Billy, Jack and Joe started a band out in Broken Arrow / Drove to all the shows with all the gear in the back of Billy's El Camino / set up all the amps with a big Oklahoma flag up behind / they never left the state, but they been back and forth across it a hundred times
From the first verse of the title cut on John Moreland and the Black Gold Band's new CD, Endless Oklahoma Sky, it's apparent that these guys are aiming for something more heart-felt and authentic than many of their local contemporaries. For all the talk about Tulsa's blossoming indie scene and how Red Dirt is the true voice of Oklahoma, I don't know that in my eight years here I've heard anyone here touch the pulse of the Midwest any more accurately than Moreland.
This isn't just a new-era "Jack and Diane," however. Sure it's a vivid picture of a slice of life, like much of the album, but this one is more. If you're in a band (I don't care what style music you play), go ahead and try and tell me this doesn't sum up your battles:
It ain't an easy ride / chance at life without compromise / to fill in the dreams of a young man's eyes / night by night, just getting' by / weekend nights, turnpike after turnpike under the endless Oklahoma sky
Move out to the highway for the four hour trek / maybe show up a little late to play a hell of a set / they walk up to the man and charge to get what they hope / if they're lucky it'll be enough to get 'em back home
It ain't an easy ride/ chance at life without compromise...
No matter what the subject matter, everything on Endless Oklahoma Sky rings true. It seems peculiar then that Moreland's brand of heartland rock and roll isn't ringing more loudly in his hometown. Unfortunately, music with this kind of muscle, rooted in Midwestern and Southern rock with a tinge of country isn't in vogue at the moment.
Even though Moreland hasn't been celebrated in Tulsa, however, doesn't mean the band doesn't hammer out a good number of shows each month. It just means the group is barreling through its live show on bills that don't seem to fit. That's not really a problem for Moreland and his band, though.
Even though they're a little on the young side (Moreland's 22, drummer and bassist Nick and Clay Flores are each 21 and guitarist Wayne Wedge is the old man of the group at 26), these guys play like seasoned veterans, hinting at the numerous years each has been playing in a variety of bands -- mostly of the punk and hardcore persuasion. Taking advantage of their collective histories means that the Black Gold Band has been a staple act at all-ages clubs like Monolith, The Pinkeye and The Otherside while being outsiders at bars that should be more conducive for their style of music like Mercury Lounge and Dirty's.
When discussing the irony of the situation, Moreland explained it as such: "We know all those people and it's easy to get shows, but as far as the bars and the Red Dirt scene and everything, we don't know what the fuck we're doing. It's like that's a whole different game that we don't know how to play and we're just learning how to do it now, slowly breaking into it."
Not ironically, at least for anyone familiar with the local Americana-rock scene, the band's first champion came from one of Tulsa's busiest band leaders, Brandon Clark, who was not so coincidentally inspired by Moreland's disc to go in and re-cut his band's latest right before putting it out.
"Well, I think our first real break in that was finding Brandon Clark," Clay interjected.
"Yeah -- Brandon Clark was the first person from the Red Dirt or country scene or whatever that gave two shits about us..."
"It's like once we finally met him, it became open a little more," Clay continued. "I mean, once we met him, we finally played the Mercury Lounge."
Even though Clark has been a proponent for the group for some time now, The Black Gold Band has still managed to fly under the radar, even after a few higher profile gigs that should have grabbed people's attention.
After all, this is a band that surprised everyone (including themselves) by grabbing a spot on the DFest main stage, opening for Leon Russell and Amos Lee last summer. Hell, the band even landed a demo for "Hand Over Fist" on the DFest compilation in 2007. Still, after a quick glance at what Tulsa really has to offer the genre, many turned their heads back to the old stand-bys.
At this point, I could see how the band clicks, with Moreland and the Flores brothers completing each other's sentences.
"We have no idea how that happened," said Moreland.
"I mean, we were kind of blown away by that..." Clay continued.
"It was weird," Moreland added before letting Clay finish the thought.
"...because that's all we've really done is punk venues and played places about as big as this (sitting in Elmer's BBQ @ 39th and Peoria) our entire life."
Although all three agreed that the situation seemed awkward to them, they were all awestruck and grateful for the experience.
And by the way, "How that happened" was a matter of the band applying with a demo and live reputation that blew the entire DFest committee back on its heels. When you're committed to creating an outlet for the best emerging talent in the area and something like "Hand Over Fist" comes your way, you make room for it no matter what the genre.
That's also why Moreland's band was an early choice for this year's NewVo series. Anyone who stuck around Dirty's to the end of the evening knows the band rocked the house with reckless abandon and proved to be one of the best shows of the night.
