Thacker Dairy Road takes prize

by Jordan Green

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Molly MgGinn performs at Ziggy’s battle of the bands. Video provided by Sean Coon

The band fronted by Molly McGinn draws the high card, so they’re playing first at this battle of the bands at Ziggy’s, the storied Winston-Salem listening room that’s slated for closure and relocation downtown at the end of November.

All six bands on the bill tonight have already cleared two tiers of competition, each besting 10 other bands. So a couple minutes after 8 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, Thacker Dairy Road is already deep in their element, pouring all their feeling and instrumental virtuosity into the sonic stew of winsome back-country funk and poetics that is fast becoming a signature sound. And even though the evening air has started to cool on this first day of September they’re sweating.McGinn admits to nervousness at the end of the band’s first song.

Stage fright or no, she’s a dervish in a brown vest, rocking on her heels and glancing sidelong at her bandmates. She alternates between strumming a classic, hollow-bodied electric guitar and jabbing the air with her finger like a feverish Bob Marley. Whatever else she’s doing, she’s pouring her voice into that microphone, eyes wide open or squinted close to shut.

The band is arrayed on either side, and cooking with natural gas. To McGinn’s left, a smiling Rebecca Stevens saws away at a fiddle, mostly in tight figures that suit the truncated funk structures of these songs, or banging a tambourine against her hip. The curt bass lines from James Harris’ instrument bob and weave. Drummer Jonathan McMillan is listening closely, and highlighting certain inflections and shifts.

To McGinn’s right, Josh Casstevens of Mood Cultivation Project is filling in this night for the band’s regular guitarist, Chris Lord – away tonight to meet commitments with his other band, Old Stone Revue. Casstevens has only practiced with the band twice, but he’s dispatching tasty licks in a powerful style seated deep in the Southern rock tradition. Jeff Yetter, a mad scientist of sorts, flails at his keyboards, moving deftly between funky power chords and esoteric passages. By the end of the fifth song, any false starts and rough edges have long since been smoothed out, and McGinn mocks the nervousness to divest it of its power.”You know you’re in for a treat with all the bands coming up,” she says. “Be kind to your neighbors. This is a battle of the bands. We hope you’ll check your weapons at the door.”

Indeed, there’s a row of fresh-scrubbed youngsters on the second level of the staggered music venue looking nonplussed. Some of them wear shirts advertising Anonymous, the band to whom they owe their loyalty. Along with Anonymous, a jam band with ties to Elon College, Thacker Dairy Road will contend with Adonii, a Winston-Salem hippie math-rock outfit that plays with scary precision; Audioform, a Charlotte deep funk band with a free-jazz horn section and Afro-beat inclinations; Defying Belief, a pop-punk band that sets itself apart from the pack by playing acoustic guitars and then having two members suddenly switch to horns; and Ton, an old-fashioned Virginia heavy metal rock and roll band that inspires the evening’s emcee to hurl himself into a mosh pit.Tough competition.

With their last three songs, Thacker Dairy Road takes its game to new heights. “Repo Man” simmers with distilled intensity and McGinn’s vocals swelter with protestation. With “Deep Ellum Blues,” the band takes the traditional song popularized by Jerry Garcia and transforms it into a funky stroll with a rolling bass line and frenetic interplay between the fiddle and guitar. And then they close with “Take Away,” a song written by Stevens that showcases the two women singing in a harmony simultaneously powerful and delicate.

Outside in the parking lot later McGinn beams.

“It’s a great little networking tool,” she says of the competition,” she says. “We’ve gotten a couple of gigs out of this.

“There’s no animosity,” she continues, joking, “just death threats, poison and secret spells to make their instruments go out of tune.”

McGinn ends up developing a nasty stomachache, from jitters perhaps, and bails in the middle of Anonymous’ set. She’ll be tormented by nausea late into the night.

Stevens is riding a rollercoaster of anxiety and exultation of her own. She compensates for it by nursing a giant sippy cup filled with vodka, fraternizing with her three remaining bandmates and players from the other bands until the judging takes place around 2 p.m.In the end, Tim Fogarty – one of a handful of judges and the guitar player for last year’s winner, Silence the Sky – calls three bands to the stage: Anonymous, Audioform and Thacker Dairy Road.

“This is the hardest decision we could’ve made,” he says. “There was literally just one point between these bands.”

A thousand dollars is on the line.

Third place goes to Anonymous and second goes to… Audioform.

A whoop goes up onstage and the four remaining members of Thacker Dairy Road beam. Stevens holds the sippy cup aloft like a trophy and places a phone call to her singer.

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