Weird fellow travelers

by Jordan Green

They have broken down after their show at the Cave in Chapel Hill and gotten a motel room somewhere off the interstate around Burlington. The hike to Winston-Salem has been short enough to allow the two young men who fashion the Nashville band Gunslinger to get in some relaxation time at the hipster HQ known as Krankies Coffee. By 7 p.m., drummer Miles Cramer has wrapped up a yoga session. He owns an intense and centered persona, like his music, that belies the swaggering image suggested by the band’s name.

A couple hours later, the band Lamb Handler rolls up to the Garage after an 80-mph haul up Interstate 77 from Charlotte. Evenly split between longhairs and hirsute trims, they give the impression of a timeless tribe from an alternate universe comprised of Hank Williams Sr. sidemen and Ride the Lightning-era Metallica fans.

Lamb Handler drummer Tim Benson, a heavyset man with long, stringy hair who books gigs for the band under the name of Ellis, sidles up to the bar at the Garage to receive proprietor Kim Lawson’s greetings.

“Thanks for coming,” she says.

“Thanks for having us back,” he replies.

Lawson informs the Lamb Handler drummer and business manager that they’re going up against a televised Wake Forest University home game and the Dixie Classic Fair. A local band, Terrance & the Tall Boys, has been booked at the last minute to enhance the draw.

“Terrance & the Tallboys,” Lawson says, “they’re well connected in the service industry. So hopefully, if we don’t start punctually, we can get some more people…. I like to let things unfold organically.”

Benson shrugs and smiles.

It’s Cramer and his guitarist Brian Looney’s gig. They have called the Garage and set the show to fill a slot on a two-week tour supporting their second extended-play CD Death of the Gunslinger.

Lamb Handler has obligingly made the one-off trip from Charlotte to fill out the bill. They’ve recently hooked up with an Asheville label called Coma Gun and mastered their second full-length CD, Jingle Jangle, which is slated for release in November. They hope to be back in Winston-Salem in January as part of a tour to support the new CD.

The previous night Gunslinger has played for about six people in Chapel Hill. Coming from Music City, where industry imperatives seem to impose commercial calculation over musical process even in the indie-rock scene, they appreciate North Carolina’s do-it-yourself ethos.

“Last night, we were playing at the Cave,” Cramer says. “This couple came in and said they had heard the loudest band ever at the Cave. It was just the two of us. It’s about finding out something new instead of holding an alliance with your friends.”

The members of Lamb Handler, all veterans of Charlotte’s incestuous music scene, have hit upon their most successful formula by fashioning their music around the songs of singer and guitarist Moe Lassiz. They’ve taken up a steady diet of out-of-town gigs, while friends have canceled summer tours because of high gas prices. Still, it’s been something of a struggle. One current challenge for bands is that venue owners are increasingly reluctant to pay guarantees.

“You’ve got to make enough money at the gig to put gas in the van to get to the next stop,” Benson says. “We drove twelve hours to New York, and didn’t get paid anything. It really sucks: The first night, you go into the hole.”

During the opening set by Terrance & the Tall Boys Cramer carries his sticks around under arm. He greets Lamb Handler guitarist Jay Fernandez at the bar, and spends a few moments visiting. Then he retreats to a couch and lightly pounds the air with his sticks in time with music.

In short order, the men of Lamb Handler take their places onstage. Cigarettes dangle from the lips of Moe Lassiz and bass player Brent Holland. They both wear black cowboy shirts. Holland rubs his hands together, assumes a rough and ready stance, throws out a devil sign and kicks the set off in full-punk throttle. Holding down the rhythm, Moe Lassiz assaults his instrument and sings in a psychotic, fly-like voice redolent of rock-and-roll possession. Benson holds a galloping time structure and moves his lips in time to the beat. Fernandez dispatches screaming leads.

Moe Lassiz, wearing a goatee, a faux-hawk and pissed-off expression, introduces a song paying tribute to the band’s archetypes.

“This song’s dedicated to old country heroes, old country-music heroes,” he says, adding disdainful rejoinder: “Kenny Chesney… come on.”

The song is all proto-metal fury, thundering bass and shrieking vocals.

As promised, Gunslinger’s set is loud enough to leave a tactile sensation on the eardrums.

Sitting behind his kit, Cramer unleashes hard jazz rolls, and his eyes slide back into his head, body rocking, black shirt accumulating sweat. The drums and electric guitar intertwine, move in and out of each instrument’s space. Rather than the drums anchoring the rhythm, the two instruments bounce it back and forth, and each one takes exploratory flights.

Looney’s guitar playing deftly switches styles based on well-defined cues, working metal fret-board sprints against heavy-reverb psychedelia. Cramer similarly treats his instrument with tenderness, creating a rhythm from striking the cymbal in a manner that evokess wind shaking raindrops out of a tree cover, and then when least expected, erupts in volcanic intensity.

A stripper celebrating her birthday enters the premises with an entourage. She shrieks in approval of the music, rocks in her chair, and then pulls a pliant male partner onto the floor and swivels her hips against him as Looney unleashes a brutal, shredding solo. She protests when the music ends too soon.

“We need to get to Boone,” Cramer says. “Either buy us a beer, buy our album, give us a place to stay, all of the above or none of the above.” Later, overcome by exhaustion, he repeats the plea: “Five dollars or a place to stay, please.”

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