It's shortly after 10pm on a Friday night, and there's a line growing outside the door of the Blue Dome Roadhouse, the room that wraps around (and behind) the diner on Second Street. No big surprise really, since this is Dfest, but the line is stalling out and the room is packed. Fortunately, I've got one of a limited number of all access staff passes, which, besides meaning I've got work to do and won't be able to stay for the entire set, also means no one will argue with me when I circumvent the line and slide in the back to see what's going on.
Inside, I'm not sure "packed" is the appropriate term. It's pretty much shoulder to shoulder; the bar is about to run out of beer and everyone's too entranced with the band that's thrashing about onstage to even consider leaving.
Of course, the people up front aren't too worried about the bar; in a gesture of gratitude, appreciation and plain ol' promotional moxie, the band is actually giving them beer--essentially welcoming their closest fans to the party.
On stage, the young lady holding their attention is a sight to behold--short skirt, striped tights and electric blue hair. She's flanked by two long-haired, tattooed guitarists who subconsciously weave between funk, metal and reggae without flinching with a thrashing, but rock-solid rhythm section behind her.
As tight as the band is, most of the audience can't keep their eyes off the cerulean-maned singer. Inspired by four decades of female rockers, she marries the mannerisms of Gwen Stefani (rocker-girl Gwen, not the current, pop diva version), new wave chic of Debbie Harry, and attitude of Wendy O. Williams, finished off with a touch of Pat Benatar's confidence and swagger.
And just in case that's not enough, she's eve got the chutzpah to pull out a trumpet and blare away in the middle of a rock concert.
When local rapper PDA appears on stage to take a special guest turn on "Hammer," it not only pushes the musical envelop a little further, it also puts the crowd over the top and the room feels like it's about to split open. Even if you aren't completely sold on the band's sound, it's easy to see why this is one of the most talked about local bands of the weekend.
So who is it? It's Congress of a Crow, and the band is not only living up to the hype and buzz, but delivering a show that will keep people talking the rest of the weekend.
The Chemistry of Rock
What a difference a year makes. Flash back to Dfest 2006, Mercury Lounge for what many consider Congress' coming out party (too, the venue was packed for a performance that grabbed the attention of otherwise uninitiated local music fans and industry people alike and even drew rumors of an impending development deal).
One year later, the band is king. No longer the new kids on the block, the band was out to stake its claim as one of Tulsa's premier rock acts and it did just that, filling the Blue Dome to capacity and leaving upwards of 100 people waiting outside, hoping to catch the show.
The band's original lineup, including vocalist Danelle Phillips and guitarists Adam Tichenor and Wil Sutherland, first convened nearly two and a half years ago, and, after four months of rehearsals, the group debuted with a performance at Boston's in August of 2005.
Since then, the band saw a revolving door of musicians shuffle in and out, going though three drummers and three bass players before finally settling into its current configuration, which includes drummer Nathan Lindley and bassist Todd Shaver.
With the final addition of Shaver nearly a year ago, all the pieces fell into place for the band as it found an identity all its own and hit a breakthrough point in its development.
Even so, there was a distinct chemistry between the core members from the very beginning.
"I remember the first time Danelle came to a rehearsal," said Tichenor.
"We had a different drummer and the bass player from Vastu. We played 'Time 2 Wake Up' (she sings the exact same lyrics now that she did then) and at that moment I was like 'OK, we're onto something here.' That was pretty cool."
That connection or bond within the group is reflected in the band's moniker. Taken from the Kama Sutra, Tichenor explained that "it symbolizes the perfect union, the perfect coming together in a spiritual and harmonious way."
"In my mind," said Tichenor, "being in a band is kind of like having sex, in a very platonic way, but you come together and give to each other, trading energy. In this case, we come together to make a unique sound."
It's a union that doesn't necessarily work on paper, but makes for an original and creative sound. Members from two disparate bands (Sutherland and Tichenor were previously in progressive rock act Vastu and Phillips departed from the celebrated pop machine known as Fridgebuzz) meet somewhere in the middle, then turn left. The resulting mixture is an intriguing blend of pop, progressive rock, funk and hard rock held together by otherwise unexpected reggae underpinnings that sounds like nothing else and no one else in the region.
Reflecting back on the band's debut appearance, Tichenor said, "I remember the first show we played at Boston's with maybe 40 people there. And all these people were sitting in their chairs going--"
"With their mouths hanging open," Phillips added.
"And they're going 'What the hell is this?'" Tichenor continued. "Is that the girl from Fridgebuzz? And, hey, wait a minute..."
