I’ve long believed that true rock and roll was almost certainly dead, since the rock shows I attend these days consist of kids mildly bobbing their heads in fear of other people watching them dance and the random drunk person flailing his or her arms around. Where were the musicians that were so explosive on stage that the audience is shaken up, woken up and left wanting more? Well, after speaking with J. Roddy Walston and the Business and watching their live show at the Ottobar, I can unequivocally say that rock and roll is not dead - it’s living on in this group. Whether it’s when front man J. Roddy is bashing on the piano while he whips his hair back and forth or guitarist Billy Gordan is giving his ear-splitting solos, I could feel the electricity from the stage and smell and taste the rock and roll around me.
Chatting with the group before their set, I realized that the intensity and audience participation infused into their live shows wasn’t the result of some calculated maneuver. They were effortless, natural byproducts of the group's perspectives. Walston started by explaining how he moved from Tennessee to good old Charm City a few years ago for his now opera singer wife, and then continued on to recount how living in Tennessee helped form his unique sound.
“Tennessee exposed me to a lot of old school gospel music and of course my grandmother taught me piano there . . . she would always change keys up on me and I really tried to mold her style of playing into my songwriting,” Walston explained.
The whole group had an affinity for old school music, mentioning favorite bands like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Elvis Costello. However, even though these bands have definitely influenced their music, Walston couldn’t pinpoint who they would want to be compared to if given the choice.
“I mean that is [the] problem with comparisons. You can’t have a catch-all. Sure we listen to similar rock bands like Van Halen and The Beatles and that comes out in our music, but saying we sound like AC/DC fronted by Jerry Lee Lewis only captures a few of our songs. However, I would say Rebecca Black is definitely someone I would want to be compared too,” Walston continued.
The whole interview was unusually low-key and reserved, a far cry from the atmosphere at their riotous live shows. There was the occasional joke, like when Walston proclaimed that he wants to collaborate with Tyler the Creator, but Walston was exceptionally soft-spoken for the most part. I kept wondering how such an inquisitive individual with nervous tics abound was able to transform into a piano smashing and relentlessly yelling rocker on stage. I thought that it was something in his hair and that when he let it down (it was tied up for the interview) it unleashed some sort of rock persona. But in actuality, it seems to simply be the sincerity of what the group is trying to accomplish with their music that gets everyone energized.
“We aren’t going out there to just play our stuff - we are getting as much from the audience as they get from us. We feed off of the energy they're getting from listening to us. If they start to get excited, we kick it up a notch as well," Walston said. "And there are no set lists for our shows either. With our new album we set out to try to make more thoughtful, long-lasting music. We still wanted to retain the energy and fun from our first album, Hail Mega Boys, but with the new album we had to really think about how to fit our music with a different style of lyrics.”
It made sense; their live shows were just a reflection of them being so damn earnest about their love for playing and creating music. Pure unadulterated rock and roll courses through their veins and oozes out from them at every opportunity. If you’ve read this far, I implore you to check out their music, starting with their bluesy hit “Don’t break the needle.” But, the best way to experience J. Roddy Walston and the Business is live. Luckily, they are going to be featured at festivals across the country, including Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, so there will be plenty of opportunities to see their signature variation of authentic rock and roll. Just be sure to bring a towel and maintain your balance, because you will sweat and you will bust a move.
- Manik Bhat, for The News-Letter