Almost exactly one year ago, I went and saw the Los Angeles country-rock band Dawes play a show at Silver Moon Brewing & Taproom in Bend.
When I got home, I wrote a review that centered on the band's song “When My Time Comes,” a great tune with a soaring chorus that sounds like a timeless classic the very first time you hear it.
One song like that can propel a band if it ends up in the right ears. And sure enough, Dawes had a very good 2011.
I suspect Pickwick, the Seattle band that played a free show at McMenamins Old St. Francis School on Jan. 12, can have a similar 2012. In fact, the group — six variously bearded and bespectacled fellas fronted by the big hair and bigger voice of Galen Disston — were just recently named by NPR as a “band you should know” as 2011 came to a close.
That's lofty praise for a band with only a handful of 7-inch singles (or 45s, if you prefer) to its name. But the A side of one of those singles is a song called “Hacienda Motel,” and “Hacienda Motel” is to Pickwick as “When My Time Comes” is to Dawes.
It's a killer tune, and that's a good thing, because the comfortably crowded Father Luke's Room at McMenamins got to hear it twice the other night.
Guitarist Michael Parker explained: “We only have 16 songs,” he said near the beginning of Pickwick's second set, “and three hours to fill. So you might hear a few of these more than once.”
He wasn't kidding. I missed the entire first (of three) sets, and even I heard a few repeats.
Now, that's probably not the direction I would go if I were leading a band. Instead, I'd huddle with my mates, pick out a few of our favorite songs, and bang out some sloppy covers in the third set, when most folks in the room are nice and beer-soaked.
But hey ... I'm not in charge of Pickwick. And anyway, aside from that one minor quibble, Disston, Parker and the rest of the band were solid as a rock on their first trip through Bend, showcasing the songs, chops and charisma that got NPR's attention.
As Parker told The Bulletin a while back, Pickwick was a nondescript folk-pop-rock band until 2010, when it changed its sound to a vintage of soul music that better fit Disston's voice. According to the band's bio, Sam Cooke's iconic “A Change Is Gonna Come” was a major inspiration for the shift.
It was a good move.
At McMenamins, the sextet regularly settled into a steady groove, riding the Garrett Parker's rubbery bass lines and Matt Emmett's understated drumming to a place that was always snappy but never showy.
Indeed, restraint seems to be a long-lost skill that Pickwick has already mastered. The backing vocals floating around Disston's leads never overpowered, while the gossamer tone of Kory Kruckenberg's vibraphone was a nice compliment to the overall sound.
And then there was Cassady Lillstrom's work on the keyboard, which drove songs like “When Rosa Speaks” and added wonderful texture to “The Round.”
Often in bands like this, it's the sound of the piano and/or organ that separates the contenders from the pretenders. Thanks in part to Lillstrom, Pickwick is clearly the former.
The centerpiece of the sound, however, is Disston's voice, which is sturdy enough for a pulsing, bottom-heavy blazer like “Blackout,” but also versatile enough to pull off a convincingly Bee Gees-esque falsetto on a cover of Richard Swift's “Lady Luck.”
Disston stood front and center, clutching his microphone as the band burbled around him. At times, he'd double over to draw more more grit and emotion from his lungs. Other times, his head would sway from side to side, as if he had ceded control of it to the great Stevie Wonder.
He was at his best as “The Round” peaked, and on the roller-coaster chorus of “Staged Names,” and leading an old-soul revival on a couple of new songs, one a frenetic dance number, the other a slow burner. An endless supply of sweet, self-deprecating banter didn't hurt anyone's perception of the band, either.
By the end of the night, Pickwick was cycling back through some of its earlier tunes, not that the folks up front cared; the space between the stage and the tables started out sparse, but filled with loose-limbed types as the clock ticked past 9 p.m. Above it all, the band was all smiles, pleasantly surprised by the crowd's size and response on their first trip to town, but also, perhaps, in a perpetual daze because of its sudden spot on the precipice of major success.
That's the beauty of seeing Pickwick right now, I think. The band is already very good — good enough to draw attention from national media and cool record labels. But as I watched them, I thought to myself, “This sounds like a band that can be awesome in three to five years.”
I lauded Pickwick's sense of restraint earlier, but maybe it's more that the band is still young, still figuring out its sound, still growing as songwriters and performers. Maybe the most exciting thing about Pickwick isn't necessarily its current state, but its enormous potential.
I hope we get to watch them reach it over the next few years. Wouldn't that be fun?