"The weekend after that," Tichenor said, "somebody was like 'Man, I saw Fridgebuzz the other day, but they were totally different.' I thought 'Alright, well, that's bound to happen,' and then I was like, 'No. That's her new band--and I'm in it, actually.'"
Since that first performance, Congress of a Crow has become one of the strongest draws on the local original rock scene, turning heads and holding the attention of listeners all over Tulsa. With its dynamic performances and original sound, the band has gone on to win the respect of not only its fans, but also its peers.
Case in point is the testimony of drummer Nathan Lindley.
"I'll tell you, when I wasn't currently playing in a band and I knew these guys were a band, I never went out of my way to see a new band that I'd never heard before or wasn't friends with," Lindley said. "I deliberately went out of my way--like, way out of my way--to see them one night at The Venue (formerly at 18th and Boston). I think I'm a pretty good judge of music and it was some of the best stuff I've ever heard come out of here."
"Coincidentally, about a month later I heard they were looking for a drummer and I was like . . . " he continued, raising his hand. "I think I had one practice with the whole band before I played my first show and I've been playing with them ever since."
Now settled into a lineup that shares chemistry and nervous energy that Tichenor says is "perfect for what we're doing," the group has been able to focus on writing and preparing new material. Dating back to the band's start, the group has 17 or 18 original songs in its repertoire, allowing it to add in older material for longer headline shows or scale back to a hard hitting seven to eight song set for opening and showcase performances that leaves audiences gasping for breathe and begging for more.
Something You Can Feel
In continuing to refine that material and the band's songwriting skills even further, Congress entered the recording studio this past spring and is now ready to present its debut CD to devoted fans and Tulsans at large. True, the group did release a five-song EP in early 2006, but the band and music have both evolved over the last year and a half. That growth is especially evident on the new disc, Between Shadows and Sunrise, which casts the band in whole new light.
The songs themselves have been culled from all stages of the band's history, updating two songs from the original EP (Congress staples "Reason" and "Time 2 Wake Up") while adding four brand new cuts and utilizing four more taken from the group's transitional stages. Fortunately, they all come together to form a cohesive album that a band would be proud to release at any stage of its career, but is even more impressive as a formal debut.
While the album wasn't conceived or planned as a concept album, all of the members agree that everything is tied together by a common thread or theme that recurs throughout the songs. The irony is that theme may differ depending on whom in the band you ask about it.
According to Lindley, the album is about making choices and choosing a path, while Tichenor's take on it revolves largely around Phillips' lyrics and how circumstances, events and decisions shape who we are and what we become.
Phillips, addressing it from a more detached viewpoint, said, "It's really all just about states of being or states of mind, your ideals."
Once the conversation grew deeper with the band's siren and lyricist, however, she revealed a bit more than she has already exposed in the album's obviously personal lyrics.
"Where I come from in Wichita, it really was 'ignorance is bliss,'" Phillips said. "Before I moved here, I really didn't know a lot."
"People kind of taint your purity," she continued. "So that's kind of more the concept, I think. You almost resent the people who took your purity from you. And by the time you learn, it's too late. You're ruined."
While the band's music has always been dynamic and engaging, it's often Phillips' heartfelt and introspective lyrics that really connect with listeners on a personal and emotional level. Whether ranting about a former "sorry, sack of shit boyfriend" in "Ghost," brushing herself off and picking herself up in "Time 2 Wake Up" or searching for self worth and a fresh start in "World Gone Dry," Phillips cycles through the hurt, anger and redemption of the human psyche.
The quest to regain purity is most evident, however, in "Freedom," a standout track that might be otherwise overlooked if focusing on the more popular and recognized songs in the Congress catalogue. Lyrically, Phillips cries out, "I want to feel clean again, whole again, control again," eventually summing it all up in the chorus refrain "Freedom, freedom, let freedom ring/in our hearts and in our ears."
Those lyrics are powerful, but they gain even more clarity as Phillips steps up to the mic, delivering them with a strength and authority more akin to classic rock voices like Pat Benatar and Nancy Wilson than current emo and modern rock divas such as Flyleaf's Lacey Mosely or Evanescence leader Amy Lee.
By the time the disc closes with the cathartic couplet of "Shadows" and "Everthing is a Lie," it's easy to recognize that Between Shadows and Sunrise immediately stands out as one of the strongest local rock records of the year. In fact, it's not hard to imagine that the disc will likely outlive most major label and national releases in many fans' play lists.
