glass artist, and Okey and Robinson both work at NOAA, as a web developer and an image analyst ("what the hell is an image analyst?"). Still, they're as polished as many full-time touring groups.

"When it's something you really like doing, you put your energy into it," says Bruner.

Once Svenson finishes school, he's promised the band he'll drop the doctor thing and start playing guitar full-time. Until then, they're putting together original songs like "Burrito Bandito" and "Sally's Bounce" for a studio album, hoping to play some regional festivals, and continuing to book regular gigs for their loyal local fan base.

"We're just having more fun as the night goes on," says Schabel.

Their return to the Bait & Tackle this Saturday should be no exception. Stomp your feet to the "high mountain sound on flat ground" and if you get inspired, buy them a round.


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