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Music Working Together 

Thee Shams and Willard Grant Conspiracy borrow from earlier music without being retro

As much as some observers would like to attribute a sense of intelligent design to the world of pop music, for the last 100 years or so, it's all been about messy, old evolution.

Big band transformed into bebop, which gave birth to free jazz. Hillbilly music and R&B begat a hybrid called rock 'n' roll, incorporating elements of blues and gospel along the way. Englishmen in the '60s adopted the sound of American blues and sold it back to us as something new. Punk rock blazes brightly before its traits are assimilated by other species of music, but then the dying embers of the punk aesthetic spirit are revived later in a new form.

Two vastly different bands playing this Saturday night's BAM Festival (see accompanying story) invoke the spirits and forms of earlier musical ideas without being retro. There's something reassuringly familiar about Thee Shams and Willard Grant Conspiracy, but both groups make music that sounds as fresh and exciting as anything in today's record-store racks.

The Cincinnati quartet Thee Shams--which will hold down the middle of a five-band lineup at Club Congress--recombines 1960s garage-rock and psychedelia with R&B rave-ups and Delta blues, boiling them all down to an intoxicating essence that speaks to the Nuggets fans as well as lovers of the Stax-Volt school of soul.

Willard Grant Conspiracy--slated to headline at Plush--employs raw European folk traditions filtered through Appalachia and the South, quiet blues, gospel and country. Call it alt-country, if you must; there's a melancholic Southern-Gothic beauty about WGC's music.

Principal WGC songwriter and singer Robert Fisher, who hails from Lancaster, Calif., fronts a constantly changing lineup that draws from a well of up to 30 musical collaborators.

Zach Gabbard, singer and guitarist for Thee Shams, says there's nothing pre-conceived about his band's sound: "We're just playing music that we want to play. We're doing what we want to do. No one's telling us what to do."

Gabbard continues, "We've evolved from being a back-from-the-grave garage band, to become a little more edgy, a little more poppier, a little more accessible for some people. Not intentionally, but just because we've gotten better at what we do."

Speaking by phone between a sound check and a gig from St. Louis, Gabbard disdains groups who contrive to re-create a specific sound or era.

"If you try to sound like something from the 1960s, what the fuck are you even playing for? If you're not progressing as musicians and songwriters and building more, it seems kind of pointless, doesn't it?"

Thee Shams' third and most recent album, Sign the Line, was released this summer. With it, Thee Shams are moving in new directions, incorporating piano and catchy glam-rock-style melodies.

"I think every band, when they start out, take elements of stuff they like, copy them and rework them," Gabbard says. "But if you keep playing and looking into the music, eventually, you're going to start growing, keep some stuff, throw out other stuff, and you're going to evolve an original sound."

Robert Fisher, too, feels most comfortable when melding music of the past with the present. The most recent Willard Grant Conspiracy album, Regard the End (2004), is a pensive meditation on mortality, calling to mind sympathetic musical souls such as Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Nick Drake and Johnny Cash.

Not only does Regard the End recall old-time country and haunting blues of the past in a contemporary rock context, but on several songs, Fisher marries traditional folk lyrics with new musical arrangements.

"I like the idea of modern and ancient music working together, showing the universality of the themes, basically. And when they can complement each other, that's when they sound most interesting to me."

While Fisher trusts his unique vision, he feels his music is part of a continuum. "I hope that there's an individual point of view in our music, but I think we also have included timeless elements over the last 10 years."

Fisher respects commonalities of experience and explores the continuity of musical traditions. Live music for WGC is a form of communion, he says.

"I like the shared experience of being in a performing band, and of sharing the experience with the audience. It's the sort of thing that Patti Smith calls the 'rock 'n' roll church.'

"I started out playing music as a fan, and I continue to play because I am a fan of the other people in the band, and I think we all can get lifted in the process."

To that end, Fisher invites the collaboration of his bandmates--Willard Grant Conspiracy will be a six-piece when it plays Tucson this weekend--during the process of creating songs.

"I always tell them, 'Learn the songs, not the parts.' I play with a really amazing group of people, who are all exceptional musicians. They listen to the other people around them first. I trust all them to bring themselves to the song and not their own egos."

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