On the rocky road with S. Burns

by Jordan Green

The crowd is a little lighter on a recent Friday night than the last time S. Burns played at Elliott’s Revue on Winston-Salem’s Trade Street a week or so earlier, but this band has toiled under some adverse circumstances, so it’s no big thing.

S. Burns of Greensboro does not fit in the pop-punk boy-band category whose ranks scramble weekly for preeminence at Greene Street; they don’t really fit in with the folky and droll indie-rock scene, or the ascendant roots-music scene co-led by Thacker Dairy Road and Old Stone Revue. Instead, like Burlington’s Instant Jones or Silver Bullet (guitarist Tristan Yonce’s project following the dissolution of Starlyn Garvy), they cut a mostly clean through-line from the edgy rock-and-roll tradition defined ca. 1990 by bands like the Pixies, Nirvana and Tool. It’s somewhat unclear who their constituency is in these days of fragmented tastes.

From humble beginnings when Brandon Adams started singing and playing guitar solo – “It didn’t go over well,” he says – to when Carlos Castellanos was added on a second guitar with a drum machine and the inception of a proper trio with Castellanos switching to bass and Seth Oldham joining on drums, the band has honed its sound. Castellanos learned to play his instrument on the job, and at first Adams had to write his parts. They’ve lived together, traveled together, practiced, played before strange and improbable audiences – undergoing all the experiences that fuse a collection of individual musicians into a true band – but only after five years are they now preparing to release a proper studio album.

“We said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’ve got to have a real band,'” Castellanos says. “We need to get a drummer and I need to learn to play bass.”

The band’s CV includes playing a hookah bar in Wilmington during an ill-fated move to the coast when they were trying to break into the film industry, a Burlington youth center, the famed Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro and Guilford College. They have also played a biker party in the parking lot of the Greensboro strip club Christie’s Cabaret. No pole dancing took place during their set, but they say the band shared billing with an amateur wrestling event featuring Tony Little, or at least a Tony Little impersonator.

“We played at a train depot in Gibsonville,” Adams recalls. “We had a very small crowd, but the three people who saw us fucking loved us. If we ever go back there, we know we’ll have at least three fans waiting for us.”

Perhaps the highlight of their touring experience was playing the Brighton Bar, a venue in the seaside town of Long Branch, NJ that has been a way station for Bruce Springsteen and other rising artists. On one of their days off, the band was briefly detained by the police because Castellanos made an illegal U-turn, prompting a field sobriety test (which he passed) and a ticket. In the process, the band accumulated two new fans.

“One thing about cops in New Jersey, they use a lot more profanity,” Adams says. “We told them we were in a band and they wanted to hear what we sounded like.”

Oldham imitates the Jersey lawmen: “‘Yeah, pop that shit in…. Sounds good.'”

Tonight at Elliott’s Revue, the front row consists of Tristan Yonce and Jon Beal, whose band Silver Bullet also includes drummer Oldham. They’ll end up headlining the show when the band originally booked to share the bill with S. Burns fails to appear.

The band charges through a set of original songs. Adams plays a gnarly lead guitar processed through an array of effects pedals whose sound ricochets off the structured bass runs supplied by Castellanos. Sometimes Castellanos’ bass playing bears a punk-infused kinetic charge; other times it carries a fluid groove. The Adams’ guitar veers from quiet to frenetic with little warning. Oldham provides a no-frills, yeoman-like beat on the drums.

Their friends kid them from the audience.

“You guys are awesome,” says Beal, the bass player for Silver Bullet.

“Owww,” a woman beside him shrieks in approval.

“Where are you guys from?” Beal asks.

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