It's no easy feat to maintain a popular free weekly residency in downtown Phoenix and still be one of the biggest-drawing bands in metro Phoenix. But desert reggae band Black Bottom Lighters manages to find a way. Even though the group cranks out acoustic tunes every Wednesday at Copper Blues in downtown Phoenix and recently picked up a regular Thursday gig at the bar's Tempe location, BBL manages to pack fans into the Marquee Theatre every time it takes the stage there.
"All the promoters say the residency is going to hurt us. But from our experience, the more connected you are with the people -- the more you see the people -- the more likely they will want to come out and support you," says BBL singer Ryan "Stilly" Stillwell.
For the band's long-awaited album release show, Black Bottom Lighters intend to pack their massive fanbase into Scottsdale's newly minted Livewire concert venue as the first locals to ever play the new space. Selling out a 1,200-person venue for an album-release party may be a pipe dream for many Phoenix locals. But for BBL, it's not really a stretch.
"That last Marquee show we headlined, we got 900 people there. We are going to do just fine," says keyboardist Kelyn Weaver. Stillwell adds, "We want to make a statement. We want to take it over the top and to make our release something special. I don't know about the sellout, but it's a good goal."
Stillwell did well to maintain his modesty, considering he and his bandmates couldn't even get through a 20-minute interview at one of the Copper Blues shows without being interrupted by fans who just had to tell them how amazing their music is. One girl who approached the band said she was new to BBL, having seen the group for the first time opening the Sunday main stage at last month's McDowell Mountain Music Festival.
Black Bottom Lighters' growth as a band has not been coming one or two fans at a time. The North Valley-based six-piece consistently has appeared on the Valley's biggest stages as well as at significant out-of-town shows like Uplift Festival in San Bernadino, California, Unity Festival at Lake Havasu, and last year's Big Ticket Music Festival in Jacksonville, Florida.
"We appeal to a lot of different people because we have fans ranging from people in high school all the way up to 60-year-olds," Weaver says.
Black Bottom Lighters have been kicking around the Valley for more than five years, but it's really only been in the past three years that the band has experienced such a swell of success. It's no coincidence, either. Three years ago was when the current lineup of Stillwell, Weaver, Jose Aquino, Ryan McPhatter, Phil "Philly Cheese" Keiser, and Taide "T" Pineda began working together.
Since solidifying the lineup, BBL has upped its game. Not only are the songs tighter and more cohesive, but the band also has been able to experiment with more technical aspects of music that eluded them early on.
One of the group's big areas of development is its vocal harmonies. As the musicians have become more confident in their playing, they have been able to test their abilities vocally. Now, BBL lives to show off the newfound harmonies in concert, and they'll be highlighted on the band's forthcoming album, 2 or 2,000.
"This album is probably the best way to show off the musicians we all actually are. The [band's previously released] EP was great and we loved it, but it had at least five of the songs written by people who are no longer members of the band," says bassist Aquino. "I wouldn't say it's less reggae. I'd just say it's more technical, with more unique chord progression, and it's really showing what BBL really is."
The upcoming album ought to show off who BBL is, considering that the band went through the recording process three times to get to a finished product. After recording with Out Loud Audio and Pyramix, BBL found that neither conveyed the sound that the desert reggae six-piece sought.
"They were great engineers, but it just wasn't working," says Stillwell. "We have six people that play different things and harmonize differently, and for somebody to nail what we think is our sound is hard to do, and we just weren't getting what we were expecting."
The group eventually settled on Full Well Recording Studio, where lead guitarist Keiser previously had recorded. Stillwell says Keiser "forced" the band to work with Full Well owner Mike Bolenbach, but after going ahead with the downtown Phoenix studio, everyone in the band finally was happy with the outcome.
With the recording finally complete and 3,000 copies on their way, Black Bottom Lighters have been able to focus more on their first passion: the live show. All the members agree that as fun as recording is, nothing quite compares to fan reactions in a concert setting.
"I love playing live. It's so much fun," Stillwell says. "Plus, it's unrealistic to expect a fan base to continue growing when you aren't out there. It's a lot more fun interacting with the crowd. It's the best fucking feeling in the world when the energy is high and the crowd is singing along. It's exactly what should be happening. Otherwise, what are we doing?"
Even the name of Black Bottom Lighters' new record, 2 or 2,000, is an allusion to BBL's passion for live shows. The title comes from something Pineda said to Stillwell before one of the band's sparsely attended early gigs. Stillwell had questioned whether playing for a minuscule crowd was worth the effort. So his rhythm guitarist told him, "It doesn't matter whether we play for 2 or 2,000 people, we are going to play our best."
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According to the group, it hasn't played a "2" show since its 2013 "Oregon Trail Tour," when a few crowds had more venue staff in them than patrons. But according to Stillwell, the group remained to true to its words about playing the same for two people or 2,000.
"We don't alienate our fans. We party with them," Weaver says. Stillwell adds: "We don't hide anything from our fans, either, whether it's my daughter or T's wedding."
Following the album's release, the band is hopes to tour the Pacific coast at the end of May.