Rebounding from a harrowing flood experience, Blk Odyssy could be an ACL Fest breakout act
In March 2020, rock & soul outfit Sam Houston and Blk Odyssy was heading into the South by Southwest Music Festival that never was as Austin’s next big thing. Then, the music industry poised to propel the group’s rise crashed.
In the year off, lead singer Juwan Elcock, aka Sam Houston, radically reconfigured the band, shifting focus from himself to highlight a potent ensemble of Black Austin talent.
On Aug. 27, the group dropped a stunning debut album, "Blk Vintage." Sonically complex and emotionally raw, the album is haunted by a menacing specter of early death and the incessant anxiety around police brutality that can destroy a Black man's mental health. But at its heart, it's a collection of liberation songs. “Blk Vintage” is a gripping portrait of Black America that is alternately defiant, sensuous and devastating.
It’s one of the best albums of the year — in Austin or anywhere.
‘Back to my roots’
The first year of the pandemic was a time of reckoning for Blk Odyssy. When the world shut down and the group’s momentum came to a whiplash halt, Elcock found himself rethinking everything.
He was able to stop and “just look at what I was doing and where I wanted to go, what I wanted to speak about, and different demographics that I wanted to be able to touch,” Elcock told the American-Statesman.
He had arrived in Austin in 2015, fresh out of high school. He was working at the Dillard's at the Hill Country Galleria when he met the band’s co-founder, Alejandro Rios, logging a shift at a pizza joint. Rios introduced Elcock, a soul music fanatic, to artists like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Together they built a project that seemed commercially viable on the local scene, soulful rock that could be slotted into an Americana bill. Elcock learned to channel his emotions into rock & roll screaming.
More: Promising new singer Sam Houston bares pain and soul on 'Riot'
And it was working. The band was on a rapid rise. But when the bottom dropped out, Elcock felt a “calling to get back to my roots of what I listened to growing up and what I loved.”
They scrapped the album they were working on and did a hard pivot into soulful sounds. Elcock wanted to pay homage to the Black geniuses who shaped his early ideas about music. On the album, shades of Parliament, 2Pac and D’Angelo swirl in and out of an adventurous sonic palette.
“I want to take the things that I deem to be the best music to ever be created and mold them all together to create something new, (something) that will inspire other artists to do the same,” Elcock said.
The track “Murda” mashes a Fela Kuti tribute into an abstraction of Bob Marley’s “Exodus.”
Listening to the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer’s revolutionary music, Elcock was inspired to “let what he created live through me now,” he said.
The idea of Exodus, the Biblical book centered around Moses’ struggle to free the Israelites, is a recurring theme woven throughout the album.
“I speak about it in the intro, when I'm speaking about, like, mental enslavement, and I'm speaking about Black people being enslaved to stigmas and stereotypes,” Elcock said. “And then I speak about it, on 'Murda,' when we speak about literally Black people coming together to free ourselves, and finally taking back our pride and everything that we are owed.”
Surviving the New Jersey flood
In a dark coincidence, less than a week after the Statesman described the album as “a perilous hero’s journey,” the band’s tour path put them on a collision course with a tropical storm that led to widespread flooding in New York and New Jersey. The night before they were supposed to celebrate their CD release in Brooklyn, the group lost all their gear.
The weather was deceptively pleasant when the band flew into New Jersey and headed to a rehearsal. The seven-person team was cavalier about the flash flood alerts that shook everyone’s cell phones. But by the time they were heading back to the hotel, rain was falling.
They “drove into a puddle,” and within 15 to 20 seconds, “the water was in the car up to our knees,” Elcock said.
'All our gear was damaged or floated off': Austin's Blk Odyssy caught in New Jersey flood
The engine in the minivan they were driving stalled. The vehicle was “not moving forward or backward,” and as more water seeped in, covering their legs, Elcock said he was “petrified.” It was a struggle to open the doors, but they managed to get out of the van, wading into fetid water that rose almost to their chests as it ripped through the city streets like a river.
The band found shelter in an apartment building. For four hours, they huddled in the stairwell, dispirited and soaked with sewer water. As the water that surrounded the building began to flood the first floor, anxiety and emotions ran high. They worried about whether any of their gear was salvageable. It wasn’t.
Elcock described it as “one of the more insane experiences” he’s ever had.
"Adversity and obstacles" always come "when great things are upon us," Elcock wrote in a post on the band's Instagram account the night after the flood.
With borrowed gear, the band played the release party the following day.
“We were determined to do it,” Elcock said.
The show wasn’t sold out, but it was close to capacity. Fans drove in from Virginia and Washington, D.C., to be among the first to see the dynamic new ensemble play live.
“To see a packed venue come out in the middle of a state of emergency” was a “beautiful thing for us,” Elcock said.
As word about the band’s plight spread on social media, fans rallied to raise over $14,000 to help them replace their gear. “I can't even begin to explain what (that) means to the guys that lost their stuff,” Elcock said.
At its heart, "Blk Vintage" is a deeply Biblical album. It’s not lost on Elcock that as he's worked to put it out, the challenges the band faced — a pandemic and a flood — also had a biblical feel to them.
“I don't want to get overly religious, but I just feel like things are moving right now. And we’ve all got to just be close to where we are spiritually,” he said.
He thinks people need to “just treat each other well, and be conscious of like, what's really going on around us,” he said.
Blk Odyssy at ACL Fest
Catch the band at noon on Oct. 10 on the Vrbo stage.