When I got to the bar around 9 pm, the upstairs crowd was sparse. There were, however, a bunch of people headed downstairs to The Underground, from which loud bass and dance music thumps could be heard reverberating all night. I took a seat. Near me was a young couple at another table, as well as a pair of quiet older women at another (they seemed to be the “We're on vacation and want to act like whippersnappers, but only until 9:30 pm” type), and eventually a middle-aged couple came in and sat at a table right near the stage. So at first, I was a little bummed that the bar was a bit empty.
I hung out at my little table with my little drink and whipped out my little camera to take some little pics and little videos. When I walked in the guys were playing “Hank Williams Saved My Life,” which I knew from the band's Myspace page.
Only a few minutes into the band's set, I sent this update to my Twitter: “upright bass, drumset, guitar laid across the lap. sexy funk-country.” Apparently it didn't take me too long to start feeling the music in a big way.
Through the night they played a lot of songs I'd heard already, like “Saint Bernard Perished” and “Must Be Movin' On,” and a lot of new ones that will soon become favorites I'm sure; “Big Lovin' Woman” made me downright giddy. The longer I sat and listened to the band, the more I realized that, as much as I liked the music already, I had grossly underestimated what these guys were capable of. They are really good.
There wasn't a note out of place when Raines laid the guitar over his lap and moved that slide up and down the neck. It's that kind of instinctual guitar that I think many people can appreciate, but especially those (like me) whose hands and head have different views of what it is that makes sense. I pictured Raines busking on the streets of Santa Fe a few years ago, and it made sense that eventually business owners started looking at the dude in their doorway and realized they had something special sitting there. Raines has a pretty incredible voice to boot – it can stay low and unassuming when it has to, or it can rise for the “big,” descend slowly for the “lovin'” and drop off halfway through the “woman” without thinking twice about what it needs to do to get the audience to lean closer, begging for more. Chuck Grewe's upright bass playing blew my mind – and an upright bass isn't the first instrument I think of when I think of deft, flawless picking. I tried to watch his fingers as they moved instinctively over the thick strings, but I couldn't get a grasp on what seemed to him to be second nature. As hard as I tried to get a picture of him, I couldn't get one that wasn't blurry until he stopped playing for a minute to watch a Raines solo. Bryce Abood is the kind of drummer that you don't even notice at first, but the longer you sit, you realize – Wait a minute. That guy's good. Shit, that guy's awesome. Wait, what? And then you start paying attention and suddenly it makes sense: When something is flawless, you don't notice it. When the dynamics are perfect, you aren't distracted enough to notice that the bass drum slides under the guitar like a body under sheets, the snare explodes like gunshot only when some invisible signal triangulating from Abood to the back of Raines' head and from out the side of Grewe's aviators told the drum set that it was time.
That's all just a long, self-indulgent way of saying: This band's tight. Really tight.
After the first set the guys came and said hey to the terribly pretty little gal sitting all by her lonesome ... then they came to say hey to me. I gushed to Raines about how great they were and how on they sounded – and he told me that, when they're not sleeping or talking to the press, they're practicing. When Raines went out to have a smoke, Abood took his place in the chair next to me. I asked him how long they had been playing together. “I've only been with them a few months,” he replied. I must have looked incredulous, because he didn't quite know what to say. I said they sounded like they'd been playing together for years. He shrugged. Awesome bands don't often think about how awesome they are. (Except U2. They probably think about it.) (BTW, contrary to popular belief, that ain't to say these guys are like U2. They're not. That's the point.)
Another thing that made the evening especially enjoyable was the band's relationship with the audience. Raines started out early with banter that, for a lot of acts, could have felt awkward and forced, but he kept it real. “We have seven albums,” he told the audience. “Yeah, we're a lot older than we look. I still get carded for a Bic lighter.” The point at which he was telling us about the Bic was still a pretty cordial time in the show; but as people started flooding into The Underground, things started getting a little weird.
It started with the huge gaggle of girls standing outside the bathroom, which happens to be just behind and to the right of the stage. They were drunk, and they were loud. I mean, seriously. Raines, mid-song, kept glancing back, seeing when the hell they would disperse. Thankfully they got the hint after about 30 seconds and stopped screaming, but that didn't stop one of them, a few minutes later, from making a total and complete ass of herself.
She was a lot older than she was trying to look, and had probably drank a little more than was a good idea for a Wednesday night. “POUR SOME SUGAR ON ME, BABY!” she screamed as she walked by the stage between songs. There may have been a “You know you want to!” tacked on to the end of her exclamation. She thought she was hot shit. The band cracked up, but she had already disappeared into the loo and didn't notice. “Uh, no thanks,” Raines replied into the mic. “You've probably already had a lot of sugar poured on you... by a lot of men you don't know.” Similarly, when two dapper dudes came out of the mens' room and stood directly in front of the stage and carried on a very loud and animated conversation, the band finished one song and Raines then said with a sigh, “This one is called... It's hard to compete with so many interesting conversations.” The audience members that were actually listening to what he said started laughing, but the dudes had no idea that they were being mocked by people who were probably much smarter than they are. Eventually they moved back toward the door, but I think it was a coincidence; I don't think it had anything to do with realizing they were being total douchebags.
Later I said to Raines, “I was expecting you to seriously tell them to fuck off.” Raines smiled and said, “Nah, my days of getting combative with the audience are over.” And indeed, the snarky comments he made from the stage weren't mean-spirited. He knew these people were drunk, and they weren't listening to him anyway. He'd even offered to pour some molasses on the sugar woman. The vibe was friendly, and the band didn't let the strange crowd members get in the way of playing a really awesome show.
By the time the band's third set came around, nearing 11:30 pm, the bar had definitely filled up. There were probably eight or 10 occupied tables, and a few inebriated dudes stood in the back, hooting and cheering. Ashley told us the band would close with a song titled “Too Drunk to Get Hard,” the chorus of which declares simply: “Thank god, thank god, thank god, thank god I'm too drunk to get hard.” The audience was stomping and clapping along, cheering so much that, once that song was over, the band was encouraged to do one last number. They whipped out “Hank Williams Saved My Life” again, since only about 1/10 of the crowd (me, the other young couple, and Nick behind the bar) had been around for the opening song at 9 pm.
The show was over far too early. It was hours past my bedtime (I didn't leave the bar until nearly 2 am), I'd drank a little too much (Abood, some random dude from Tulsa and I closed Evangelo's with a shot of tequila apiece) and the guys would be camping the night just outside town and had to get going, but I didn't want it to end.
Ashley Raines' performance in Santa Fe may end up being one of the high points of a summer that hasn't even officially begun. There are very few things, for me, that can top a night of amazing music, a band friendly enough to hang out with and good-natured mocking of the liquored-up populus. The next day I shot the guys an email thanking them for coming to Santa Fe, and instructing them to keep me updated on when they'd be back. I can only hope it's soon - it won't be long before I need my cowboy-boot Western-shirt slide-guitar aviator-sunglasses sexy-funk-country fix once again.