Time Before the War and The SwearToGods

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I am sucking down my second Crown & Coke in the gloomy basement of some pizza joint over in the Old Fourth Ward, preparing to have my socks rocked off in mere minutes. But what could this humble space located deep in the bowels of an apocalyptically monikered pizzeria possibly have to offer on this Thursday night? A rollicking good time, as it turns out, with two emerging hometown heroes: Time Before The War and The SwearToGods.

The Music Room, a new-ish venue that adds some much-needed excitement to this strip of Edgewood Avenue, is conveniently located in the basement of Pizzeria Vesuvius. The Music Room occasionally hosts club nights and has started booking more and more shows, many of which showcase local talent and promising new bands. The space itself evokes the sort of den of iniquity that house of college kids might dream up and put together in their basement: exposed stone-and-mortar walls; a DIY stage made of plywood and two-by-fours tucked in one corner and a similarly constructed DJ booth across the room; a slightly incongruous (but no less entertaining) pingpong table, sans net; and a big badass bar right in the middle of it all (exactly where it belongs!). The kind of sleek, glossy bar you’d normally associate with a higher-end hangout belies quite reasonable drink prices, not to mention an attractive and witty bartender who’s completely devoid of attitude. Everything’s wrapped up in a nice, shiny package in that eternally sexy classic color scheme, black and red. This place is legit.

We kick off the evening with a Snooki-esque introduction from a random person at the bar, who, when prompted, introduces herself simply as “Nicole from Brooklyn.” (I like that…has a nice ring to it.) Then The SwearToGods take the stage–and by “take to the stage,” I mean that they merely step up onto a platform directly next to where they’re already milling about in full view. This Atlanta-based trio features The Backstage Beat’s very own Doug Wortel on guitar and vocals. Apparently (as we’ll soon find out), Doug also fulfils the dual role of charming court jester and heckling standup comic, much to the audience’s delight. Donned in cute matching newsie caps, he and bassist Kirk Famularo let their solid chemistry be their guide, while Andrew Liles on drums faithfully keeps the beat going on and on. This is twangy, unpretentious, bare-bones rock at its finest. I keep getting waves of Green Day with strong hints of what the Birthday Party might sound like if they got it together and played a proper song for once instead of making it their mission to simultaneously terrify and deafen their audience (don’t get me wrong–it hurts so good!).

I’m reasonably engaged and the old toe’s started tapping when all of a sudden the band tears into a cover of “Suspicious Minds.” This fist-pumping homage to Elvis comes off as caustic and uncouth as it does sincere and heartfelt. It’s like the Clash abandoning “London Calling” mid-song to pay tribute to an unexpected influence. The next song has us guessing again, taking off as a foot-stomper with a creeping bassline but quickly morphing into a disco-punky chorus that calls to mind a more rockin’ iteration of Gang of Four. I’m pulled even further into this magical web with an atmospheric dub-rocker, dominated by Famularo’s haunting meandering bass, leaving me wondering if ghosts of Bauhaus were in the haus.

The mid-tempo “Ratfink” with its freewheeling hi-hat proves to be a crowd favorite, verging on Mellencamp at times, and–hilariously–featuring a brief NKOTB interlude and a couple other head-nods to random hit-makers. “The Best of Us Went Rogue” is clearly the hit single and definitely a standout live. The brutally bashed-out chords, headbanging bridge, and cascading tomtoms seriously make me wanna kick s$#% over. (Take a second and go over to YouTube to watch the inventive and memorable video.)

But just when we think we know where this show is going, The SwearToGods surprise us yet again with their piece de resistance. We are ushered in to a mashup of covers with that familiar Bootsy Collins bass hook that utterly sums up the message of Deee-Lite’s hit — here, tonight, the groove really is in the heart (and how!). The band comes together in a sleazylicious funk eruption that’s giving me visions of a wasted Lady Miss Kier gyrating on a stripper pole to a Blues Explosion backing track played over terrible speakers. This aural smorgasbord takes us on a dancefloor odyssey that detours briefly into M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” before venturing into solid cheesy ‘70s funk-disco territory with the showcasing of that definitive Bee Gees snippit, the hook from “Stayin’ Alive.” Doug gives us a lecture about Mercury retrograde and Kurt Cobain’s death as he whips out a slide whistle and–hey, wait…when did I get ADD?!?

I’m reminded of how much a I love a band that keeps up with current events as an amusing tangent about Adam West’s new star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame segues nicely into a few bars of the “Batman” theme. A brief divergence into “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath has me chomping at the bit, but we’re back to “Groove Is in the Heart” with that damn slide whistle again. Then they redeem themselves at the end by throwing in a little Stooges (“Search and Destroy”) for good measure and yep, my fist is in the air, waving around my imaginary hatful of napalm.

Doug’s stage presence is phenomenal, and these guys’ twangy disco rock chops make Franz Ferdinand look like a bunch of unimaginative trust fund brats. I don’t know of any bands who could pull off a live mashup nearly as successfully as this one. It’s a fitting sendoff to this thoroughly entertaining band of exceptionally talented ruffians.

