Rock 'n' roll rousers the Van Buren Wheels roll to success at SXSW

There is an inherent irony in traveling a thousand miles to the world's biggest musical festival, an internationally renowned event featuring acts from far and wide, and spending the bulk of your trip watching bands from your hometown.

As the IRS can attest (after getting my 1999 return claiming $13,000 worth of bar receipts as a "business expense") Bash & Pop is a frequent Valley clubgoer who loves to check out groups from this here burg. It's just that, well, it seems kind of silly to go all that way to watch the same stuff you could see on any Tuesday night in Tempe.

That was the feeling going into this year's South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, but it all changed after watching the Van Buren Wheels perform. Like most Valley music aficionados, we've had few chances to see the Wheels play of late, due in part to the group's infrequent concert schedule and a recent lineup change.

Phoenix native and indie-pop queen Lois Maffeo, foreground, expands her sound on The Union Themes.
Bob Mehr
Phoenix native and indie-pop queen Lois Maffeo, foreground, expands her sound on The Union Themes.
This Wheel's on fire: Guitarist Steve Shelton spikes his licks as singer Vic Bochini looks on.
Tae Won Yu
This Wheel's on fire: Guitarist Steve Shelton spikes his licks as singer Vic Bochini looks on.

Despite all that, the band's Saturday-night showcase at the Lombardi Gallery outdoor stage proved them to be the best and brightest development in the local rock landscape in nearly half a decade. While some would inaccurately dismiss the group's music -- a Vox organ-powered blend of rock, soul, and R&B -- as anachronistic, it's the timeless nature of the style that has allowed it to be used to equal effect by everyone one from 1960's Chicano rockers ? and the Mysterians to Brit punks like Elvis Costello and the Attractions

While other metropolises can boast a rash of similarly styled combos -- among them fellow SXSW attendees The Delta 72 (Philadelphia) and the Forty-Fives (Atlanta) -- few groups in recent Valley memory have tried their hand at the subgenre, and none has managed to pull off the feat as well as the Wheels.

Chief among the strengths of this stunning five-piece are the vocals of Vic Bochini, the "c'mon, all right!" abandon of bassist Brew Kerr and drummer Chris Hewlett, and the six-string ballast of guitarist Steve Shelton. A new wrinkle in the group's sound is the arrival of Valley vet Richard Taylor, who replaces organist Jamie Lamb, a casualty of substance-abuse problems. Late of alt-country kingpins the Revenants, Taylor spent most of his Wheels debut pumping out fat keyboard rhythms and supplying with piercing conviction the high harmonies he once provided for Bruce Connole's country laments.

If the musicians were nervous about the high profile of their first gig in months, and their first with a new cast member, they didn't let on to the small crowd huddled underneath the Lombardi tent. The only complaint with the band's showcase slot was that SXSW organizers saw fit to bump the Wheels from their original venue and place them so far from the action, west of downtown and in an area populated mostly by warehouses and car dealerships. In fact, the makeshift outdoor stage was smack in the middle of a massive construction site, complete with bulldozers and scaffolding. The setting evoked the urge to strap on a hard hat and lace up some Red Wings, but the Wheels overcame the handicap.

Ripping through a 12-song set heavy on originals ranging from Nuggets-like anthems ("Girl Without a Soul," "I Guess") to R&B screamers ("Moody Joody," "Lips of Fire") to tender Stax-Volt ballads, the group topped off its Texas stand with a downright dirty version of the Sonics' "Have Love, Will Travel"

After the show, guitarist Shelton was genial, assuring us that the Wheels will resume a regular performing calendar once they return home. He handed Bash & Pop an amazing eight-song demo CD, printed ostensibly as a promo tool for any interested ponytailed A&R types attending the conference. With any luck, someone will pick up the band or release the recording, which features the brilliant Beatles-esque soul workout "Love for Sale," arguably the best (and only) song about male prostitution to so cleverly employ the phrase "doo, doo, doo, doo, doo."

While the Wheels' Saturday-night set proved to be the week's biggest revelation, the contingent of local bands making their way through town actually began three days earlier.

Local pop punks Pollen kicked off the festivities with an early turn on Wednesday at Maggie Mae's West, an open-air venue set in the heart of Austin's bustling Sixth Street area. While the bill turned out to be a good one -- musical soulmates and Dallas natives Adventures of Jet's later set was a perfect complement -- the sound quality of Maggie Mae's bunkered, cinder-block setting proved to be the biggest obstacle of the evening. Still in the midst of a two-month national tour, the group's 45-minute showcase offered the handful of assembled Pollen partisans a chance to see them perform with a new lineup that features bassist Sean Felcyn of Cali-punks Co-Ed. Felcyn stood in for non-touring permanent member Chris Serafini.

Despite Maggie Mae's dubious acoustics, the group pulled off spirited and tight readings of material from their recently released Chip (Fueled by Ramen), which seemed to make converts of an audience that boasted several music biz luminaries, including Drive Like Jehu drummer/producer Mark Trombino (familiar with the band through mutual connections to Jimmy Eat World front man Jim Adkins) and Smithereens leader Pat Dinizio, fresh off his much-hyped "living room" tour, which, judging by Dinizio's expanded girth, could have more accurately been dubbed the "home cooking" tour.

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