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White Reaper is ACL Fest’s hardest-rocking band

Ramon Ramirez

White Reaper named its 2017 sophomore album “The World’s Best American Band,” and the boast is less absurd than you think.

The Louisville, Kentucky, quintet knows that the best rock has fuzz in the mix and soundtracks trips to the pool hall. Hell guitarist Hunter Thompson lives in town. They know how to posture, riff, and play uptempo and punk-tinged rock for the Hotel Vegas crowd better than most. Guitar solos are served up via Gibson SG. Orange-brand amps transmit the signals. A noisy Korg keyboard plinks just the right amount of keys.

The band—which impressed at SXSW and scored a blog-heralded hit with nostalgic, crunching, and romantic single “Judy French”—arrived Sunday at ACL packaged with the poise and swagger to evolve beyond the BMI stage at Zilker Park. A quick word about BMI for the uninitiated: It’s an afterthought of a setting, sandwiched between bigger stages and lacking for spillover traffic. It exists to showcase new talent, but the higher on the BMI ladder you climb, the more likely you are to be overlooked by bigger, simultaneously performing acts. No matter.

The afternoon set, which was warmly received by orange-haired punks and a dude in a Black Label Society jacket, proved that these learned rippers have the hooks to grow into a less-sanitized Kings of Leon. (Singer Tony Espocito looks like Joe Jonas, for starters.)

Espocito and keyboardist Ryan Hater both arrived in denim jackets; four of the five garage rockers arrived in long sleeves. The commitment to aesthetics was unwavering, and you’d attack it for being overly self-aware in the Texas sun but every lick landed like a dirty joke. Hey some great country singers grew up in the north, and whether or not it’s 1980 is secondary: the band flings big hooks like, well, Hater tossing his drinks into onlookers.

Hater said that the band could “play all day for you guys… you guys are a dream come true.”

Sporting a Harley Davidson T-shirt, drummer Nick Wilkerson was the engine. He pummeled the kit and never yielded tempo. The fast rock grooves brought dueling, Thin Lizzy-style guitar breakdowns. And whoa, they burned “Judy French” before the end knowing that louder and better melodies could close strongly.