Bakersfield indie pop quartet Backup Johnny make their long-awaited return to the stage at On the Rocks on Friday.
Seated during a break from recording inside the cozy confines of B2 Studios downtown recently, vocalist and keyboardist Joey Romley and drummer Brett Mallard are in work mode.
"We're so focused on the new songs. We get stoked about it," said Romley, 29, of the group's latest studio project, a 10-song collection the group has been feverishly making attempts to put the lid on.
Also seated in the room are the group's newest members: Kenny Reeves and Marty Whiteley, who, after a few months of patiently waiting, are ready to make a new musical statement. The pair replaced original members Tyler Evans and Nick Romero, both of whom parted ways with the band earlier this year.
"If we have an idea for this group, we'll just say it," said Reeves, 24. "Our personalities complement each other."
If Reeves and Whiteley sound familiar, it's because both have logged their own miles in the local scene: Reeves first as a soloist, before fronting his own group, Woodrow; Whiteley as a former member of Bakersfield rock revivalists The Aviators.
"I'm pretty prepared for this," said Whiteley, 30, of adapting to his new guitar role in Backup Johnny, a gig that required a new set of creative techniques. "I really want my parts to tailor themselves around the songs and wrap around what they're doing. It's been awhile since I've had to be this creative."
Backup Johnny enjoyed a steady run of success after forming in 2007, performing regularly at Fishlips and other area bars. Along the way, the group produced two releases, "Heartaches & Hangovers," and an EP, "Dive," that featured the band's signature tune, "Ground Bound." The group also hit the road for a brief tour before pulling the brakes to make way for life's changes and to explore new creative avenues: Romley got married, became a father, joined tribute acts Members Only and the Abbey Roadies, while Mallard stayed busy cruising along in his own lane.
During that time, the working relationships in Backup Johnny began to fray.
"I didn't know what to do for awhile," said Romley. "Do we try and keep it going?"
Enter Reeves, who'd been friends of the band for some time. Approached to fill in for Evans two years ago, Reeves stayed within close reach of the band during the formation of his own project, Woodrow. According to Romley, Reeves was no ordinary substitute.
"Kenny was like a breath of fresh air. He brought more life to the music."
Whiteley, who'd parted ways with The Aviators last year, was approached by Reeves who'd already officially joined the group.
"The first thing I noticed was all the gear I didn't have to bring to play with this band," said Whiteley. "It also made a lot of sense after awhile. I've always been a pop punk player and I was playing with musicians who were more into metal. Now, I have to pay a lot more attention to melody."
Mallard understands longtime Backup Johnny fans may expect some of the group's old material, but don't expect much at Friday's show.
"We're prepared to play 'Ground Bound.' If we do it, it'll be out of respect. Everything sounds so different now. You'll notice it right away. Marty brings an edge we never had."
Romley echoed his band mate: "It's a new group with new sound."
Following our interview, the group shared some snippets from the recording session, and it's clear there's a lot of truth to Romley's statement: The new Backup Johnny has indeed grown up.
"Take your music seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously," said Romley.
Fans can look forward to the group's new CD some time in the spring.
Friday's showtime is 9 p.m. Admission is $5. Also appearing are local alt-country sweetheart Amber Appleton and The 99's. On the Rocks is located at 1517 18th St. For more information, call 327-7625.
Narducci's Cafe reborn
One of the many things I love about Narducci's Cafe besides the food is the restaurant's commitment to preserving the building's legacy, while adding some well-needed upgrades along the way.
Beginning with a nice remodeling job in both banquet rooms, the carpets have been removed, making way for nice wood floors, along with new windows to let the sunshine in during the afternoon.
Also upgraded is the stage. Having caught many a show at Narducci's, it's always been pretty funny watching musicians duck so as to not hit their heads on the vintage lighting system. Those low-hanging fixtures are finally gone, replaced with a safer set of stage lighting. The stage has been properly reinforced and extended, and once all the banquet tables have been moved, you can still get a pretty good look from most areas of the club.
The acoustics are unchanged, which is one of the benefits of having a mid-sized show at Narducci's. The last show I attended a few weeks back featuring former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra and Burning Image was an all-out punk rock blast. While these types of shows may tend to get really loud, the overall sound was even better than I expected. Once the patio doors are opened, crowds can circulate with ease back to the bar or to have a seat and take a break. This night was a mosh pit mess, with some slipping and sliding due to spilled beer, but the crowd rolled with it.
According to Narducci's owner Julie Crawford, bands of all genres are welcome to book their own shows at the venue.
This Saturday, a cool double-bill featuring Santa Barbara alt-rockers Magazine Dirty and Swampcock will shake the main room. Showtime is 7 p.m. Admission is $5. Narducci's Cafe is located at 622 E, 21st St. For more information, call 324-2961.
High-octane Americana quintet Houston Jones will be making another local stop on Sunday, this time at the Bakersfield Museum of Art.
I still recall the group's first visit, which landed on Super Bowl Sunday last year. Not the most fitting day for a concert, but also not the worst. The band managed to pull an impressive crowd and like those out-of-town groups who drop in steadily through the year, saw their local fan base grow. Blending acoustic rock, folk, country, and bluegrass, each musician can burn on their instrument. They've paid their dues on the Americana circuit and it shows once the pickin' and shredding takes off. Their music ranges from both the sweet to the slick, and will appeal to all ages. Check out some of the band's tunes at houstonjones.com.
Doors open at 5 p.m. Sunday; show kicks off at 6 p.m. Admission is $25 and includes complimentary beer, wine and snacks. Bakersfield Museum of Art is located at 1930 R St. For show information, call 205-4401 or 747-5983.
Whiskey Galore at Irish Heritage Club of Bakersfield, 3129 Chester Lane, Friday, 7 p.m., free. I've often referred to this band of rowdies as American-bred and Celtic-fed. Thankfully, nothing has changed. Still able to whip any size crowd into a frenzy of Irish jig mayhem, the bustling Irish Heritage Club should be well-stocked with a warm welcome from members and newcomers. Drink plenty of water the night before, because even as a special acoustic performance, be prepared for a raucous night of singing and shenanigans.
The Expendables at B Ryder's, 7401 White Lane, Friday, 7 p.m., $17, all ages, 397-7304. Bakersfield's obsession with all things that fall under the "California reggae" banner is something to be admired. Among the pantheon of heavyweights of that scene, Santa Cruz quartet The Expendables rank pretty high on the grassroots popularity scale. Over the years, the group has made regular local stops only to be greeted by larger and larger crowds. Their fans are mellow but sing faithfully with every verse. Buy your tickets quick, for a sellout is expected. Also appearing is bearded folk bluesman Micah Brown.
Cayucas at B Ryder's, 7401 White Lane, Wednesday, 8 p.m., $10, all ages, 397-7304.
Although a relatively new band to the fast-moving ultra-hip SoCal music scene, these Santa Monica strummers pack a lot of sun wherever they go. Often mentioned in the same breath as Vampire Weekend and The Shins, the only similarity there lies in the catchiness of their songwriting. A quirky mix of Beach Boys and Beck, their singles "High School Lover" and "Cayucos," an ode to the sleepy Central Coast town, both from the group's latest CD, "Bigfoot," are just two parts of a seamless indie pop gem. Opening act the Hindu Pirates are equally catchy. Highly recommended.