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Published: 2010/07/20
by Brandon Findlay

The Heavy, 3rd Annual 80/35 Festival, Des Moines, IA – 7/4

Photo by Eric Hermann

I’m not into dudes, but the Heavy would get a dead man horny. And grooving. There’s at least one band in this world that plays rock and roll with the original purpose in tact: starting riots and making babies.

You’ve seen the soon-to-be legendary Superbowl comercial from, um, Kia (of all companies?), and maybe you’ve even seen the Letterman performance from 1/18/2010 where he asked the band for an encore- first and only time I believe, for you jamband stat trackers scoring at home. You could have seen all that and more, but until you’ve felt the subs kicking and Kelvin Swaby is exploding sweat all over you on the railing, you really haven’t really experienced anything yet.

Starting late due to a Mac issue, once sampled and live grooves were making majick together, this band makes it very clear: If Gnarls Barkley is the uber-successful, sample-happy, neo-soul band to allegedly beat, they would be John Mayer to The Heavy’s second coming of Howling Wolf. And if I really need to tell you…

Coming onstage to an Eastwood-meets-Tarrantino sample, frontman Swaby started into one of the band’s better vocals, “Short Change Hero.” The chorus chides “this ain’t no place for no hero, this ain’t no place for no better man” and you’ve got tight Charlie Watts drums, Ennio Morricone strings, Curtis Mayfield falsettos, a message with some depth and a dozen other things happening at once. The more you listen, the more you find. For a band that bonded over Jarmusch movies, their tunes serve as a soundtrack for one tragically hip night of partying.

They would blow through several more songs off their most recent platter, 2009’s The House That Dirt Built, including the Sabbath-esque “What You Want Me To Do?” and the intriguing “Sixteen”; built off a tasty piano/horns sample from Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”, Swaby remained the star, constantly moving, dancing and drawing the crowd with him. Which allows, unfortunately or not, guitarist Dan Taylor and bassist Spencer Page to lay back a bit while holding down the fort. Then again, neither Steve Cropper nor John Entwistle were the dancing kind either, so take it for what it’s worth. Drummer Chris Ellul, who seems to control the samples via the aforementioned Macbook at his kit, plays with a less-restrained verve, and his pulse keeps the show rolling.

Photo by Viken Koundakjian

And on they rolled into several of the finer tracks off their 2007 debut, “Great Vengence and Furious Fire”; “That Kind of Man”, “Coleen”, and “Girl”, the last of which is based somewhat on the Kinks’ “All Day and All Of The Night”, which they indeed slammed into, sending the crowd of around 1500+ into overdrive.

Swaby then announced they were going to do something unexpected, and they unpacked a rarely played “GV&FF” diamond, “Set Me Free”. You recognize the cowbell riff from “Honky Tonk Woman”, but you’re surprised when they take it somewhere different and good. The feel-good Zeppelin rawk of “In The Morning” plastered a smile on hundreds of jumping faces as well.

Of course, when you have a song played during the Superbowl, you kind of have to play it last to keep the bandwagon contingent parked and waiting. The two-man horn section, whose names were impossible to catch over the crowd that knew what was coming, played a sweet little groove with the band while Swaby riled up the masses, and then they kicked into “How You Like Me Now?”

I hope that song doesn’t end up on “Where Are They Now?” playlists years from now, because that is a bonafide hit. The Jimmy Nollen-style guitar flutters, the succinct horn blasts, the bass line that continually rebuilds into the root note, the insistent cymbal + snare combination, and a lyric full of swaggering comebacks and feral lust- that melting pot is about as American as rock & roll gets, ladies and gentlemen.

Once their (approximately) hour-long show was up, they quickly exited, but the bass player was kind enough to greet a few fans who knew who they really were and stuck around. He fielded questions on the Letterman appearance, their recent tour with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, when they’re getting new material out, and, yes, if he would sign a condom. The life of a touring rock star.

So, Kelvin Swaby, how do we like you now? Did you really have to ask?

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