As you watch David Johnson, the vocalist and piano player in the band, come to the stage, you immediately notice something. It wasn’t his hat, reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughn, or the distinctive facial hair, it was the fact that he changed out his microphone. This not to say that The Earl has bad equipment, but that notion that something so subtle could improve the show lets you know about the band’s attention to detail and love of their music. Standing at the back of The Earl, at the counter near the sound guy, you could feel the force of this passion and could not help but love every minute of it.
I choose my words here carefully, because I know that some people really hate jam bands. There is an image that is brought up, possibly best by South Park (which was parodying Phish): a group of musicians playing near random mellow music in an impenetrable fog of pot smoke. However, this is not fair. There are effectively two styles of making music, jamming and writing. As Jake Brimley, the bassist explained it, “We play music. If we can remember it the next day, we will try it again.” There is no “song writing,” to speak of, as Dallin Smith, the guitarist, puts it, to contrast with the music of pop. “We want people to come see us. So we give out our music online and sell it cheaply at venues.” They let their music come from their playing. This translates their gritty blues sound from their album to a garage style of jam band; right on the ragged cusp of musical chaos, tethered only by musical experience of knowing that the other band mates will back you.
It is this knowledge of their music and their love of playing that drives this music. This is coupled with the environment where they honed this art. Smith, and Troy Coughlin, the drummer and manager, tried to put me in this mindset. Coming out of Salt Lake City, there is a very complicated countercultural scene. There is a fundamental sense of community based around the scene they have created. As Smith put it, they have created a musical environment. People come and the vibe is cohesive. It is in this place that they learned their craft.
As Coughlin puts it, Salt Lake City is complicated place. On one hand, if you get a venue, you can sell it out; even 500 seat shows are doable (though being City Magazine’s band of the year can’t hurt). There is such a rare and new underground scene in Salt Lake City; you can grow with the scene. When you are a popular local band in a town where there is only a burgeoning counter cultural scene, you could while away in the city forever. There are some Atlanta bands that have done just that; like a watered down cover band at some outdoor Fourth of July event where the crowds don’t listen. Coughlin made it clear, they work part time to live, from Smith working with autistic adults, to Coughlin at a skate shop, and Johnson at a law firm; they do so to reinvest in the band all they money they earn in shows. To grow who they are, they took that money to travel the country. This is the notion you get from this band.
This is who Max Pain and the Groovies are. They wanted to spread their music across the country. As Smith put it, while reenacting the Ruby Tombs song “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” with his meal tickets, “we come from a place that has a 3.2% alcohol rule to drive across the country and play our music.”
As the concert unfolded, it is not just the Unidyne-style microphone to create the feeling of a formal show; there is an overwhelming sense of the music. These are not songs they are playing; it is the constant evolving of an idea and they are using the best tools available to them. They could be playing at their duplex with an enduring sense of their community, but they left the comfort of that to tour the country on their own dime. As the music plays, you can feel that passion; they just hope you will come along for the ride.