“Whiskey river don’t run dry, you’re all I’ve got, take care of me”
– from the song, “Whiskey River”….
When this classic slice of Honky-Tonk Country first appeared on a Johnny Bush record, and hit its peak most famously as a Willie Nelson staple, the upbeat jovial music belied the dark undercurrent of the lyrics. While people may hoot, holler and give a tipsy salute to Jack Daniels and Evan Williams while this song is performed live or on a jukebox, a more trained ear and introspective soul will feel the desolation after the shot glasses have been emptied and the feet stumble haphazardly back to the bar.
Whiskey Republic’s music, song for song and pound for pound, have the same effect on me and surely many others who have attended one of their incredible live shows.
Before moving forward and assuming this band is merely a purist Country Rock band whose primary gift to society is the rising DUI count in Tennessee, bear in mind, the influences and appeal of this four-piece is much broader. They run deeper than Whiskey River.
The singer/songwriter Dan Larkin, strapped with a Larrivee D-03 acoustic guitar, is a New Jersey native. His family had been rooted in the area for a couple of generations, and his mother had grown up in the same vicinity and age range as a certain Jersey music legend, Bruce Springsteen.
Before he was sending “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” the Boss was a rough-and-tumble neighborhood kid, making trouble and smoking cigarettes on the street corners. “You better shape up, or you’ll end up like Bruce Springsteen,” Dan’s mom was often warned. It’s funny how the wanderlust and strong, heartfelt songwriting skipped a generation and landed squarely on Dan Larkin himself.
As much as Dan is a dyed-in-the-wool Springsteen fan, you can’t fully understand his range and direction without name-dropping Ryan Adams and Paul Simon. Always earnest, usually despondent, sometimes confused and occasionally combative, Larkin is writing some of the most catchy and layered pop/rock songs in the Southeastern United States right now.
“Dan’s songs are unique as they reveal alienation of deficiency as well as excess,” says Chris Vickers, the drummer and band-appointed stage leader of their live performances. Whether tacitly giving directions behind his late 70’s Yamaha 9000 drum kit or sipping coffee in the Whiskey Republic practice space, it’s very clear that he is an intellectual that works behind the scenes to push the songs to greater heights.
And it’s true–the songs are rare in their ability to convey the isolation one experiences before and after alternative measures are taken. Some drink alone and struggle to bridge the gap between people. Others drink to the point where an outline could be chalked around the body, plastered on the floor of the pub. The characters in Larkin’s songs could go either way, an insight of the battles we all face when feeling out-of-step in a relationship, or with society as a whole. Neither direction is healthy, but both are real. Banal, cheesy lyrics will not be found while delving into the 22-song – and growing – catalog of this band.
But where did it all begin? The drummer Chris Vickers and singer/songwriter Dan Larkin got together with a simple goal in mind – to jam. Larkin was then a recent transplant from Philly, where his Dance-Rock band Liam and Me was on the verge of major label bliss before they met an unfortunate demise. Vickers had just come off six-plus years of making a living as a musician, including a tenure as the only white guy in the Blues band Plantation All-Stars.
After jamming for some time, they managed to pull bassist Kevin Blair into the mix. His weapon of choice is a 5-string Fender P-bass. Hailing from a major label World Music/Folk group based in San Francisco – Diego’s Umbrella – and influenced by virtuoso Victor Wooten, Kevin plays similarly to James Jamerson of the Funk Brothers (Motown’s house bassist). Blair is a tasteful bassist that works in tandem with Vickers’ Latin rhythms and southern pop/rock beats to create holes. Holes specifically placed to allow the front of the house to elevate a Dan Larkin original to high-caliber pop/rock song status.
Besides Dan Larkin, who’s working the front lines? Lead guitarist Seth Hendricks. In this band, he invokes the spirit of Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) and mid-period Gram Parsons (the Flying Burrito Brothers), playing blazing Country Jazz leads through a custom Gibson boutique amp. A singer/songwriter himself in various outfits previously and now, Seth’s transition from front man to lead guitarist was a smooth one with the help of experienced hands and the creative, consistent rhythm section.
“The dynamics that Chris and Kevin create allow my imagination to stretch,” says Hendricks, the most recent addition to Whiskey Republic. After a serendipitous meeting in local shop Martin Music, Larkin brought Hendricks in as a “ringer” to replace the original lead guitarist. This fill-in duty, as Hendricks originally saw it, was intended to be a short-lived affair, but soon even music whore extraordinaire Seth Hendricks was powerless to resist. He has become a permanent fixture of Whiskey Republic, and his introverted methodical stance behind the pedal board perfectly offsets the upbeat stage presence of bassist Kevin Blair, the quietly commanding drummer Chris Vickers, and charismatic front man Dan Larkin.
For a band that has only been around for roughly a year, Whiskey has already played many shows, including a performance at the Wiseacre Brewing Company, a benefit for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and a monstrous gig opening for Memphis’ NBA team, the Grizzlies, at the FedEx Forum. The band has these, and many other notches, under their belt without the help of a studio recording.
“We’re slated to record a full-length, with 10-12 of our songs, in January. But we want to keep the live feel intact,” explains Larkin. All of the members of Whiskey Republic agree – a great polished studio recording is the aim, but as a band whose attention is focused on the live local show, a sterile album is the last thing on their minds. They want to remain focused on building their following in the Memphis area, and create a document that captures what they have been accomplishing in 2013 – putting on entertaining performances that draw people to the dance floor, while the lounge lizards sit and meditate on the profound lyrics.
So how would you determine if this music is for you? Any fan of whiskey, the Plato-penned Republic, or both, would be a fan of Whiskey Republic. Any Country fan that enjoys the classics, but finds contemporary mainstream country to be a diet version of a great idea would find them to be a breath of fresh air. Any Rock fan that is bored with overproduced banality but has a soft spot for great writing and musicianship needs to check them out. Any ardent supporter of live music would be hard-pressed to find a more energetic, professional group in 2013. Sociophobes and hard-nosed drinkers have a home at whatever bar, club, or arena they’re playing at. Wipe the sweat off of your brow, stumble towards the bartender, and drive to Whiskey River. Feel the amber current flow from your mind before you realize that it’s only 11:30 pm…and Whiskey Republic have only played their first song.
A member of one of the most notorious rock bands in Memphis, Robbie House says, “I’m so enjoying being a contributor to Outlaw Magazine. Being a Memphis musician with gallons of civic pride, I would love to cover the up-and-coming artists in my city from indie rock to metal, and from album reviews to articles. Memphis kick-started rock and roll and, despite all odds, we’re not dead yet. “
Outlaw Magazine. Country, Rock and Roll, Blues, Folk, Americana, Punk. As long as it is real, it is OUTLAW. Overproduced mediocrity need not apply.