Western Youth raises its own expectations with a powerful album
It's midnight on Friday at the Continental Club on South Congress, and the place is packed with a mix of Continental regulars, tourists in town for the Formula 1 auto race, and curiosity-seekers who've been hearing about up-and-coming local band Western Youth. The band has been around for awhile, but it's only with this fall's release of their first full-length album that momentum has begun to build.
That self-titled disc is one of the best roots-based rock ’n' roll records to come out of Austin in quite some time. It boasts a dynamite opening track in the propulsive yet tuneful "Dying on the Vine," a full-on sing-along anthem in "The King is Gone," a striking ballad featuring guest vocalist Jaimee Harris in "Lost the War," and a desperate rocker with a politically charged video in "Hangin' On." With seven more cuts and no real weak links, this is a mission-statement album that immediately makes Western Youth rise above the crowd.
It wasn't always obvious that this would happen. After frontman Taylor Williams first teamed with guitarist Matthew Gregg and drummer Brian Bowe to record an EP that came out in 2013, Western Youth began playing occasional shows in local clubs, soon adding keyboardist Sam Powell to the mix. But things never really took off for the band.
"I think our aspirations were pretty low at the outset," Williams says. "We were all musicians who had played for years; we had day jobs and those kinds of things. Still do. But I don’t think we ever saw it growing to what it could possibly grow to, until the past couple years."
What changed? Well, quite a bit, actually. The turning point was last year's addition of well-traveled Austin troubadour Graham Weber to the lineup, a development that happened almost by accident.
Weber, who's released several solo records over the past decade or so (plus one with the band So Long, Problems), was planning to use Western Youth as his backing band for an EP he was going to record under his own name. But when he and Williams got together to sketch it out, a songwriting spark struck.
“It was going to be four of my songs," Weber says. "And then I was like, 'Well, let’s do two of yours and two of mine, and maybe we can write something together.'" Weber had played briefly in a side-project group with Bowe and Powell a few years earlier, so he knew his songs would fit well into Western Youth's aesthetic. But the writing chemistry with Williams was a fortuitous outgrowth.
"Dying on the Vine," the new album's immediately arresting opener, hit them right out of the gate. They tracked three other songs Weber brought to the sessions for the presumed EP, but Williams and Weber soon became convinced that this should turn into something more.
Drummer Bowe, for one, was not surprised. Weber and Western Youth occasionally played shows on the same bill together a few years ago, and "I would joke with Graham, 'We’re going to get you in Western Youth,'" Bowe recalls. "Because Graham was always like, 'I really love your band and I really dig it.'"
“I’ve been a pretty big proponent and fan of these guys for a long time," Weber says. When the idea of him being in Western Youth was first floated, "I think I said no, initially, because I didn’t want to screw up the chemistry in the band."
He pauses, and adds, with some bittersweetness: "And now I have." Sitting around a table at Little Longhorn Saloon on a Monday evening in mid-October, Western Youth's core members — Williams, Webber, Bowe and Powell — are fully aware that not everything about this story is sunshine and roses.
Present on the album but absent in the band now are guitarist Matthew Gregg, a co-founder and contributing songwriter, and bassist Sean Spiller. Gregg and the band parted ways a few weeks ago; Spiller exited a few days later.
"It was a very hard thing to deal with because we were so close," Williams begins before saying that the split happened at least partly because of time-commitment issues. Gregg and his wife just had their second child; Williams cited "familial responsibilities" as an issue that may have kept Gregg from being able to devote "the time that it takes" to go forward with the band at a time when Western Youth is primed to ramp up its efforts. (We contacted Gregg, who declined comment for this story.)
Spiller left four days later, though his departure was "completely unrelated," Weber says. According to Williams, “He was like, 'This started off as being something I could do kind of part-time … and (now) this is a much bigger commitment than I signed up for initially.' He’s got some stuff in his life going on, all good things. But it’s just a bigger commitment than he can really make right now.”
In a musician-rich town such as Austin, it's not hard to pick up new recruits. At that Continental Club show, new bassist Chris Spencer made his debut with the band, and everyone seemed pleased with the results. "We asked him to learn four songs," Powell recalls. "He learned all 90 minutes and didn't bring a chart."
The other spot is a little trickier. At the Continental, they had a ringer: Local blues guitarist Eric Tessmer, who's been recording and touring under his own name for more than a decade, sat in with the group and definitely raised the lead-guitar stakes. Tessmer often uses Powell as a sideman in his own band, so the connection was natural. Tessmer also filled in for several shows in Nashville during the AmericanaFest in September when Gregg (still a member at the time) couldn't make the trip. But he's likely too busy with his own career to go full-time with Western Youth.
For now, they plan to use fill-in guitarists on a show-by-show basis. “We’re really lucky to have a lot of friends who are great guitar players around," he says. "They also often have other projects going too, so I think it’s finding the right person who’s going to dedicate the time to it.”
It's not a given that they'd need to add another member. Williams grew up in Dallas playing electric guitar in other artists' bands as a teen, so he has lead-guitar chops that extend beyond Weber's primarily acoustic-centered rhythm playing.
“I have often just said, 'Why don’t we play as a five-piece,'" Powell says. "But it's nice to have that dynamic of having another guitar player.”
“I think the power of coming up with a six-piece band and the amount of air you move — more speakers, more people putting out more stuff — it’s just a force to be reckoned with," Taylor adds. "You can feel it, and I really like that.”
You could feel it at the Continental on Friday night as Western Youth and Tessmer steamrolled through most of the songs on the new record plus a few choice covers from the likes of Paul McCartney, whose Austin City Limits Music Fest triumphs still hung in the air, and Tom Petty, an early rallying force for the band. After Petty's death in the fall of 2017, the band played a full show of Petty songs at East Austin bar Stay Gold; it was the first show Weber played as a member of the band.
They'll reprise the Petty-themed show at Stay Gold on Nov. 21, and then return to that venue on Nov. 30 for a show of their own songs. That follows a busy fall that already has included a marathon record-release show at Spider House, gigs in both the upstairs and downstairs rooms at the Continental, a performance at Circuit of the Americas during the Formula 1 race and an in-store at Waterloo Records.
What's next for Western Youth? And what's the goal? Both Williams and Weber have kids, too (ages 6 and 3, respectively), and everyone agrees that their days of piling into the van for extended tours sleeping on friends' floors are behind them. Still, they know this is something special, and that it warrants the effort.
"I think we want to push it as far as we can," Williams says.
"This is the first band I’ve ever been in that I think has a real shot," Powell chimes in.
Bowe agrees: "This is by far the best thing I’ve ever been a part of."
We'll give Weber the last word. “My goal was always to be on the David Letterman show, and now I don’t know what my goal is," he says with a laugh, realizing his career has outlasted Letterman's "Late Show" run. So he sums it up with a simple thought: "I just want to make enough money where I can only do this.”
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH, NOVEMBER 2018: Western Youth
Recordings: self-titled LP, 2018; EP, 2013.
Performances: Nov. 21 and Nov. 30, Stay Gold.
Members: Taylor Williams, guitar/vocals; Graham Weber, guitar/vocals; Brian Bowe, drums; Sam Powell, keyboards; Chris Spencer, bass.