Tuesday, July 29, 2014

By Michael Walenceus

            Every great story is made possible by a confluence of two things in time: the people and the place. Time is the infinite constant, because it waits in the wings for us all. There’s no escaping the delicate rush of time, and the toll it takes on you. The force exerted by a place, however, will change depending on your perspective. Your house seems like a safe place. But the coffee table in the living room where you stub your big toe every damn time is not such a safe place. And people… Why, they’re the most variable of all, aren’t they? You can expose two people to love and theft, art and torture, Simon and Garfunkel, and they will experience two drastically different responses. Two perspectives. The human mind is singular and alone, no matter what science and the media tell you. They shove you into groups of race, age, income, sex, TV demographics. But your outlook is your own. And every evening as you succumb to sleep, sure as you fall prey to death at the end, your only companion is you.

            That’s what makes love and friendship so special. Finding other people out there that come close to your perspective or understanding your outlook is a rare event, considering the population of our planet. Or how about the universe, man? Boom. Shit just got macro.

            Our story begins with a setting in that universe. We find Earth, lovingly nestled in the Milky Way galaxy. Flash to the Western Hemisphere, and zoom in on North America. Now slow down, because we’re heading south. Things move at a different pace here. Like the caught-behind-a-school-bus-when-you’re-late-for-work sort of slow. Down in Georgia, specifically the middle, you will find one of the most intriguing local bands. Old Man Shoes began in 2011 as a cover band, but have morphed into some new unholy creature that can escape definition if you’re not quick enough to grasp what’s happening. But that’s because you’re full of slow-eaten grits – we will move faster here. Because some people are defined by their setting in spite of it.


            The writer sometimes confesses a secret. My secret is that all that jazz about friendship and places is the preceding paragraphs really happened. It was at a place called Shenanigans, a now-defunct pub in the no-man’s-land that is Bonairish-Warnerish-North-Perry-Maybe-Robins. (Writer’s Secret Number Two – I like to make up words. And use hyphens.) Shenanigans was the place everybody wants a bar to be. You could walk in at any time and find someone there you knew, and crowded or not it never got creepy. You could use the bathroom without fear of a toilet monster, and the drinks flowed like wine. Sometimes they were even wine.

            It was also the place for live music. Friday and Saturday nights you could hear local and not-so-local bands that had real, raw talent. And those same musicians would get together and musically fornicate onstage together on Monday nights. Just to try and stave off the depressing, boring psychopath that is the beginning of the week. Born out of this wonderful womb was Old Man Shoes. “We were a small group of talented musicians who were getting tired of going to the bar every weekend, running up exorbitant tabs, and being disappointed with the entertainment provided,” says Brad Fickler, drummer for OMS. “I'm not saying all these bands sucked, but the usual sentiment was ‘man, we should be up there’ or ‘we could play much cooler tunes.’”

            The writer will sometimes interject a finely-worded opinion, right about in the area of the next sentence after this one, to show his deftness with the English language as well as his refinement and general good upbringing. So that’s when them bitches decided to stop talking about it, and start being about it! The drinking at the bar then led to the home of one Brandon Fickler, the lead guitarist of OMS. “A song list was started containing possible covers. And it wasn’t until Chris joined as the current bass player when it was decided to book and prepare for the first OMS gig at Shenanigan’s Pub in August 2011. Book first, learn songs very rapidly later!” This is funny, because two other members remember booking the gig first, before much else had been decided or practiced. But when alcohol and memory pair, I forgot where I was going with that.


            When alcohol and passion pair, the ball often gets rolling fast, if not well. The same can be said with bands. It sometimes takes many iterations and lineups before something locks firmly into place. Old Man Shoes went through three people in various positions before today’s foursome was set. The brothers were in place, and so was Mr. Stone. But then there was Chris McAnally. “I was a really big fan of the Fickler’s previous band, The Eddy Currents. I mean I was a huge fan. But this night in particular, Randall asked me to go to the house and jam. I had been asked once or twice before, but this time I actually went. I got there and we jammed for a while, and it was fun. I remember it felt so good just to jam with people again. So after we jammed, we were all sitting around a table outside. And Brad was sitting across from me and he says, ‘So, you got rhythm.’ And that's how I got in the band.”

            What followed was an almost unbroken string of shows in which the band has gotten better every time, the crowd has gotten more devoted every time, and the understanding of the power and theory of music has gotten deeper every time. “We perform after a round of boiler-makers. You know, to bury the hatchet,” says Randall Stone. The writer enjoys quoting movies, and has many friends that do so as well. The writer opines that no scholarly article is worth a damn unless it has at least one Dumb And Dumber quote in it.

