This band may have the word "heathens" in its name, but the fervor the Austin-based quintet inspires in its legion of fans seems pretty close to a religious experience.
Heralded as both musical saviors and jam-band royalty, Band of Heathens have been winning over listeners since forming five years ago as a side project to quench creative thirsts. After all, following one's creative muse is just part of life in Austin, a fabled promised land for musicians -- a reputation that is grossly exaggerated, according to Heathens guitarist and vocalist Gordy Quist.
"Austin is not an industry town where everybody's hunting for a record deal or waiting for someone to show up and scoop them out of the mire and make them a star," said Quist during a phone interview with The Californian to promote the band's show Wednesday at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace.
"I don't see a whole lot of artists around here waiting for that. It's more about, 'Hey, let's put a really good band together and go out and play as much as many nights a week as we possibly can, and make the live show really great.' That culture has really shaped how we make music with my group."
The Heathens -- Quist, guitarist Ed Jurdi, drummer John Chipman, bassist Seth Whitney and keyboard player Trevor Nealon -- have crafted a unique style of genuinely American music drawn from blues, folk, country, gospel and jazz. It doesn't hurt that the band has a refreshingly funky swagger.
"First and foremost, we approach music with the song being the centerpiece. We like songs. We want there to be a strong foundation that you could just pick up an acoustic guitar and play the song, and have it stand on its own. I think that's one of our more important goals in approaching each album -- making sure we have songs that we're proud of."
Their latest release, "The Double Down -- Live in Denver," showcases what longtime fans have always known: Band of Heathens are best experienced onstage, untethered from the confines of a recording studio. A two-disc DVD concert and CD set, it captures the band in the moment and presented without the impurities of the countless live bootlegs that have circulated since the band's inception.
"It's not about regurgitating the studio album for us," Quist said. "It's about going down a different avenue every time. Being able to stretch out and improvise onstage, bringing those jazz and blues elements into it with the mentality that each guitar solo is a moment and an opportunity to say something that may be different from night to night. This collection was originally going to be one disc, but we liked it so much we decided on two."
The Heathens' solid three-part vocal harmonies recall the tradition of their obvious influences, namely The Band and the Eagles. All are capable of taking the lead or pulling together in a seamlessly soulful triad, a brotherly style that is the result of years of perfecting their chemistry.
"I think that's part of any band's natural progression if they're serious about what they do. When we first started out, we would take up a residency at a local club and just play non-stop. We've never really tried to make music for everyone, and not everyone is gonna dig what we do. We're doing what excites us, and we've been fortunate that other people have enjoyed it as well."
This will be the band's third visit to Bakersfield, and one of a number of stops the Heathens will hit through the remainder of summer into the fall.
"Bakersfield has a feel similar to Texas in some ways, especially in the overlapping history of oil and music," Quist said. "We've always enjoyed performing there. I went through a period where I listened to a lot of Merle Haggard and, of course, Buck Owens. You have to recognize how they helped shape the sound of American music. Their era and the emotion they poured into every song was real. Bands like the Grateful Dead also tapped into that type of mentality."
In the improvisational spirit of the Dead, the Heathens also refrain from following set lists, preferring to let the moment carry them once the lights dim.
"We start the song, and when it ends, someone else picks the next in a rotation, although we do, on occasion, experiment with set lists to decide on solos."
Quist added that fans are in for a treat this tour, as the band is currently recording all live concerts and making them available the very night of the show on USB drives.
"We started trying it out about five or six months ago. We listen to the recordings the next day on our way to the next show. Our fans seem to dig it, so it's been cool, especially since it pushes us to change things up."