Tonight I am happy to share a bit of heartfelt enthusiasm that I received from my friend Katie, who DJs a marvelous Friday afternoon radio show at the college where I work. I have come to regard her as an eerily prescient musical twin, and I found her written narrative of a recent show she saw with Adam H. Stephens (of the San Francisco band Two Gallants) to be worth sharing.
Hers is unvarnished joy in great new music, and well — it sounds like I should take a listen. She says:
People ask me how I can have 15,000 songs in my iTunes and love so many musicians and still be able to pin down my favorite band, favorite album, and favorite song. My favorite song is on this aforementioned album by the very same band. Since the 10th grade (four years ago), I have held the conviction that “Jesus, Etc.” is my single favorite song that I’ve listened to in my life. I find other songs catchier, more lyrically intriguing, more musically intricate. The essence of the song, however, is completely indefinable. It is this sense of quality that Robert Pirsig spends two novels (Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila) hopelessly pursuing. That immeasurable but glaringly obvious sense that what you’re touching, seeing, hearing shows human artistic genius at its finest. In essence, art is a way we remind ourselves that we are human; we make art, therefore we alone are unique, and a song that gives me chills every time I hear it must embody this principle.
But I digress. I’m contemplating this today because yesterday, I saw a live performance that left me speechless. Adam H. Stephens opened for Rocky Votolato, and although I (as expected) enjoyed Rocky just as much as the first four times I saw him, the opener was the progenitor of those feelings of awe. Often, during an opener, I find myself feigning interest in the music in an effort to keep up my façade of being a concert snob while secretly wishing the band I paid for would just get on stage already. I can try to articulate exactly what made the Adam Stephens performance so incredible, but I’ll end up coming back to the same dilemma I have every time I hear Jesus, Etc. Technically, I loved how uncannily he sounded like Conor Oberst when he sang, comfort in the unknown territory of new lyrics and melodies. The bassist picked up the cello for the last song and she played it beautifully… The keyboards, barely discernible over Stephens’ technically impressive guitar playing added that essential layer of complexity and emotion to the songs. The drummer, like any lovable percussionist, bounced in his seat with unrestrained intensity. Yet none of this explains why I know that this music means something.
When I heard these songs, one after another striking me in a wholly new way, I felt, sincerely, just as I did when I listened to music like my first Radiohead or Wilco albums, that this music was why I was proud to be a part of this human race. Why I knew that if only some LPs could stick around, the aliens who inevitably stumble upon the remnants of our civilization might not think we were so worthless after all.
This all may sound ridiculous, but I know what I heard and more importantly, what I felt. I wish I could give you an mp3 and let you judge for yourself. But, in the silence after Adam introduced himself and his band (failing to mention his last name of course), I yelled out, “Adam, how do we get your music?” His coy reply, “Well, we don’t have any, but we do have t-shirts”. As an afterthought, he added, “We just recorded an album, but I guess until then,” while pointing at the stage, “this is how you get our music”.
I returned home, doubting the truth of this statement; who goes on tour without any released recordings? There had to be an EP. Despite all my best efforts, his statements proved true and all I could find were two lo-fi, acoustic demos on his myspace page – absent the complexity of his full band. I’m signed up for the email list, and until he finally releases music, I’m content to watch and re-watch youtube recordings of live songs.
All I can say is that if in three years I’m not saying, “Adam H. Stephens? Oh, I saw him before he even had an album, opening at the Hi-Dive for a $13 Rocky Votolato show,” all while waiting in line to see him play the sold-out Seattle Paramount — then, I have lost all faith in my musical instinct.
There is indeed precious little audio floating around from Adam to share with you, but he just went into Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles this past September and began recording his debut solo record with producer Joe Chiccarelli (My Morning Jacket, The Shins, White Stripes). Stay tuned.
And thanks, Katie, for making us listen.
[top photo credit April Votolato]