Setting an Example
When asked if the band had any hopes for the record, Adam admits that his goal is to get a "Holy crap! There's actually somebody doing something serious in this town!" response from local rock fans. While quick to acknowledge that there are a number of other bands in Tulsa working hard and making a serious effort to build the local scene, Tichenor's aspiration is to raise the bar to a higher level for the expectations placed on Tulsa's original rock bands.
Whether by conscious effort or not, Congress has been doing that for the past two years. Not only has the band gradually been raising the standards for musicianship, songwriting and showmanship in the local music community, it has also become a prime example of how a band can connect with and relate to other bands, as well as its fans.
Phillips explained that, "We're doing what feels right because that's just what feels right, not because we've been told to."
More to the point, Tichenor said, "We've never set out to go 'That song's not commercial enough. We have to make it more commercial so that we'll be successful.' It's never been that. It's been more a matter of 'Well, there's a cutoff at how weird we can be.'"
"At the same time," he added, "we've never compromised artistic vision for success. It's been more 'This is what we like--do you like it?' If so, sweet."
The band admits that it doesn't really fit into any one particular genre or scene, but that seems to work to the group's advantage. Instead of getting cornered into any one particular niche, Congress takes advantage of opportunities to play with a variety of different bands, covering every genre from punk to metal to pop, reggae, rap, emo and hard rock.
So what's happened is the band has been an inspiring example of how local musicians of differing styles can work together to build the scene as a whole instead of protecting their niche and limiting their reach. The rewards of that openness to sharing the stage with a variety of bands and styles can be witnessed as Congress' following continues to grow, drawing fans from a variety of genres.
Outside of the musical bond, Congress also makes a specific effort to connect and relate with its fans on a personal level. That not only entails hanging out and talking before and after shows, but also sending personalized messages and making individual phone calls to members on the mailing list and looking for new ways to help fans relate to the group.
Although the band may feel like it has saturated the Tulsa marketplace, the release of the new CD will undoubtedly help bring in even more local fans. And while disc gives the band a product to support and sell when expanding its reach to other markets, the first order of business is getting it into the hands of its local fans.
The Task at Hand
As such, the release party for Between Shadows and Sunrise will be held this Saturday night, September 22, at the Blue Dome Diner. In keeping with the band's affinity for mixing genres and working with the best artists in town, Congress of a Crow will share the bill with local Americana and rockabilly rebel Brian Parton, modern rockers My Solstice and reggae mainstays Sam and the Stylees to create a lineup that should appeal to almost any local music fan. Doors will open at 8pm and cover is $7 (or $10 with a copy of the new CD included).
For those who witnessed the band at Dfest, or perhaps for those who had to wait outside, Saturday's show promises to be an encore that surpasses the band's lauded showcase performance. (This time, however, they promise the bar won't sell out of beer.) The band also has a contingency plan for extreme fans and those who might be worried about being denied entry to another sold-out show: a limited number of VIP passes are being sold, guaranteeing admission and virtually no line for entry. Interested fans can contact the band directly at COACmusic@gmail.com for details and purchase information.
A number of promotional events have been planned to build excitement as Saturday's show draws nearer. The week began with an appearance on The Locker Room sport show, which aired at 11pm this past Sunday night, and culminates with Friday morning guest spot on The Edge, which the group will be dragging one lucky fan to.
Additionally, the band will be doing a Friday evening meet and greet at Under the Mooch from 5 to 7pm, where fans will be able to purchase CDs, advance tickets and any remaining VIP passes.
On the Horizon
Considering the band's hectic schedule this week, it may seem like Saturday night's CD release is a peak--the culmination of all the band's hard work up to this point--but that's not the case. The group is looking at a bigger picture well beyond Tulsa. Yes, Saturday's concert is a celebration of the band's new disc, but it's also a sign that Congress of a Crow is ready to take the next step and reach out beyond the boundaries of Green Country.
While the band members have slightly differing perspectives on how to reach a bigger market, one thing is certain: Congress is now in the driver's seat, ready to make its next move toward stardom. Although we'll likely see the band playing Tulsa less frequently as it extends its regional imprint, this is still home and any absence will only make the heart grow fonder.
Eventually, said Tichenor, "I don't want to live anywhere. I just want to have a house to go to when I'm not touring. That's my ultimate goal: that I just play guitar every day and write every day."
Those might be lofty aspirations, but isn't that what the rock'n'roll dream is all about? The van is loaded and ready and it's time to see where the road leads. For rock fans, it's comforting to know that someone out there is still willing to dream big and to seek redemption in the music.
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