By Josh Hunsucker | @jphunsucker
Last Friday evening was a typical spring evening at Mosswood Park in Oakland. Former NBA players to local playground regulars laced up their kicks to get a run on one of the Bay Area’s legendary street ball proving grounds. Across the Bay, the Great American Music Hall, a cathedral of the Bay Area local music scene, hosted an equivalent night of pick-up Americana music. Although the lives of local musicians and basketball players (sharpening their skills on the hard courts and clubs of the Bay Area) rarely cross paths, they often closely parallel each other.
For every Green Day or Grateful Dead or Jason Kidd or Gary Payton that make it, there are thousands of Andre Nikatinas and Lemon Yellows and “Circus” Kings and “Hook” Mitchells that never escape the local scene. For many bands, clubs like the Great American Music Hall are the musical playgrounds where they get a shot to put their fingerprints on the Bay’s rich music scene and potentially rise to the national level. Friday night was no exception as the Great American Music Hall hosted a lineup of four formidable bands.
The highlight of the night was the Oakland-based We Became Owls, a self-proclaimed alternative Americana band. I describe their music as Desert Island. The lyrics are haunting and personal, the sound is authentic but familiar, drawing on the classic roots of folk music. It has kind of soulful sound that that you would chose to play on a loop if you were Tom Hanks stranded alone in the South Pacific.
On Friday night, WBO strolled on stage with something to prove. From the opening notes of “Oak Tree,” the lead track off their new EP “there are other animals at the zoo,” there was something different about their sound. Maybe it was the decidedly hometown crowd but there was a different and bigger energy from the band, like they told themselves before the walking out, “we are f$#&ing stealing this show.”
Lead singer Andrew Blair sang most of the night with an intense stare, aimed just over the crowd. His focus rarely breaking, with the exception of a few laughs aimed at few well-served fans, as though he was extracting the rich sonic history embedded in the walls and repurposing it back into every note. The initial push-pull rhythm of the show, interspersing the up-beat and scathing “Table for One” with the darker “Victoria” played like a welcome challenge to the crowd, “hold on if you can.”
Even the more subdued songs, like the aforementioned “Victoria” and the new “I’m Your,” carried the performance’s energy as Audrey Baker’s June Carter-like harmonizing vocals gave depth to the performance, which operated within the set like a great pick-and-roll duo.
The highlight of the show was the back-to-back performance of “Lovely and Lonesome,” the band’s most crowd friendly (dare I say commercial?) song and “Mask,” my personal desert island anthem. While “L&L” is somewhat of a break from the classic WBO sound, in the sense that the sound is richer, more complex, and bigger, the heart remains the same. The fact that WBO has been able to merge its foundational songwriting, the kind that makes you feel all the feelings, with a sound that is likely to appeal to a broader audience, demonstrates the growth of a band forged in the dimly lit clubs of the Bay Area.
The arrangement of L&L underscored a performance that infused this newer approach, alluded to on “I’m Done,” the last track of their self-titled EP, and prominently featured on the new EP. Even long time WBO tune “Hangin’” has been scrupulously tinkered with to fit into the bolder arrangement, a stark contrast to Andrew and Ross Warner playing together at the Red Devil Lounge circa 2011. The chip burdened shoulder WBO played with both commanded and captivated the hall, resulting in a 40 minutes of hell type performance that effectively ran other good acts, like Ardent Sons, out of the building.
WBO closed out the show with a Steve Earle cover sandwiched between two new songs, which served both as a platform to demonstrate the virtuosity of Ross’ fingers and as a welcome preview of more things to come from WBO. The only thing lacking from the show was the encore demanded from the vocal WBO fan base in both English and Spanish alike.
Who knows if WBO will ever ascend outside of the bay area club scene? Like so many musical acts and kids with hoop dreams, the chances of success are both relative and/or low. However, from an outside perspective it seems like the band has a floor of a Leon Powe and breakable ceiling of a Damian Lillard. The road is still long, obviously, and the grind will be real. However, if Friday night serves an example of what fans can expect from WBO on a nightly basis, then it is not outside the realm of possibility that when WBO headlines a sold out GAMH show in 2025 it will be a full circle homecoming for a big band returning to their roots where they once stole a show from the headliner on a random Friday night.
Want to hear more? Check out We Became Owls at your local interwebs: