Towns Like These: Travis Hayes and Other Locals at Great American Music Hall
On a warm Saturday night during Pride weekend, the Great American Music Hall bustled with excitement. Not only were three amazing Bay Area bands about to share one of the most beautiful stages in San Francisco, but the Supreme Court had declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states just in time for LGBT Pride 2015.
“Guys. Love wins,” Travis Hayes said with an insistent joy that gave those words-- which had for over 24 hours been a bland Twitter hashtag-- such weight and meaning that they seemed to be carved across his acoustic guitar.
Opening band Travis Hayes and the Young Days turned the small stage into an arena, with Travis’ gritty folk songs translated into charging rock anthems with the help of his full band. Guitarist Brent Curriden’s stinging lead strums and Drummer Cade’s popping kick and snare made the crowd alternate between swaying headbanging every few bars. Each of Travis’ twanging lines about drinking too much and trying to think a little less were threaded with harmonies by Emily Whitehurst’s backing vocals.
These crisp sounds combined with the group’s warm stage chemistry brought an energy to the room that got everyone out of their chairs; and with a steady strum of Travis’ guitar and the creaking wood of the stage’s floorboards, The Young Daze were joined by the haunting tones of Helen Newby on Cello. With just Travis, Emily, and Helen left on stage, the room filled with an intimate hush. Lilting cello notes wafted through the heavy air, the crowd seeming to gather closer to listen to the somber second half of the set. Just as the sweat from the audience’s bodies was beginning to cool, however, the rest of the band returned to the stage for an unforgettable reimagining of The Smith’s “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”
Second to the stage was Bonnie & The Bang Bang, exploding with rabid melodic rock, the bandmates rebounding off each other as they kicked their way to the edge of the stage, to the tops of amplifiers.
The audience shuffled along, yelling back hooks through tangling beards and cups of beer. They alternated between howling words to the rafters and nodding their heads downward as if frantically agreeing with a particular drum beat, “Yes, yes, absolutely, you are correct!”
Lead singer Patrick was the key variable for each song’s equation. With every sung syllable he simultaneously defined and defied musical genres-- a held-out honey-smooth jazz note could easily transform into a screamo yelp, all while anthemic chants and psychobilly basslines kept the vocals aloft.
“We’re nerds. We make music with Gameboys and then this happens,” said the headlining Curious Quail’s frontman Mike Shirley-Donnelly as his bandmate Alan Chen slid a bow across a violin. Silhouetted in the flickering shadow of their backdrop-- a charcoal sketch of the Bay Bridge lit with Christmas lights-- the band hummed with an electric energy, often punctuated with choreographed jumps mid-song.
Inspired by the finger lights that had been distributed at the door-- not to mention the infectious rhythms of San Jose’s best orchestral-chiptune-alternative-pop band-- the audience broke into impromptu late-90’sesque rave dances.
Through the catchy melodies and driving beats, Mike’s voice carried a shy sadness to it, the bleeps and bloops from a Gameboy backing track adding an air of wonderment or perhaps a grasp for dwindling innocence.
At the end of their set, Curious Quail invited the other bands to join them on stage for a cover of The Pixies’ “Where is my Mind”. This swaggeringly cathartic song was a perfect way to finish off the night. While the joyful light of marital equality may have been tinged with the knowledge that humanity still has a long way to go, at that moment-- with Curious Quail, Bonnie & the Bang Bang, and Travis Hayes and the Young Daze rocking Great American, the city seemed to glow with hope.