Tenacious P? Parklife at the Blind Tiger

by Meredith Veto

The Blind Tiger is sparsely attended tonight. A few couples perch on barstools, and some men, slightly older than college aged, lean against the pool table that’s covered with a plywood board and light cigarettes.

Rob Clay, bassist and lead vocalist for Parklife, bounces around the stage making sound adjustments before the show. Clay is animated and wide eyed, wearing flared white jeans, a buttoned jacket and white brimmed cap. His voice is forceful and he shows a white, clean set of teeth when he speaks.

The Raleigh-based band formed when Clay and long-time friend Sam Clowney, Parklife’s guitarist and harmony vocals, were both working as sidemen for other bands and united to focus on their own material. They added drummer Peele Wimberley to the mix and recorded their first EP in 2002 with producer John Custer called Lonely Eyes and Amsterdam.

The band is pure, classic rock updated with poppy vocals ‘— a blend of U2, Led Zepplin, Wilco and a touch of Joy Division and Radiohead. Clay says that he and the band members are freaks for music, the kind of people who stay up all night listening and analyzing music. Jason Bone, the current drummer who signed on when Wimberley went to Los Angeles to pursue other interests, grew up listening to classic rock. Clay and Clowney listened to British eighties pop rock: ethereal, blue and green music.

Early on Parklife earned a fan base and some prominent gigs, fronting for Wilco, Better Than Ezra and Seven Mary Three. In 2003 they recorded their full-length debut, Songs from the Imperial Hotel, mixed by local recording legend Mitch Easter (REM, Pavement, Let’s Active).

The band makes runs throughout the south ‘— Nashville, Knoxville, Arlington and Chapel Hill ‘— and spend their downtime back home in Raleigh. They also play a one-week residency in New York City at Arlene’s Grocery and Sin-é, driving eight hours to hop immediately on stage for their northern fans.

By midnight the crowd at the Blind Tiger hasn’t thickened, but the fans in attendance are enthusiastic and maintain a running dialogue with the musicians on stage in between tunes. One man in a gray suit offers to trade his ugly, bold-printed red necktie for Clay’s cool hat (offer refused).

Parklife opens with an incredible guitar riff that evokes the sounds of Hendrix like a opening prayer to the rock muse. Bone is a powerful drummer, true to the classic rock tradition. He pounds at the set with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and his shaggy blond hair falls into his eyes. The concentrated sounds resonate in the floor and through the back of the seats.

Clay presses his bass guitar closely to his hips and sometimes pivots its neck outward to the crowd. His voice mimics the British rock he grew up listening to: energetic, poppy, and just gritty enough to command a rock anthem.

Clay announces that the next tune, ‘“Blown Away,’” is a song about youth. Clowney, whose hair falls in ringlets past his shoulders, continues to rock Hendrix-style and Bone throws in some cowbell for effect. Lyrics are abandoned and replaced with a long, bass-laden ’70s jam that eventually breaks down into a distorted finale under glowing red stage lights.

They follow with ‘“Gonna Save the World Tomorrow,’” a dark, melodic anthem, then continue with the catchier ‘“New York.’” Clay, a charismatic humorist on stage, glares at the crowd and talks about the next tune.

‘“This is a song about being really pissed off.’”

Bone starts a melodramatic, tightened punk beat to accompany Clay’s angry bass. Clay becomes robotic and sings into the mic at awkward angles like he’s trying to duck from it.

‘“Thank you for letting us release a little venom,’” he says afterward.

The last part of the set showcases selections from their new album, ‘“Memphis’” and ‘“Sister Radio.’” The tone changes during ‘“Memphis’”: the guitar is soulful and pedal-distorted, reverberating like a bell, while Clay almost whispers the slow lyrics. The drum volume builds but sustains a mournful, march-like momentum. ‘“Sister Radio’” is upbeat with pretty vocal harmonies, a piano accompaniment on the album’s version and a cowbell cue for the guitar and bass to enter.

Parklife wrapped up the show and enthusiastically thanked their opening band, Veda, and the bar’s last stragglers. The band now moves on to Tennessee, but will return next month for a Friday night spot at the Blind Tiger and continue to spread their rock gospel.

Unstrapping his bass guitar, Clay smiles and exclaims triumphantly, ‘“We’re not massive, but we’re tenacious.’”

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