It was only 7:20 p.m., and Cherokee Boulevard was already dark and sparsely populated. The few cars I passed seemed to hurry along toward either downtown or Frazier Avenue, ready for some dinner or other low evening shenanigans. Even this early, however, the darkness was already solid and was particularly anxious to crawl into every empty space it could find. As I drove, I was thinking of Boston-based Americana band The Ballroom Thieves and the concert that I was about to see.
As I made my way to Speed Deluxe on the corner of Chilhowie Street and Cherokee Boulevard, I thought about the acres of bands who meander through these same folk-rock, acoustic-centered waters, capable in their music but lacking any real spark or direction. There can be a tendency for bland harmonies and acoustic guitars to drown out any real sense of emotional evocation for those artists—thankfully, by the end of the evening, all these cynical thoughts completely disappeared.
Thanks to local music scene supporter Kristy Graves and her dedication to furthering the scope of her Chattanooga House Shows initiative, the city has seen some truly gifted musicians come through town that we’d ordinarily not be able to see. The Ballroom Thieves were actually the first band to make an appearance for Chattanooga House Shows, and now, they were back for another round.
As I walked into Speed Deluxe around 7:25 (what I thought to be a fairly early time), the place was already bustling with activity; people were talking in groups, partaking of food from a communal table of potluck offerings, drinking from a wide assortment of craft beer growlers and imbibing various-sized cans of alcohol. There were some truly impressive beer cans on display. There was a cheerful mood to the room, with Christmas lights strung up and other points of bulbed illumination acting as substitute candles where open flames would have been an impracticality.
As the minutes ticked by, more people arrived and began laying out pillows and blankets they had brought. We were all encouraged to doff our shoes and find our roosts among the ocean of covers and rapidly filling spaces on the floor in front of the stage, which was just a corner of the room draped in acoustic and electric guitars, a small set of drums and a stately cello. The strung lights and impressive motorcycle (it could have been vintage; I’m no expert) on display in the window behind the instruments added a curious but oddly nostalgic element to the proceedings, which wound up fitting perfectly with the show we were about to witness.
After some introduction, the band took the stage around 8:20 to a flurry of cheers and applause, taking up their respective positions and greeting this horde of admirers with smiles and thoughtful acknowledgment. The low rumble of numerous conversations came to an abrupt halt, and the music started. Possessed of a folk-rock temerity, they easily settled into their roles and immediately drew us all into their rustic world of golden harmonies, stomping barnburners and gospel-esque arrangements. The fears that they would simply settle for playing to the banal Americana expectations that so many other bands do quickly faded from my thoughts, and I just embraced the folk-tempered experience.
Over the course of the evening, they veered between solemn, hymnlike ruminations and barreling electric shakers, with each song evincing separate and memorable personalities. Built around the dynamic interplay of guitarist Martin Earley, cellist-bassist Calin Peters and drummer Devin Mauch, the band bounded through the set with an unbridled joy and excess of spirit. With each member taking their turn to sing and occupy the low spotlight, we were treated to a collection of songs that felt connected by personal history and born from their innate musical camaraderie. Under the expansive umbrella of Americana, they brought together bits of indie rock, country, pop and classical music to create a gorgeous rhythmic perspective.
As an added bonus, they threw in a cover of “Backwards Walk” by Frightened Rabbit (a personal favorite of mine) and lent it their own specific aesthetic. But this was an evening less defined by individual moments—although there were plenty to obsess over—and more by the overall feeling of inclusivity and welcome emotional associations. Whether they were roaring through a clomping country-rock momentum or parsing back the noise and delivering an intimate look at certain memories, the band never released the mesmeric hold that they had over the room.
After the main set, they returned for a couple of songs and wowed us all over again. The first song of the encore was an emotional and stripped-down track that seemed to live in the walls of the room, echoing through our bodies and down into the floor. The last track was a gloriously ramped-up folk-rocker that provided a perfect lasting reverberation to ward off the cold outside, which was where we were soon to be heading. The last few notes died away as the room erupted in extended bouts of whistling and clapping.
People then made their way to the merch table, where Mauch was talking with fans while selling shirts, CDs and vinyl copies of their music. Earley was wrapping up cables and starting the process of packing up his guitars. And Peters was already being swamped with people wanting pictures and a few words. I made the rounds to thank them all and then walked outside. The air was cold, but I didn’t really notice. I still had the music of The Ballroom Thieves to keep the chill away.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 9:17 a.m. on 11/13/17 to correct typographical errors.