            Song choice is vital as a cover band. You can take the easy road and play the current pap on the radio. Or you can go with the easy hits of the last four decades, and people will identify with them because they are drunk and easy targets. Or you can approach it with humor and intelligence. You can cover a song that has disappeared from popular memory, or change one in such a way that it becomes new and fresh again. This is perhaps the strongest suit of Old Man Shoes. I recently attended a show in Macon and spoke to an anonymous patron who shall remain nameless because I forgot to ask his name (the writer freely admits all shortcomings. I’m also overweight). But he was incredulous at the songs OMS was performing. “I can’t believe the songs they’re playing! It seems like they wouldn’t go together, but they’re pulling them off!” It was like watching a bank heist movie – you know it’s wrong, but you want them to get away with it.

            They are songs you forget, like old friends. And it’s great when those old friends come back into your life. “I think what sets us apart from other acts is our song choices and the way we execute them,” says Brad. “I love being challenged behind the kit and I think the others feel the same way. We have a handful of songs that we thought would be too difficult initially. I think we are great at choosing obscure songs that people love. I remember a guy told me after a show that we were the most original band he'd seen. I think we also appeal to such a wide variety of people and age groups. Our shows really do have something for everybody in the room.”

            My admiration and support of Old Man Shoes can be traced to singer/guitarist Randall Stone. We were old friends like those songs. We went to college together, and actually tried to start a band at that time. But those were more complex times, and alas it was not to be. When we caught up together again as adults, he was already in this band. Seeing them in the beginning was like a hot flash of light, unfocused – like a jumble of Lite-Brite pegs before they got stuck on the board. “What I enjoy most about this band is we can put on a good time and have fun with friends. And we do this at the last minute on most occasions,” says Stone. The fun shone through, and it sparked a dim flame somewhere in the back of my mind. But more on that later. (The writer will employ tools of the trade. This one is called “foreshadowing.”)

            Brandon Fickler seconds that emotion. “We have the freedom to play whatever the hell we want, however the hell we want. We know it will be good in the end (at least in our heads), and of course it’s fun! It’s great having the fan base that we have and knowing that we will make them happy with whatever we choose to do, because they genuinely like the way we choose and approach songs; they trust us.”


            I like hearing origin stories within a band, and I also like to try and decipher a name. And yet try as you might, Old Man Shoes is the impossible crossword answer. What does it mean? Turns out it’s not so difficult. “A band was performing at Shenanigans one night, and the middle-aged guitarist was sporting the infamous gleaming white, puffy, no name running shoes. Naturally, we had to point out the old man shoes and have a laugh,” says Brandon. One time he told me there actually was an old man they called Shoes. I never met Shoes at Shenanigans. I started to wonder if he died. No one seemed to miss old Shoes. Then I got myself sad over a man that never existed. The brain is a cruel master sometimes. Randall Stone remembers it differently: “It came from the lead guitarist of OMS, The French Tickler, also known as The White Lightning! Don’t believe what they tell you!” The writer will sometimes offer helpful hints in meeting new people. Don’t call Brandon “The White Lightning.” He won’t turn around.

            Bassist Chris McAnally offers a philosophical bent to the name. “To me, the name is kind of a nod to these bands and people that go out and play gigs, stepping outside of their normal routines, getting on a stage, and playing what they like. Not being afraid to play songs that aren't hits. Guys like The Coolers. They just did their own thing.” And that really is a powerful remedy, both for the performer and the spectator. Music, friendship, and a Saturday go a long way toward making life bearable.


            The proficiency and professionalism is most evident when you hear OMS play. They are technically gifted musicians. They hardly ever practice, but when they do they work out complex material in record time. And they have talents beyond the instruments. McAnally plays bass with an easy, natural skill, but he also handles the sometimes turbulent world of booking. “I try to work up relationships with places we might like to play. Finding a date to play that works for everyone.” Not as easy as it sounds, because some bar owners are the egotistical assholes to which the stereotypical musician could only aspire.
            Brandon Fickler plays guitar with a cold, electric efficiency that stems from his engineering background, a background that helps when it’s time for a show. “I’m the sound guy. I’m usually the one who examines each song that we’re thinking about covering to determine how OMS will approach it from a technical standpoint, such as what tuning and key we’ll play it in. And when there are different versions out there of the song (by different artists, live versions, etc.) I sometimes pick parts from each to create the OMS version. And in a few cases tempos were changed drastically to create the OMS version.”

