The Wheel Workers Prepare to Shed the "Local Band" Tag

The Wheel Workers Prepare to Shed the "Local Band" Tag
Photos by Francisco Montes

The Wheel Workers, Criminal Birds, My Education, A Sundae Drive
Walters Downtown
May 28, 2016 “Are you guys all gonna get naked?” a woman in front of me shouted at opening band A Sundae Drive. “That’s the afterparty, Amanda,” bassist and singer Jennifer Gray-Garcia responded. This relaxed, conversational atmosphere carried throughout the evening as the Wheel Workers celebrated their tour kickoff Saturday at Walters Downtown. The summer tour, their first, will take their politically charged rock through New Orleans, Chicago, Milwaukee and a few Texas towns before returning them to Houston’s own Satellite Bar on July 8.

Wheel Workers keyboardist Erin Rodgers
Wheel Workers keyboardist Erin Rodgers

A Sundae Drive set the atmosphere for the night with their melodic noise-rock vibe. After encountering technical difficulties in an early-set instrument change, they made up for it quickly with a driving rhythmic tune that utilized two bass guitars as well as anything since Spinal Tap. In the audience, it was hard to keep from moving as the low end cruised along, and not just because we were being hit by huge, earth-moving waves of eighth notes. The rest of their set alternated between straightforward jams and atmospheric buildups to exhilarating climaxes, proving they have mastered the tension and release crucial to a good alternative rock band. Another alt-rock technique they’ve mastered is nontraditional guitar playing — their lead guitarist plucked behind the bridge of his Jazzmaster, kneeled and tweaked knobs at the altar of his effects pedals, and rode the whammy bar as if he were mad at it.

Next up was Criminal Birds, a psych-rock band from Denton. In front of a baseball-capped drummer, the rest of Criminal Birds is made up of three guys with nipple-length flowing locks, facial hair and Fender guitars. The blond one showed the audience the true power a completely ripping ten-second guitar solo has when leading into a huge chorus. The dark-brown-haired one played a Geddy Lee signature bass as half of an inspired rhythm section with the hatted drummer. Rush comparisons didn’t stop there, though — the light-brown-haired one’s vocals soared in a seemingly effortless way reminiscent of the Caress of Steel era. “[This is] a brand-new song,” he said a few songs into their set. After a moment, he took a goofy, self-deprecating tone and added, “Not that it matters, ’cause you haven’t heard any of ’em.”

My Education
My Education

When the Austin instrumental band My Education took the stage, the vibe of the night took a distinct turn into darker territory. These were serious musicians with notably high-quality equipment, and all in black T shirts except one. Maybe it’s just the colorful flower design on his Hawaiian shirt, or the cute little red cap, or the hip glasses, but this standout guitarist gave the impression of a kid jamming with Dad’s band. All this was forgotten once they started into their heavy drone vibes, conjuring apocalyptic scenarios in a fashion similar to other post-rock instrumental soundscapers like Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Explosions In the Sky. Lit only by a projector displaying flaming vortexes and the words “OH FUCK OH FUCK," the audience huddled to make it through the hellish night. A couple in front of me danced slow and close. Another couple nearby leaned on each other, as if to ride out the end of days together. Although every player showed remarkable technical skill, the viola player is what sets this band apart from other, similar groups. More than once I heard a sweet riff and looked around to see which guitar player it was, only to find myself entranced by the viola again.

The Wheel Workers Prepare to Shed the "Local Band" Tag

Once it came time for the headliner, the Wheel Workers were more than ready to show us why they are going on tour. Lead singer and songwriter Steven Higginbotham casually took the stage and started into a set full of songs from multiple albums that are too good to stay local. It’s clear they knew what they were doing when they broke into two upbeat, energetic singles from latest album Citizens, “Yodel” and “Burglar." Then, in true mixtape-pacing fashion, they slew it down. Continuing the conversational nature of the night, A Sundae Drive’s Jennifer Gray-Garcia shouted “Yes!!” when Past to Present cut “Want” was announced. Wheel Workers keyboardist and singer Erin Rodgers replied that it was one of her favorites, too. One of the best parts of going to local shows like this is seeing members of the community interact with each other in such a mutually and honestly positive way.

Now I’m not sure how, but at some point the words “butt plugs” were brought up. Thinking quickly, Wheel Workers synth/guitar player Craig Wilkins relegated those to the afterparty as well. I wasn’t invited to this afterparty, but if promises were kept, I’m sure it was a riot.

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