Sandwiched between the hustle and bustle of Head of the Charles weekend and the Dispatch concert in Sanders, Rockwell Church, a D.C.-based duo, took the stage of Club Passim for their first of two sold-out shows last Saturday. Lead singer Nathan Church Hubbard asked the audience, “Why do they schedule all this stuff at the same time? It must suck the rest of the year.” Suck the rest of the year or not, Boston was in for quite a treat as Rockwell Church opened its evening at Passim with a solid 17-song set consisting mainly of audience requests.
Joti Rockwell and Hubbard, two self-described “guys with acoustic guitars and bad hair,” could easily be written off as just another duo who picked up their guitars in college to woo girls—except that they’re not. Lifelong friends, the 20-somethings have been writing music and performing since they were six, graduating in 1997 from Princeton (Hubbard) and Haverford (Rockwell). Their stood-the-test-of-time friendship was apparent in their on-stage banter during the Passim show:
Hubbard: “Hey—let’s get everyone up on stage to moon the Internet camera. [No one moves.] Oh, man—no one likes to show their butt in public any more.”
Rockwell: “It’s usually [at] the places with the liquor licenses that that stuff happens.” [Passim is a dry club.]
The boys of Rockwell Church released their first of four albums in 1997 and were picked up by Aware Records as part of their Aware 3 Compilation, which also featured songs by Guster and Tabitha’s Secret (now known as Matchbox 20). Oct. 20 was the first time they were given two slots at Club Passim in a night—and the second show was added as a result of the first one selling out so quickly.
What sets Rockwell Church apart from the masses of other bands who play (self-described) “wussy suburban rock” are their perceptive lyrics, and—with as much respect as is due to ’Nsync—not perceptive in a “[w]e got the gift of melody, we’re gonna bring it ‘til the end” way. Many of their lyrics read like poems. “Lonely,” the song Rockwell Church chose to kick off the night, for instance, finds the speaker reflecting on the mind games he and his girlfriend play when they fight: “It was a subtle implication / Supposed to thrill me to the core / You trade the caustic observation / For the burning metaphor . . . It’s strange the way we change into the things / We might become anyway.”
In addition, Rockwell Church’s melodies are complex and incredibly diverse, making it difficult to pigeon-hole them as pure acoustic folk-rock: “Steady, Ready, Strong” could be Ben Folds Five tune, while a bridge of “I See Alice” is reminiscent of the Beatles.
Beyond insightful lyrics, gorgeous voices and delicious harmonies, much of Rockwell Church’s appeal stems from the band’s relaxed stage presence and the audience’s subsequent desire to be up on stage with them. They’re having that much fun on stage, and the audience becomes jealous of their obvious bond and that extra level to the jokes that they’re missing. These are two guys who obviously still crack themselves up. After storming the stage and finishing “Lonely,” Rockwell announced that it was a good thing the audience were not on stage with him because he had just had one of the restaurant’s salads; he didn’t know what it was called, but he thought it should be renamed Garlic Devastation. He then launched into what he believed the Garlic Devastation theme song would sound like. Later in the show, Hubbard quipped, “I’m afraid of sushi. I don’t know why. So, just don’t come at me with any,” and a few minutes later Rockwell challenged Hubbard to a water-chugging contest.
Musical highlights of the show included a chilling version of “Mezzanine” where tempo and guitar-strength changed instantaneously to give audience members goose bumps, and “Geneva,” in which Nathan appeared to be telling the story to the audience as if he were having a intimate conversation with a friend. A large part of what made the Rockwell Church-going experience so special is the passion that the band so obviously have about the music they’re making. The emotion Hubbard felt while writing the songs seems to come back to him as he sings, bringing the audience into the intimate inner workings of the band. In fact, the only less-than-amazing point of the evening came when Rockwell Church sang “Chandelier.” This was no fault of their own, however, and would only have been awkward to anyone who knew that the Hubbard parents were in attendance. The words, “I’m trying not to be my father / In a positive kind of way” certainly had a new and interesting ring to them with Hubbard’s father sitting at one of the tables.
As they do all their shows, Rockwell Church ended their set with a cover of a popular song. While few events will ever equal this summer’s acoustic and harmonized version of Britney Spears’ “Oops! I Did It Again” at Club Passim, last Saturday’s rendition of the Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” definitely had Passim a-rockin’ and the audience thinking that, yeah, Boston will suck until Rockwell Church come around again.