When Pretty Black Chains appeared at Fassler Hall in January, it arrived as a different band than the one that Tulsa audiences had been accustomed to. The autumn departure of lead singer Kellen McGugan initially put a halt on progress with the band, but after auditioning a couple other singers, bassist Jonathan (Chuck) Martin, drummer Kurt Freudenberger and guitarist Derek Knowlton decided to soldier on as trio with Knowlton handling vocal duties.
Although the attrition in lineup has changed to presentation of the band, it hasn't made the group any less explosive. McGugan's stage presence channeled a young Mick Jagger, combined with a touch of Bowie and a dash on Ian Astbury. Without his eclectic stage persona, you might think Pretty Black Chains would lose part of its live impact, but you'd be wrong. This year's showcase at SXSW was just as explosive as last year's with the band finally hitting its groove as a power-trio. McGugan's absence does take away an element, but it also leaves the band more room to build upon its true strengths and explore a new landscape sonically. If anything, the "power" in power trio comes out as the band members feed off of each other and hit the audience with a wall of energy and sound.
Keep Rattling. A powerful musical trio, Pretty Black Chains' dynamic has changed but the same wall of energy falls heavily on audiences when they perform.
According to guitarist (and now lead vocalist) Derek Knowlton, the band's last performance as a quartet occurred Aug. 27, 2011 at Dustbowl Arts Market. When discussing McGugan's departure, Knowlton shared that "To be honest, it was kind of out of the blue, but his heart just wasn't in it anymore. I think the others were a little hurt and confused by it, but I was kind of excited.
"I've always been in a band with a prominent front man," he continued "and as a band, we kind of struggled with that when Kellen left. We tried a couple of other singers, but finally made the decision to just go on as a trio. It's different when you lose a guitarist or bassist or drummer. People don't think as much of changing those members as they do when the face of the band changes."
Even so, although the dynamic has changed a bit, the overall vibe has continued on as the group decided to move forward with its core and not bring in another member. That's likely made the transition easier, both for the band and its established fan base. The transition has also opened new doors for Knowlton and the rest of the band.
"For me, part of it has been an opportunity to establish myself more as a songwriter and singer, not just as a guitarist, which is how I've always been known," Knowlton said. "This is an opportunity to establish that this is my band."
When we very first started, Chuck and I wrote everything together," he said. "Chuck had kids and got busy with his family and I opened Warpaint (Knowlton's T-shirt business in OKC). I've got a basement there, which gave me even more opportunity to play and write in my down time."
Although the band recorded an initial group of songs for its debut disc, Ceremonies, by the time the band had the disc ready for release, it had already moved on to playing a whole different group of songs with a different sound and direction. As a result, when Ceremonies was finally released, the group included an additional disc with five demo tracks of its new material and an indication of where the band was headed next.
"When everyone heard Ceremonies they thought, 'Oh, I get it -- you're a Strokes-like garage band,' but that was just that one moment in time. It's just an ever evolving thing with this band. Now that Kellen's gone, we've all started to sing. Some of the new songs don't even have bass, it's guitar, drums and organ with three part harmonies, which makes us sound all the more like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club during their Howl period."
Even though Knowlton references Black Rebel, which was a definite reference point on the band's last disc, Awakening, don't try and paint the band into any corners. When the group played Fassler Hall in January, it had already moved on from that last album and didn't play any songs from the disc, rolling out a whole new set of songs. Not even three months later, Knowlton shared that the band has continued to move forward and is only playing about three of those songs now as the direction and sound continues to evolve.
"Our sound is still changing," Knowlton acknowledged, "but as long as we're the ones writing it, I think it will always sound like Pretty Black Chains. We just won't get stuck in the rick riff thing. When Kellen left, it actually allowed us to explore even more, sound wise."
Although the band's ever changing sound and set list can prove to be challenging to audiences who are accustomed to a more static set list, Knowlton views the band's role a bit differently than most. "I think, as a local band, we're supposed to do that," he said. "We're supposed to use the local crowd as a sounding board to work out new material, to keep it fresh for them and us both."
When Pretty Black Chains arrives back in Tulsa this Thursday night, March 29, for a show at The Treehouse with The Del Toros, you can expect another explosive show with another batch of new songs. And although you may not know all of the material, you can rest assured that it will feel familiar yet fresh at the same time as the Pretty Black Chains continues to develop in front of the audience. Cover is $5 and the band will go on at 10pm, followed by The Del Toros.
Pretty Black Chains doesn't make it to Tulsa very often, but you can still support the band when it's not in town by stopping in at Dwelling Spaces to check out Knowlton's latest designs with the Warpaint pop-up store, which initially appeared for Christmas but has remained intact and was recently restocked with new spring designs. You can also shop online at warpaintstore.com or check out the storefront when you're in Oklahoma City.
Your best option, however, is to check out one of Oklahoma's hottest, ever evolving rock acts when it arrives at The Treehouse this Thursday night. Don't miss it.
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