A Welcome Alternative

Shotgun Wedding: The best band you haven't heard ... yet

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click to enlarge SONIC TRIO: Shotgun Wedding  --  from left, Johnny - McCarthy, Jesse Martin and James McFarland  -- - bonds over a beer or two  or three. - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
SONIC TRIO: Shotgun Wedding -- from left, Johnny McCarthy, Jesse Martin and James McFarland -- bonds over a beer or two or three.

"A trio can sound like a six-piece when it's on all cylinders," says James McFarland, "but when it's not, it can sound like shit, too."

McFarland writes, sings and plays guitar for the three-piece Shotgun Wedding, who are, without a doubt, the most iconoclastic, evocative Bay area band you haven't seen yet. Thematically and sonically dark yet naturally compelling, Shotgun Wedding throws off by default what untold, unsigned bands hungry for acclaim attempt to formulate, discuss obliquely at length, and ultimately close their eyes, cross their fingers and hope for: a signature sound, an inimitable mood, a sonic whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

"I just want to tell a cool story, and have the beat behind it carry things on its own merit," McFarland says.

The band's uncanny mix of lo-fi alt-country, subtle atmospherics and observational cabaret-of-the-damned lyrical imagery might, on paper, seem like an intriguing aural persona. Live, it's an indie-rock anomaly, a subdued, schizoid narrative that provides a welcome alternative to whatever the hell it was you were looking for in the first place, be it pop-driven and upbeat or gnashing and based on some quickly fading idea of adolescent angst.

Through the right set of stereo speakers, it's an epiphany, a reinforcement of the idea that the term "alternative" used to mean something. An answer to all those questions serious music fans have about whether or not "unique" could possibly be "good" anymore. A deceptively simple, shadowy and subtly trippy set of songs that move the emotions rather than just that joint where your head meets your spine.

Where so many acts sound exactly like one another in an attempt to resonate at the widest and thinnest level possible, Shotgun Wedding plumbs a narrow but deep aesthetic that eschews cliched chord progressions in favor of loose, open-and-aching noir-esque sensibilities that hit a smaller target with much, much more force.

"The bands I've always liked have either slayed me with lyrics," says McFarland, "or had this killer dynamic element."

McFarland got a crash course in what to admire and what to revile in provocative original music by being a sideman in Chicago at the end of the '90s. Chicago's simultaneous love for roots music and support for all forms of envelope-pushing alternative styles left a lasting impression on him. As a bartender at St. Pete's late, lamented restaurant/affluent hipster hangout Grand Finale, he saw bassist Johnny McCarthy flirt with styles from loose, smarmy lounge to bluegrass-tinged roots in acts like Lounge Cat and Blue Plate Special. The pair eventually connected and started working on material, though McFarland was already committed enough to showcase his tunes at more discerning open-mic nights like the one at the Davis Islands hangout Yeoman's Road Pub, where drummer Jesse Martin first encountered the songwriter.

"It was deep, it was really dark. I saw him play at Yeoman's and I was blown away. He was," Martin pauses, "all alone."

Martin goes to great pains to convey that he doesn't just mean McFarland played by himself, but that the description aptly describes the songwriter's sparse, naked style.

McFarland recorded a solo demo at Martin and friends' Tall Grass Studios, but Martin wouldn't become a member of Shotgun Wedding until two drummers down the road.

After the decidedly low-key local outfit released their first CD, 12:58 to Cassville, sporadic Bay area gigs ensued. Not long after, in July of last year, McCarthy took a trip to Amsterdam. He hooked up with some British family friends who turned out not only to be rock-show promoters, but also extremely interested in the Shotgun Wedding tunes he'd brought along with him. The band didn't know how seriously to take the e-mails regarding potential overseas shows, until the one came reminding them they had two U.K. shows scheduled in about a week, and that they should probably be looking into getting some passports.

So they went, and a brace of gigs turned into eight gigs in 15 days, "from bus stops to packed theaters," according to McFarland, several of which were supporting slots for overseas-hyped genre-busting outfit A3 (of Sopranos theme fame). Tales of a camouflaged tour bus and encounters with Snatch-esque "pikeys" (read: gypsies) abound. Ask 'em yourself; we don't have room to reprint 'em here, but they're quite entertaining.

Which leads us to perhaps Shotgun Wedding's biggest quandary. The continued dark, austere vibe of this year's Under the Influence notwithstanding, they're nice guys, semi-focused guys, even funny guys — guys who probably aren't gonna go all Nick Cave or Lou Reed on ya in the next 20 minutes, though they're consistently compared to those artists. And not without good reason: The overall vibe of Shotgun Wedding is a shadowy, damning, poetic last-call grace reminiscent of a dustbowl Murder Ballads, or maybe some of Tom Waits' more instrumentally Spartan material.

But with a twang. And a feel for atmospherics that should, by all rights, send Radiohead scrambling to download Brian Eno's back catalog, and then disregard 99 percent of it. And a certain sense of twisted joy; according to McFarland, things are usually as bleak as Shotgun Wedding's music evokes, but that probably shouldn't surprise anyone.

"Just give me a call," he says with a smirk. "We can work through it together."

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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