Like a left-jab catching on the chin, all of a sudden you realize: it’s personal.
The Blue Shadows can do that to you. One minute you’re just an average beer-drinking Jane watching the band from the bar, tapping a toe, humming bad harmony.
But sooner or later, the music makes through you. The blend of retro rock ‘n’ roll and simple, solid songs filled with two-toned harmonies will circle inside – a mental buzz at 33 r.p.m.
What makes the magic happen isn’t easy to put a finger on.
Sure, there’s the twinkle in vocalist Billy Cowsill’s eye and a cute grin on guitarist Jeff Hatcher – not to mention the earnest expressions on bass player Barry Muir and drummer J.B. Johnson – that give the band a friendly feel.
Then there are the tunes. Woven from heavy threads of rhythm guitar in four-four time and the upbeat colors of Cowsill and Hatcher’s fused voices, they send a shiver of familltarity down the spine of anyone who’s listened to music in the last 30 years.
It ain’t brain surgery. At its most basic, it’s straight-ahead, bar-band fare that’s found a home in nearly every venue Vancouver has to offer – local heroes of the Rusty Gull, the Railway, Fairview, Starfish, Press Club and this weekend, the Gastown Music Hall.
But ultimately, the Blue Shadows transcend the history of their sound and come up with something intimate and soulful.
And not even the boys – ‘cause that’s just what you end up calling them after seeing them more than twice – really know where the musical cupids come from.
“I have a feeling we’re our own private counter-culture,” says Cowsill over a cup o’ joe at a Kits coffee room. It’s called getting the joke, you know if people just let go and listen, they usually get it. It’s not all that complicated. Hey, it’s music.”
“For me, it’s in the songs,” says Hatcher. “The songs just kind of happen – like they come from somewhere else already formed. They dictate everything from the way we play to the way we sing.”
“Yeah,” says Cowsill. “The songs reign supreme. As a result, we all step back and put ourselves just a little bit below what the band is as a whole . . . it’s synergy.”
Or as their manager, and veteran music pragmatist, Dave Chesney says, the boys provide “tunes for the tuneless.”
In a modern age that’s coughed up the furballs of thrash and bass-bound rap, the Shadows actually stand out like a sore thumb because they don’t depend on shock vocals to get their message across.
And the first time in the two years this club-hopper has followed the Shadows, there might just be a place in the big mainstream picture for the four-piece.
In the wake of “The alternative” rising, the field has splintered, and cracks are everywhere in the establishment stone wall.
The time is ripe for the real thing.
And the Blue Shadows have paid their dues.
Cowsill’s been on the queasy musical ride for more than 30 years, pop-charting in his youth alongside his siblings, collectively known as The Cowsill, with Hair – then crashing a decade later with the disease of substance abuse.
Which, by the way, is now a closed chapter in the big Bily book of life. He’s anxious to embrace integration, not fight it.
Hatcher worked the circuit in Winnipeg before hooking up with Cowsill and forming the songwriting and singing core of the band.
They’ve been at it as a group for more than three years, releasing their debut on Bumstead (and distributed by Sony Music Canada), On The Floor of Heaven in January of last year.
The record did well in Canadian terms, selling more than 15,000 units (making it the biggest country release in Columbia Canada’s history).
But with the birth of their brand-spanking new CD, the heart-filled and beat-brimming Lucky To Me (in stores today), the patience of both band and management might just be ready to pay off – a concept that the folks at Bumstead are more thn familiar with.
The only other artist officially on the Bumstead label is k.d. lang – and a lot of people said she didn’t stand a chance at large-scale success because, like the Blue Shadows, she was hard to pigeonhole.
“I have a great feeling about this record,” says Billy. “I’m confident that it’ll fly. I just feel it inside my bones.”
The clincher is the still-pending U.S. distribution deal, which usually proves to be the insurmountable obstacle to all Canadian acts who break domestically but can’t chisel a path into the pre-fab foundation of American airplay.
Although even that concern seems to get sunnier now that Hatcher and Cowsill received a standing ovation in Santa Monica a few weekends back when they played four songs for a well-attended Everly Brothers tribute.
Even Brian Wilson took note, as did Dave Alvin and the rest of the tribute lineup.
“You can feel it when it’s working – you know it inside you,” says Cowsill. “Jeffrey and I both had that feeling that night – it was just tremendous.
“And the beauty of it was that they weren’t responding to the similarity (between us and the Everlys), they were responding to the essence of the music which we brought home to them somehow.”
“Purity,” says Hatcher. “We just stripped everything down and played it the way we felt it inside. It just kind of happened.
“I guess that kind of sums up everything about the band in a way, for me at least,” adds Hatcher, “things just move along and then you realize something just happened . . . more than that almost, something happened to all of us at the same time.”
The Blue Shadows showcase material off Lucky To Me this weekend at the Gastown Music Hall, 6 Powell St., Tickets available at the door.