Here's how easy it is to find a new, original sound playing clubs in Tulsa these days: Have ears in all the live music clubs in the metro area; stay sober; eat, drink, breathe music; and catch a little sleep between gigs around town.
Don't miss a thing.
Who is going to be the next, big act? Who'd know better? We've been listening to a certain four-piece band long enough to these guys to give them some serious ink.
Last summer we happened upon three separate acts that made an impression on us. Two of those acts, piano-pop group Apollo and former Restless Ribbon leader Chase Stites both have songs, hooks and charisma to make moves within the pop and rock scene. We like their sounds. But this third band, a group of young guns from Nowata County, is already making waves.
Humbly called 2 Steps Back, after only two years together in the current lineup, is already drawing attention from Green Country and around the tri-state area.
We don't develop the bands, we just bring them to your attention.
A solid and growing fan base, impressive debut disc and nomination in this year's Absolute Best of Tulsa Music Awards, a creation of Urban Tulsa Weekly, lend a certain credibility. Armed with great songs and an undeniable live chemistry, the group is able to translate its thoughts to music then deliver with the type of passion and energy that connects with an audience that takes those songs to heart and owns them.
You can call it country, rock or Red Dirt. The band's sound is a little of each, yet not fully any one of them. Still, it's as authentic as you can get -- the sound of four young guys that have grown up in rural Oklahoma listening to everything from Merle Haggard to the Rolling Stones to Train to Guns and Roses. The band makes no excuses and filters it all through the lens that makes it its own blend of all of the above, and then delivers it with the kind of passion that allows you to buy in wholeheartedly. If Brandon Clark Band is the group that speaks from the heart of Tulsa's working everyman, 2 Steps Back could be the offspring and successor to the throne, speaking to the next generation of 20-somethings that are just now beginning to feel jaded by the world.
Though the band has just emerged on the Tulsa music scene within the past year and the current lineup has only been together for a little over two, the origins of 2 Steps Back reach back nearly five years. Brothers Kyle and Jake Lowrey form the core of the band and have been playing music for years now, but Kyle, the older of the siblings who both sings and plays guitar, said 2 Steps Back really formed when he wrote the first song, "Four Mile Road" with oldest brother Wes.
From there, Kyle and Jake started playing gigs, but the band never really took shape, leaving them playing plenty of acoustic shows and usually asking Dave Koscelny, who Kyle knew from playing out, to play drums when they needed a full band. Koscelny was apprehensive, however, preferring to play with a bass player -- a position that had also yet to be filled.
Once Kyle went off to college, he met and hit it off with Brett Lamb.
"We were two of the three people that didn't show up to class regularly, so we naturally became friends," Kyle Lowrey said.
Lamb had been playing bass in a hardcore group as well as the school jazz band and obviously had the chops to fill the role with 2 Steps Back, so Kyle Lowrey eventually enlisted him to join the band. As fate would have it, Koscelny and Lamb had already met and been hanging out together for nearly three months when Kyle Lowrey made the connection. With a bassist on board, Koscelny finally relented when Kyle Lowrey approached him yet again as the band had been booked for the Coffeyville Fair. With barely a month's rehearsal, the current lineup made its debut at the fair on Aug. 15, 2008 and 2 Steps Back began to gel.
Taking things slowly, it wasn't until the summer of 2009 that the group began to buckle down and play more regularly, putting in a year of practicing when they could around each band member's work schedules and gigging occasionally. After working up a list of original material, however, the band decided to go into the studio and went to Valcour Sound to record with producer Hank Charles.
Arguably, it wasn't until the band entered the studio with Charles that 2 Steps Back really found its sound. The band had previously recorded a handful of demos, but was still searching for its direction.
"We really didn't have a good idea of what direction we wanted to go in," Lamb said.
Once the band entered the studio with Charles, however, its true identity began to take shape.
"Without Hank, we wouldn't be what we are," Kyle Lowrey said. "The reason we don't sound like other Red Dirt bands is because Hank's idea of what Red Dirt is differs from other people."
Part of that influence comes from the fact that Charles shared his input into the songwriting, yet made the writing and recording process as comfortable as possible for the band. After approaching the studio apprehensively, the band quickly found itself right at home with Charles at the helm.
While Kyle Lowrey admits that he was initially nervous about going in to record, he said that by the end, "I couldn't have felt any more comfortable if I was in the studio by myself -- that's how much he put us at ease."
At the same time, Charles didn't let the band slack off at all. Instead of acting as merely a recording engineer, his input helped the band as it recorded and shaped the songs, and ultimately helped raise the level of musicianship in each member. Although the band initially entered the studio recording the songs live and without a metronome, by the end of the sessions, the band was using a click track to keep more accurate time and recording layered tracks.
During the process, Charles not only helped the band become more comfortable and confident in the studio and with its abilities, but also in the songwriting process.
"When I started, I was trying to write like something or someone else, I was trying to fit into the Red Dirt category," Kyle Lowrey said. "Once I worked with Hank, though, I didn't care anymore."