We are treated to a brief intermission, during which the usual activities occur (“Watch my purse,” [bathroom run], “Another round please!” [slurp slurp, glug! thunk!]), and before you can say Bob’s your uncle, it’s time to watch another band!

Time Before the War is another talented outfit from da ATL, comprised of animated frontman Chris Armistead on vocals, keys, and fun shakey percussion objects (tambourine, maracas, those little sand-filled egg thingies…but sadly, no castanets!); crouching blueskid/hidden rockstar Cory Atkinson on guitar; stoically sexy Jay Thompson on bass; and down-to-earth Zac Frommer on drums. Self-described (perhaps too humbly) as an “electric rock band playing music that we write ourselves,” Time Before The War is so much more than that. In a few words (and that’s hard for me), I’d describe them as bluesy backwoods garage rock.

Atkinson is clearly a student of blues guitar in the vein of Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and it’s clear that one of his idols is Jimi Hendrix (but really, whose idol isn’t he??). His sound, coupled with Armistead’s regular-guy charisma and the down-home plaid shirts that ¾ of the band are wearing, give the group a low-key folksy feel. It’s pretty obvious when these guys came of age, as their sound harkens back to all the best ‘90s rock bands, but without specifically referencing any of them overtly. Best of all is, their playing is tighter than a midget’s hatband, and they exude oodles of cool without really trying. Not that they’d probably care what you thought of them, anyway — they just wanna play music, OK?.

Time Before The War starts things off with a real rocker, “I Don’t Want You.” This song immediately kicks my ass, knocking me off the barstool and onto my feet. It should be the hit single (if it isn’t already). I feel like I’ve stumbled into a seedy roadhouse to find George Thorogood’s “Who Do You Love?” already a dozen beers in and starting a bloody bare-knuckled fistfight with The Stooges’ “1969,” while The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil” looks on, smirking like a bastard. I don’t think I ever want this aurual assault to end!

The first song is a tough act to follow, but these guys continue to impress with another standout called “Keepin’ On.” A swampy, twangy, bluesy intro and verse gets my head bobbing, and then a couple of Hendrix-esque guitar licks hook me for good. Then we’re treated to a fine singalong White Stripes-ish chorus — poppy and accessible, but still harsh and rough around the edges, like a grizzled bum decked out in his Sunday best. Frommer treats our ears to a veritable hi-hat tsunami throughout the song, as well as a fun drums-driven clap-along section sans instrumentation towards the end. There’s something vaguely country-fried about the entire effort that keeps this song grounded and genuine.

The subsequent midtempo retro-’90s rocker has folks up front on the verge of moshing, which prompts Armistead to dedicate the next song (“Carry Me Out”) to some front-row dancing fool named Logan. They launch into the song and….Ladies and gentlemen, we have another hit! The guitar still sounds as bluesy and twangy as ever, but the hard downstrokes on the verse take a cue from Wolfmother’s “Joker and the Thief” and have me bouncing on my heels. Something about Atkinson reminds me of Ron Asheton of The Stooges, if Asheton had used good manners instead of hard drugs. This song’s upfront ‘tude and singalong vibe call The White Stripes to mind again, and the exuberant tambourine-thwacking gives me definite waves of MC5. (I sense a Detroit theme here…)

After a follow-up tune that works the guitar into a scrambling, shrieking frenzy, things slow down a bit with “The Burden Is Mine,” a mellow bluesy groove a la “All Along the Watchtower.” This well-developed, balanced track is more melodic and measured than some of the others, with bold, unabashed bass and scads of thrilling Hendrixy guitar hooks that just leave me jonesing for more. A chorus in the vein of STP’s bluesier stuff gets ushered out by a lucid melodic bridge, and Armistead’s keys solo invokes a church organist who sold his soul to the devil in the name of rock n’ roll.

Time Before The War play two last songs, the first of which is clearly designed to get chicks. It offers a glimpse into the tenderness of an otherwise hardened rocker, capturing all the vulnerability of Nirvana Unplugged, only plugged back in again. “Bling Compulsion” finishes off the set, dishing up deliciously wanky pub rock you can really shake yr hair to. Funky guitar licks and pummelling drums are complemented with another heaping helping of kickass tambourine playing. Vocals come off a little morose at first but are soon vindicated with a spirited keys solo.

As Time Before The War thanks the crowd for being there and leaves the stage, a local hotshot producer in attendance can be overheard saying, “Both bands sorta rock pretty good.” High praise, indeed!

You’d never guess from watching them, but this show is actually among the first live performances for each of these two bands. Thrown together by some random stroke of luck (<ahem>), they actually pair extremely well, as though they were actually meant to be on the bill together in the first place. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful rock n’ roll friendship….

These guys are destined for greatness, I can just feel it. If you don’t believe me, just check out their killer FB pages:

http://www.facebook.com/timebeforethewar
http://www.facebook.com/thesweartogods

You can also catch Time Before The War in concert at the Red Light Cafe in Atlanta on April 27th.

Photo Credit: Rahul Bhagnari

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