"We gotta be careful about not getting pigeonholed," Pat Sullivan says via cell phone, as Oakley Hall's tour van heads south toward Alexandria, Va., where the Brooklyn sextet will be opening for M. Ward that night.
Oakley Hall With Whalebones and Red Jacket Mine. Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-789-3599, www.tractortavern.city search.com. $8. 9 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 5.
Resembling a cross between a weathered Irish hippie and a hulking Native American, the soft-spoken multi-instrumentalist is grateful but cautious for all the positive press that his band has received over the past several months—press that places Oakley Hall's brand of churning, psychedelic American rock within the West Coast sound established by the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Neil Young, the Dead, and Little Feat.
It's not that Sullivan, the Hall's artistic axis, doesn't dig classic California rock. In fact, the dude "loves" it, and according to guitarist and powerhouse honky-tonk vocalist Rachel Cox, everybody else in the band does, too. This is plainly evident when experiencing Oakley Hall's kick-ass live show or listening to Gypsum Strings, the Hall's latest and best release since Sullivan put the group together back in 2002. Between Fred Wallace's soaring lap steel and the desert-dry harmonies of Sullivan and Cox, the Golden State's sweeping landscapes are always in the group's rearview mirror.
Then again, all those stoned legends mentioned above make up the foundation of a genre—call it roots rock, alt-country, whatever—that for years has been dominated by a very specific archetype: the band full of young men in torn 'n' frayed denim who grew up on punk and country rock, guzzle cheap beer from cans, and jam while drunkenly skirting the edges of total collapse. This is basically the myth of Uncle Tupelo, and it's something that Oakley Hall do not embody.
"We're all about singing well and making our guitars complicated," Sullivan explains. "There's more picking and plucked strings than power chords. Our music isn't progressive, but it's not primitive."
Whether the Hall are plunging into a seven-minute epic exploding with biting social commentary or lowering the volume for one of Cox's heartrending ballads, the band's arrangements are always exquisite works of architecture while their performances are fuckin' spot-on. In this sense, the Hall do indeed belong to a lineage of bands within the roots-rock tradition (albeit a significantly more nebulous one) that includes the Meat Puppets, X, Moby Grape, the Great Society, and even Buck Owens' Buckaroos. All these heavy hitters (even those punks in X) were skilled musicians who eschewed ragged glory for tight and often tension-filled ensemble work, as they always played on top of the beat.
At the same time, Oakley Hall don't deal in just Americana; the group's massive sound also exudes an English folk-rock vibe à la Fairport Convention. Sending her fiddle work through an array of effects, Claudia Mogel produces an eerie and almost frantic sound that can only be described as a druid screaming electric blasts of static.
"The Brit thing is hard to avoid" Sullivan admits. "I was totally raised on Irish music. But I actually think what we do is also very East Coast."
Sullivan goes on to talk about the claustrophobic quality of the Hall's music mirroring life in New York, and he's right. But there's another way to look at this. From Animal Collective's tribal pop to the space-rock flights of Oneida (Sullivan's former band), indie musicians living in the Big Apple are influenced by dance music. That's just how it is and always has been, and Oakley Hall are no different. Powering the band are bassist Jesse Barnes and drummer Greg Anderson, who (like a two-headed metronome) hammer the swagger and sway of country rock—especially on such propulsive workouts as "Lazy Susan," "Volume Rambler," and "Confidence Man"—into a throbbing, motorik beat reminiscent of the classic Krautrock of Neu! and Can. What's more, the group's emphasis on rhythm is only further accentuated by its triple ax attack and thick organ drone.
Of course, the thought of roots rock and club music rubbing shoulders—however organic and subtle—sounds downright implausible. For many, the urban world and that of the rural are likened to oil and water. But let's not forget something; for the better part of our history, as a culture and nation, folk music was dance music. So despite just how modern Oakley Hall can sound, maybe the band is just a bunch of traditionalists in the end.