Editors' pick

J-Roddy Walston & the Business


Editorial Review

There is one best way to experience the rock-and-roll tornado that is J Roddy Walston & the Business — knock back a few beers (or something stronger) and stand a few feet away to witness Walston bashing at the piano, lurching and shouting in his always-on-the-verge-of-hoarse voice as his unruly mane whips to and fro. Meanwhile, watch as his three bandmates work themselves into an immediate sweat, pumping out riveting roadhouse rock-and-roll.

The Baltimore-based quartet is the prototypical “live” band, the kind of act you must see in person to truly appreciate. In an age of blogs and Twitter, Walston and his mates thrive through the most old-school of methods — word of mouth. It’s hard to imagine seeing them play and not passing on an endorsement to a friend.

Band members knew this was the case but found it hard to capitalize on when visiting a city once or twice a year. So, what if they visited a city more often? Maybe every week?

That was the thinking behind the band’s current residency tour, during which the Business plays weekly shows at the same venue in Philadelphia, New York and Washington. The band is halfway through four consecutive Wednesday gigs at the Rock & Roll Hotel and hopes to see repeat customers as well as fresh faces each time out. The group is taking its responsibility seriously, promising unique shows but without self-indulgent moments.

“We don’t want one week for it to be really explosive, and the next week they [bring friends] and it’s me and a string quartet,” Walston, 30, says with a laugh. “So there will be some consistency, but at the same time we want people to feel like the whole thing is a collective experience. We never play with a set list. There aren’t really any rules.”

The band has turned winging it into an art, with a years-long dedication to touring that began when Walston left his native Tennessee for Baltimore and formed the current band. They’ve crisscrossed the country countless times, lugging that piano along, no matter how inconvenient. And, make no mistake, there are times when it’s a hassle. Carrying the instrument is a full-band effort, but sometimes a venue’s narrow staircase make it a two-person job.

“You get to the top and you feel like your back’s gonna break,” Walston says of the occasional heavy climb. “There are different times where promoters are like, ‘Well, we have keyboards.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t play keyboards. I play piano.’ It’s not like you’ll tell a guitar player to play a keytar.”

Walston's love for the instrument began as a child, when he would watch his grandmother play.

“She had a real visual style of playing where you’re playing the same chord but your hands are bouncing all over the place, so it looks like you’re doing a lot,” he says. Walston passes the credit to guitarist Billy Gordon for the complicated licks — “I’m more of a rhythm guitar player,” Walston claims — but there’s no doubt that he’s the focus.

For all of their live might — think of the stadium ambitions of My Morning Jacket and the dirty charm of Drive-By Truckers — the band has also turned in an impressive self-titled debut album that captures the throwback rock-and-roll power of the live show. It was released by Vagrant Records — home to such big acts as Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, the Hold Steady and Stars. After so many years of answering to no one but themselves, Walston and his mates are coming to terms with other people helping to call the shots.

“It’s the same as any relationship,” Walston says. “You can choose to be by yourself and you don’t have to deal with anybody. But you don’t get the benefits.” One of those benefits is moving out of clubs onto some bigger stages. The band has a diverse festival lineup ahead, with performances scheduled for Lollapalooza (the premier indie festival), Austin City Limits (songwriters central), All Good Festival (a haven for jam bands) and Lebowski Fest (what Walston calls “the coolest of the nerd fests”).

Despite the different crowds they’ll encounter, Walston is counting on the band’s honesty and excitement to win over unsuspecting audiences.

“What people are reacting to is that it’s authentic,” he says. “We’re not putting on a rock-and-roll mask.”

Good thing, because that mask would be filled with sweat in about 30 seconds.

--David Malitz, April 29, 2011