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Radials’ smooth ride belies rough travelogue

by Jordan Green

The Radials have been on a tear recently, and good fortune threatens to overtake the pathos of their sad and twisted honky-tonk universe.

Stephen Corbett and Shawn Patch, respectively the band’s singer and electric guitar player, began composing songs together last year, attracting the exquisite steel talents of relocated Ohioan Tom Beardslee and, subsequently, the rhythm section of Rodney Owen and Aaron Cummings. They’ve been in the studio with Doug Williams, who put himself on the map by recording the Avett Brothers, and have practically wrapped their debut album. They recently played their first all-acoustic set over the airwaves on 90.9 WQFS. They’re opening for their friends the Carter Brothers, a Nashville act with local roots, at the Blind Tiger for the 4th of July holiday.

And writing more songs.

“We’ve sort of been in a flurry, Stephen and I,” Patch says, while the band members huddle at the vacant bar on the patio behind the Blind Tiger.

“I’ve cranked out five songs in the past couple weeks,” Corbett says. “When I’m having a bad time personally I’m having a great time creatively.” He references his wife. “Amanda, she swells with pride whenever I sing “How Much More Can She Stand.’ Literally she was sitting on the couch crying and I was writing the song.'”

For a band whose subject matter deals liberally with substance abuse and family dissolution, a Radials show is… well, something of a family affair. Patch’s expectant wife is in attendance tonight watching the band.

As is Amanda Corbett, whose parents are visiting from the mountains of western North Carolina. The missus has been known to join the band onstage to sing backup on the band’s novelty song, “Groovin’ In the Backseat,” whose protagonist is crossing a liquor store parking lot to get a bottle when he stumbles across his woman with another man fornicating in an automobile. (It should be noted that the band makes a point to try to find new guests to join them at each of their shows, and the song marks a joyous ritual of communion.)

That was also the song that hooked Beardslee, whose musicologist wife brought him to Greensboro and who encountered Corbett and Patch playing an open mic at the Flatiron last fall.

“The first thing he said was, “That sounded like Steve Earle and Buddy Holly did time in the joint together,'” Corbett says.

“It was really happy in a way these Americana folks are reluctant to be, but at the same time it’s dark and sick,” Beardslee says. “Stephen’s like this redneck David Byrne.”

Apropos of the song “Demons,” Corbett’s stage presence has a bit of demonic quality. His brown hair is kept short and gelled to a subtle sheen while multiple earrings affix his ears and a light moustache curves above his mouth reminiscent of Vincent Price. Most memorably, his eyes flash with demonic intensity when he chokes out a line of particular poignancy or perverse pride.

He has stage presence to spare, from the green suit, the guitar strap adorned with a musical note and guitar neck lettered with the band’s name to the knee drop he performs at the end of one of the songs. Owen, in contrast, sways sinuously on bare feet as he draws out a fluid sequence of notes on his bass. Beardslee, with glasses and facial hair, possesses a kind of hipster-country slackness. Patch and Cummings look the part of everyman musicians.

Corbett, like his hero George Jones, specializes in songs about emotional damage. And he possesses the kind of strangled whippoorwill vocal technique that balances on the knife’s edge between with naked confession and repressed pain. That posture is made all the more compelling by the fact that he is unfailingly courteous and hospitable in person. The protagonist in songs like “Smirnoff Morning” appears to be both fatalistically inclined towards self destruction and perversely thrilled at the notion of the impending train wreck.

“There’s a lot more grief going on in this world than sunshine and good times,” Corbett says after the concert. “A certain amount of it is from experience; a certain amount of is exaggerated for effect. You have to keep the line blurred. That is not to say that my marriage is in shambles. You don’t want to sing your diary to the world. Beardslee is always saying, “What does this mean? What does that mean?’ I don’t want to give it away.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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