            Brad Fickler is one of the best drummers around. He’s also got the Don Henley/Phil Collins capability of singing lead while he plays, a talent which will forever baffle me. And his knack for tempo and sound have recently lead to new things for OMS. “Lately I've been sampling sounds to give our songs a greater feeling of authenticity,” says Brad. “I enjoy the technical aspects of grabbing sounds, editing files, adding effects, and finally adding them to the shows. Some of the sounds have actually begun with me and a microphone.”

            Randall Stone considers himself a guitar player who has been forced to be a frontman. What he doesn’t know, and what the audience always comes to realize, is that he is a wonderful singer. “My role in the band is to hold down the rhythm section while trying not to destroy songs by singing them,” he says. But this is self doubt, a dangerous devil to have upon your back. At a recent performance I heard him sing “Baba O’Riley” – not an easy song, and not one you’d typically want to hear performed by an amateur. But I think my jaw still has some dirt on it from being on the floor.


            So what’s next for OMS? Songwriting, that ever-elusive mythical beast, is what the band would like to tackle. But it’s hard for working guys (especially when some of those guys are making missiles and reading blueprints for the Government, or some such thing) to get that faculty together. “The difference between an all-cover band and an all-original band is all the time in the world! Seriously, the free time is clearly lacking between us to even get together to practice the covers we play before each show. And it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have enough free time to be an all-original band,” says Brandon. They have some pretty funky instrumental jams, which the writer hopes can be fleshed out in time.

            But when you have people inventing the oxymoronical phrase “original cover band” to describe your awesomeness, much as the writer just made up the word “oxymoronical,” you’ve really got a winning formula. And when you can walk out on stage dressed as Devo for a Halloween show at Shenanigan’s (long may it live in our hearts) and be treated like rock stars, if just for one day, then sometimes that’s enough. Because few people get to feel so special. 

            Perhaps the coolest trait of OMS is their willingness to give other bands a helping hand. In the past three years they have shared the stage with many bands trying to get a foot in the door of the local music scene, which can sometimes lead to sore toes. The writer’s own band The Swayzes, who happen to be the baddest rockabilly band in the state of Georgia (if not the world), have OMS to thank for giving them an audience. But the list of others they’ve helped along the way is a long one: Crescent Moon Dogs, Beat Up Wade, Call Me Steve, Some Kids, and probably others I’ve forgotten. Because alcohol. “I like finding other bands and musicians to come along,” says Chris. “I take a lot of pride in the shows that we book. If there is a new band I like, I try to get them to open up for us and put them in front of people. I was told once that booking shows is easy, but OMS puts on a spectacle. That works for me. I try to make that happen.” Would that more people felt the same about spectacle… It always works. The Romans knew it, and everything worked out well for them! Right? (The writer suffers from bouts of sarcasm.)


            Every great story is almost never started because of one influence: the self. The terror inside, the commitment to false ideas, buying into the lies you’re told. Authority figures can set you off on the wrong path and ruin your life forever. And it turns out you should have listened to that still, small voice inside you all along. And sometimes it takes a lot of volume to pull that out.

            The writer will briefly sum up his later formative years by saying that public education round-holed his square-peg ass into going to college and pursuing a “serious” career path. And when this disastrous “advice” was coupled with the writer’s own self doubt about music as a passionate career… well, the writer gave up. He got a serious job, and never once made a concerted effort to do what he once loved beyond all things. Friends and family over the years would tell him otherwise, but stubborn men are often fools. Fools who don’t listen to that voice inside that echoes his loved ones.

            So when the writer said in the beginning that the chance connection of people in a chance locale is a serious event, he wants you to really appreciate it. That across time and space, all these families throughout history bred and moved to middle Georgia where their children would one day form Old Man Shoes, despite the area’s sometime-struggling music scene. That they would flourish despite the closing of the very bar that gave birth to them. That they would be an “original cover band,” a term that defies logic but is exactly accurate. That at their first meeting they would inspire someone to throw off convention, and really change his perspective on what is truly important, despite this someone not really knowing any of them. That they would rekindle a passion just by letting the writer sing “Sledgehammer” on occasion (“I certainly think we’ve made it our own,” says McAnally). That’s the power of music at full volume: it changes things.

            The writer will sometimes close with a word or phrase that seems drastic in order to convey the seriousness of the point. The reader will think it crass or vulgar; the reader will think it over-dramatization. They will think the writer is trying to sell some shirts or subscriptions, or maybe just that the writer has lost connection with reality. Or maybe that reality for this guy is a little soft. But trust this: at the end of the humor and the story-telling, this one point remains and it is true. Old Man Shoes saved my life, just by being who they are. And if that’s not powerful, then I have nothing else to tell.