SXSW 2011: The Belle Brigade at the Chop Shop showcase
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It says something about the stickiness of the Belle Brigade‘s songs that they can not only endure but prevail during the onslaught of noise at South by Southwest this weekend. Case in point: I’m walking down 6th Street at midnight on Friday and dodging drunk fans, drunk musicians, drunk bratwurst eaters, drunk label reps, brass bands, funky street drummers, guitarists, dancers -- and drunks. The eardrums are working overtime trying to absorb all the chaotic soundwaves attacking them, the screams, the songs coming out of the clubs, the sirens, the beats thumping the low end. It’s a lot of sound. And yet drowning all that stuff out is a song by the Belle Brigade running through my head.
Four hours earlier the Los Angeles band had played music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas‘s Chop Shop party on the Maggie Mae’s rooftop, their third gig of the day, and the six-piece band had completely captured the imagination of the crowd, who were bouncing their heads to the young band formed by the brother/sister team of Ethan and Barbara Gruska. Their self-titled debut will be released by Warner Bros. on April 19.
The siblings, who are the great grandchildren of the late Raymond Scott Quintet drummer Johnny Williams (and, oh yeah, the grandchildren of Oscar-winning film composer John Williams) harmonize and play guitars out front while the band behind them offers an intricate foundation. They create music that sounds like a combination of the more upbeat songs of late-'70s Fleetwood Mac (specifically, the Lindsay Buckingham songs on ‘Tusk’), early ‘70s Flying Burrito Brothers and early 1960s Everly Brothers. Like both the Everlys and the Louvin Brothers, you can tell the Gruskas are related because their voices combine to create a single, textured harmonic tone.
They’re naturals, basically, with songs that are supernaturally tight and catchy; though not loud, the band’s performance at the Chop Shop show generated a half-dozen internal jukebox hits, especially the forthcoming record’s ‘Where Not to Look for Freedom.’ It rolls with a sunny California vibe, tight, logical and precise. And ‘Losers,’ a defiant song about ceasing to care about social hierarchies, had the crowd overjoyed. Songs go where you want them to go, sticking to the melodic road while twisting and turning within it. Though their music may not be the loudest, the most shocking or the most forward-thinking, the Belle Brigade’s songs’ power comes from the way that they can overtake a consciousness, float around inside the head and eclipse the chaos.
-- Randall Roberts
Top photo: Ethan and Barbara Gruska of the Belle Brigade perform at South by Southwest. Credit: Joey Maloney for The Times