Ridin’ Dirty: Is Hank Vegas the best Macon band since the Allman Brothers?
– by Chris Horne
Macon is a haunted place, one frequented by the ghosts all of familiar Southern tragedies and a few special victories – music prime among them. As much the birthplace of the kazoo as the birthplace of Southern Rock, the city’s reputation is at a point where it’s both trapped by its past and scuttling for a future. Of the latest crop of musicians pushing themselves out of the Allman Brothers’ shadow, Hank Vegas may be making the most unique music yet.
Once upon a time, the band was Hank Vegas and the White Lightning, and had an undeniably alt-country sound. On their first official release, The Things You Are, their music is a lot harder to define, a transformation that makes their re-debut at the Capitol Theatre so fitting. Both the band and the venue have been refitted with some new wheels, their previous incarnations tweaked to serve more than the original model.
The Things You Are opens with a raucous, rolling number, “Another Way to Lie.” The next, “A Long Way Down”, is a dark and moody trek, like a man dragging himself through a barren land. Though the band maintains a cohesive sound throughout, every track feels different, shifting. “Crazy With Fever” comes out like it’d been penned at a honky-tonk on a dare from a peyote-chewing Moe Bandy, playfully skirting above the pain of the lyrics themselves. When “Summer Frown” first plays, the listener wonders how he got in Hawaii. “To Beam” features a heavy, slightly off-center and complex beat that draws comparisons to My Morning Jacket, the other instruments and vocals balanced between train wreck and beauty. The last track, the only cover, “Just a Minute of Your Time” was penned by the late Brax Bragg, one of Bragg Jam’s namesakes.
Their transformation took place in Athens, at the Chase Park Transduction studios, home of producer Dave Barbe (the Drive-By Truckers, Son Volt and Amy Ray of The Indigo Girls). With Barbe’s help, Hank Vegas found itself digging deeper than before, infusing a greater creative range to dress out Chad Evans’ heartache-carved lyrics and his soft, salty vocals. It was a process that took weeks and some whittling down the demos Chad Evans recorded acoustically. “They were really open-minded and that’s what you have to be to make a good record,” Barbe says, “I can do a better job when the artists aren’t too hard set with preconceptions about their art.” Justin Smith (the Liabilities) welcomed the changes, playing keyboards and percussion in addition to the bass he normally wields. “Everyone sort of really expanded their roles in the studio,” Smith says. Both guitarist Rob Evans (no blood relation to Chad) and steel pedal specialist John Neff (Drive-By Truckers) wove their magic throughout, making the sort of adjustments that are subtle but huge.
Their plans to take this CD around the Southeast – with spot gigs in Chicago and New York – begin at the Cox Capitol Theatre with a line-up supplemented by keyboardist Heather Kemp (Oh Dorian) and multi-instrumentalists Will Robinson and Scott Baston, (Moonshine Still). Bringing in help like this is an effort to replicate on stage what they’ve put on the record. “We’d always been more of a studio band than a touring band anyway,” lead vocalist and songwriter Chad Evans says. “But now, we’re ready to get out there with this material.”
Is Hank Vegas the best Macon band since the Allman Brothers? Well, one way or the other they’re definitely a Macon band. “We love Macon,” Rob Evans says, “We’re really proud of Macon, to be from Macon.” Besides bands don’t – or shouldn’t – strive to replace legends. But… if Hank Vegas keeps this up, if they can outlive the turmoil that tears bands apart, and get enough people to pay attention, there’s a damn good chance their name will make the circuit with the bigger bands, those associated with modern, progressive, intelligent music. And with The Things You Are, they have the goods to make that happen.
The Eleventh Hour