Load and Launch
What's most perplexing from an outsider's point of view, however, is how a group of guys steeped in punk and hardcore ended up forming one of the most authentic heartland rock bands in Oklahoma. After all, Moreland and Wedge were in hardcore band 30 Called Arson while Nick and Clay played in a group called Glass Hearted Soldier when they all originally met. The foursome has since played together for 4 or 5 years in a "couple of punk bands that never really got off the ground," according to Moreland, as well as a Southern Metal outfit named Widow Song.
So what gives, John?
"Well, this is the first band that any of us -- I mean, not like the first band that's not heavy, because I was in pop/punk bands when I was younger, but it's the first one that's not specifically like punk or hardcore. I mean, it still is to me, but it's other stuff too..."
But what launched Moreland in this direction?
While discussing John's musical background, he acknowledged being influenced by the likes of Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen, but specifically noted that at roughly 17 or 18 years of age, his songwriting took a turn toward more simple arrangements and story lines. So was it that quest to distill the songwriting process even further, perhaps, that saw (?) a band if punk and hardcore rockers break from the mold?
"Yeah..." Moreland acknowledged. "...And I was burned out on playing heavy music too, so I guess that's basically what it was. I wanted to start something that I could do for a long time, because I've been in like 20 hardcore bands that lasted for about six months. Hardcore bands are just like that. It's not going to last more than a couple years, you know? So I wanted to start something that I could still be doing when I'm 40 or 50 and I believe that I will..."
With Endless Oklahoma Sky, Moreland takes a big leap toward proving he could very well still be around and doing this in another 20-30 years. While comparisons with Springsteen are abundant, the similarities don't lie in the lyrics or Moreland's vocals so much as the instrumentation and band dynamics. "All I Know," with it's jangling guitars and prominent harmonica do invoke hint's of Springsteen's "This Hard Land" and Hank Charles' piano flourishes in the title cut definitely recall those of the late Danny Federici. Perhaps more striking, however, is the crisp and steady drumming of Nick Flores, which definitely calls for comparisons to "Mighty" Max Weinberg.
Moreland's influences are more broadly spread, however, drawing not only from Springsteen and the true grit of Steve Earle, but also a bit of the raucousness of The Bottle Rockets and, perhaps most appropriately, the growl and thunder of Social Distortion's Mike Ness.
Still, Moreland doesn't yet seem comfortable with comparisons to those who could be considered his Americana contemporaries.
"I don't know -- I think most of my songs still aren't stories -- they're just more like thoughts," Moreland explained. "I don't think I write about a lot of typical alt-country topics or whatever because I don't live that. I live in the suburbs: I don't drink much, I don't get my heart broken on a regular basis..." he continued chuckling.
Nevertheless, that's exactly what makes this set of songs so spellbinding. Anyone living in the suburbs of middle America can identify with the pictures he paints and the sarcasm hidden within. Even "Everything's My Fault," which upon first listen sounds like an exercise in resolution and self-pity, twists the knife on the other party when you listen more closely. Nobody said life would be easy and Moreland reflects that with the kind of dry wit that pulls you through the tough times and lets you laugh at the good.
Surprisingly, there is no real CD release party scheduled in Tulsa for Endless Oklahoma Sky. If you're inclined to make a road trip, the band officially celebrates the disc's release at The Conservatory in Oklahoma City this Saturday night, June 14, with Ali Harter, Over Stars and Gutters and Jake Barrow.
John Moreland and the Black Gold Band play at Joe Momma's Pizza (61st and Highway 169) this Friday night, June 13, with No Ghost -- which could turn into an unofficial party. Truth be told, it might be most appropriate.
Early in our conversation bassist Clay Flores shared the band's long term dream: "One of these days, we're going to start a pizza parlor called Piggy's Pizza..."
"Yeah," Moreland explained. "Me and Wayne's old band played in Nashville in the basement of a pizza place. Ever since then, we figured we ought to start one just like it, so it's going to be called Piggy's."
And what about the basement? Is that a necessity for the future establishment?
"Oh yeah," Moreland responded emphatically. "Basements are punk-rock!"
Until Piggy's opens up or the band inevitably works its way into the bigger clubs, shows like this weekend's gig at Joe Momma's will continue to show smaller crowds what Midwestern rock and roll is all about. In the mean time, fans of loud guitars, vivid pictures of real life, and gritty, heartland rock and roll will do themselves well to find Moreland and get their copy of Endless Oklahoma Sky. It's already on my short list for albums that I expect to stand the test of time and prove to be among the best of 2008.
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