That's the key to the band's sound. Instead of trying to fit in to a niche, once Kyle and the band started writing what came naturally, the group began to flourish. Yes, a few of the original songs, including "Four Mile Road" did make the final cut and appear on the resulting CD, but not without at least a slight change in direction. No longer heavily country-based, rock overtones and country influences blend together to make something that sounds and feels authentic.
When you really think about it, though, that's what makes the most sense for a group of guys in their 20s from rural Oklahoma. Genre markers have been bending and blending for years and listeners no longer solely ascribe strictly to one style of music or another. George Straight, Kenny Chesney, Tonic and AC/DC may intermingle on the stereo for anyone growing up in rural Oklahoma, so it's only fitting that the current crop of bands incorporate all of those styles into their sound.
After nearly a year of work on the album, from pre-production and recording to mixing, mastering and manufacturing, 2 Steps Back emerged with Lovers & Fighters, a 14-track disc that serves as snapshot of where the band is in 2010, with perhaps a glimpse of where its headed in the future. The country influences definitely remain, especially lyrically, but the band builds upon that, adding a touch of swagger and a more rock infused delivery.
What to Call it?
Though not tied to the Stillwater music scene in any way, the band often finds itself referred to as a Red Dirt act, based on its Oklahoma roots and country-rock delivery. Sure, the band fits in stylistically and doesn't shun the label, but has come to the point where it's not specifically trying to mold itself to the genre.
Even so, the band still understands the value of being considered a Red Dirt act. As guitarist Jake Lowrey said, "If you say its Red Dirt, people will listen, where as if you told them it was something like funk/pop, they wouldn't. It's really all about who you're playing with and for."
In this case, the Red Dirt label fits as well as any other if you translate that in the broadest sense, as a reference to the growing Texas/Oklahoma music scene with its largely country-rock aesthetic.
"In my opinion, we're more like a rock band with country lyrics. People say country music is always about your dog and your truck and your girlfriend leaving you, but ours is just about your girlfriend leaving," Kyle Lowrey said, laughing.
Granted, that's definitely a part of the band, as "Off Romancing" (one of the best kiss-off songs of the year) will readily attest to. Saying the songs are just about breakups, however, is selling the band -- and Lowrey, as the principle songwriter -- short. Listen further and there's plenty of introspection songs like "Don't Wanna Stay" which wrangles with broken hearts and every person's desire to start anew. Likewise, "When I Was King" may make reference to the "Royal Highness" in the passenger seat, but it also serves as reflection on the glory days of youth. Once Lowrey quit trying to be Red Dirt, the clay tinting started bleeding out naturally.
In truth, it's an approach that is best exemplified by Red Dirt icons Cross Canadian Ragweed. Before a show at Cain's Ballroom, Cody Canada proclaimed matter-of-factly "We ain't no country band," yet the groups still taps a decidedly country audience as well as a rock crowd. Ragweed's blues and boogie approach is even somewhat approximated on songs like "Never Too Late" and "Four Mile Road," allowing 2 Steps Back to display a little of its live energy in its recordings.
When it all boils down, however, Lowrey said, "A lot of bands claim ties to Ragweed, but to me, I feel like we're the least connected to them. I mean, I like their music, but we've never met them and don't know them, so I can't claim that..."
Nevertheless, in a scene that's loaded with bands that are trying to edge in on the market and take Ragweed's place as leader of the pack, it may just be the young guns who quit concentrating on it that ultimately play the role of successor.
Working it Out
If recording with Hank Charles helped the band find its direction in the songwriting process, making a concerted effort to play more live shows has helped refine the band's delivery and on stage chemistry. This is where the band's rock element emerges, far more than in the lyrics themselves. When pairing Lamb's hardcore background with Koscelny's history in rock bands, you've got a rigid, rock-based rhythm section that had to learn more about loosening up than playing tightly.
On stage, all four members feed off of each other as well as the audience, and the swagger and exuberance of youth takes the spotlight -- the band's members range in age from 20 for guitarist Jake Lowrey to 25 for Koscelny. Some nights the Lowrey brothers may be bouncing off of each other like a pinball machine while others may see guitarist Jake Lowrey bassist Lamb standing atop monitors or speaker cabinets. It becomes a show more attuned to a rock crowd than a traditional country concert, but again, that's where the lines are starting to blur.
Although Eric Church recently proclaimed the virtues of being authentically country, his band took the stage to the ringing chords of AC/DC with dual guitarists flanking the drum risers with smoke and backlighting. If that's country, the guys in 2 Steps Back are relatively mild in comparison, but still know enough to lead its audience in having a good time.
Even as the band has stepped up the frequency of its live shows over the past year, it has also learned the value of picking its shows wisely.
"We figured out about a year in that playing anywhere for as many people as possible and doing the whole bar scene is the worst idea possible for us," lead vocalist Kyle Lowrey said, expressing the band's hesitation to become burned out or serve as background noise for the bar/hookup crowd.
As a result, the band honed its songs and prepared to record its CD while still playing enough to start building its audience.
"We kind of got lucky," Kyle Lowrey said, "because it seems that most bands play, play, play, then record an album. With us, though, we recorded, then started playing (more frequently)."
"And we played enough," Lamb said, "that by the time the record was done, people actually wanted it."
Of course, the band has paid its road dues, having played across the Oklahoma-Missouri-Kansas tri-state area and building a strong reputation. Once the band finally made its debut in Tulsa in April, it did so with style. By capitalizing on the band's growing live reputation and a few shrewd moves by management at Hoffman & Simpson Entertainment, the group landed an opening slot for Reckless Kelly at Cain's Ballroom and used the show as the local release party for Lovers & Fighters. Not only did the show expose the band to a broad audience upon its first Tulsa performance, but it also drew enough attention to the group that its members missed most of the headliner's set while signing CDs and selling shirts at its merchandise booth.
As the band's reputation has grown with its live performances, so have the opportunities. Already known as solid performers, 2 Steps Back has proceeded to land a number of high profile gigs, opening for acts ranging from regional favorites such as Turnpike Troubadours and Brandon Jenkins to bigger names such as No Justice, Corey Smith, Randy Rodgers Band and even rising country act Casey Donahew at Cain's Ballroom a few weeks ago.
While all of those shows have certainly helped refine 2 Steps Back's live performance and chemistry, the band's greatest exposure may actually end up coming from a contest the group entered rather whimsically. As a contestant in the Colgate Country Showdown, 2 Steps Back has already won in the first two rounds of the competition and has advanced to the regional semi-finals.
Kyle Lowrey said the band originally entered the contest as a chance to play another show at Lucky Maggie's, a roadhouse venue in Diamond, Mo., where the band has always performed well.
"It's an awesome venue for Texas country acts and we just signed up to play another show, not expecting to win," Kyle Lowrey said
Upon winning the initial round in Missouri, an oddity in the contest rules sent the band to compete on the state level at the Kansas State Fair in Garden City, Kan. Once the band reached that level, it was matched up against eight other performers, all of which Kyle Lowrey classified as either more traditional country acts or stereotypical female country vocalists.
Though Kyle Lowrey said there were only two acts that really stood out to him, the band figured it stood no chance of winning.
"I mean, here we are, a group of rock kids playing alt-country against a bunch of traditional country acts and the judges are not our demo(graphic) -- they were all middle aged men and women," he said. "We figured we stuck out like a sore thumb and had no chance, so we just went in and played our show and had a good time. We didn't change anything. Apparently the judges liked us, though, because we won."
The irony isn't lost on Kyle Lowrey or his band mates: A band from Oklahoma enters and wins on the local level in Missouri, then goes on to win for the state of Kansas and now moves on to the regional semi-finals in Acoma, N.M., on Nov. 20. Though the band doesn't really expect to proceed to the finals and get to perform at the Ryman Auditorium in January, the thought still floats around in the back of their heads.
Even if the band doesn't win the next round, the experience has already provided the band some well-deserved exposure. The value of that publicity isn't lost on the band, either. The roster of previous contestants (who, coincidentally, didn't win) reads like a who's who of the country music elite and includes artists such as Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Sara Evans, Jason Aldean, Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride and Brad Paisley. Granted, participation in the Showdown doesn't guarantee success, but the exposure that comes with it is invaluable.
Should the band somehow manage to proceed to the semi-finals in New Mexico, however, it would secure an all-expenses paid trip to Nashville and an opportunity perform at an historic venue for a $100,000 grand prize. More importantly, however, having your performance being broadcast on national television provides an invaluable measure of publicity.
Feet on the Ground
Although dreams of fame and fortune are always nice, the guys in 2 Steps Back don't have any illusions of grandeur. When looking towards the future, Lamb said, "I'd like to get to the point where other bands want to open for us," but that's just a jumping off point. Kyle and Jake Lowrey agree that they want to be able to live comfortably, a sentiment that Koscelny mirrors by sharing his goal to be able to have some level of stability and ability to make a good living from playing in a band.
Even so, all of the members realize how good they have it and how bright the future promises to be.
"Being in a band is like being in high school forever -- you get to hang out with your friends and play," Koscelny said.
Hopefully, the optimism and youthful exuberance that currently feeds the band will remain a motivating factor.
In the meantime, the band continues to keep its focus on writing and playing as well as it can. A show this Friday night, Nov. 12, at Sharky's on Brookside sees 2 Steps Back launch what will tentatively be known as "Red Dirt in the Red Room," an ongoing country and Red Dirt showcase in the bar area behind the pool hall. Those who haven't seen the band yet will get to see it playing a new venue as a warm-up gig for the group's semi-finals performance as part of the Colgate Country Showdown in Acoma, N.M., the following week.
With a debut as strong as Lovers & Fighters and the touring experience, not to mention the passion and authenticity that bleeds through in the group's songs and delivery, there's obviously much more in store for both the band and Tulsa's alt-country scene in the future.
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