Like David Bowie before him, Beck Hansen is a musical chameleon defying categorization. Throughout his career, he’s been a sardonic freak-folk mumbler, a so-lonesome-he-could-cry strummer in the Jackson Browne mold, and most recently the mastermind behind an absurdly grandiose (or grandiosely absurd) cover of Bowie’s own “Sound and Vision.”
In December of last year, Beck released the Song Reader, a book of sheet music released for the public at large to arrange and perform. On Saturday, March 30, that group will expand to include Birmingham’s own Peytones, who will perform the 20-song set in its entirety at Iron City. According to Scott Lander, the band’s production manager, this is likely the first performance of the entire album in the Southeast, and certainly the first in the Birmingham area.
The Peytones – Peyton Grant on keys, Aaron Branson on bass, Allen Barlow on guitar and Mark Lanter on drums – are all core members of the Black Jacket Symphony, which commonly performs full-album covers of such records as Prince’s Purple Rain. On Saturday, they’ll be accompanied by a bevy of guest musicians, including versatile horn players Chad Fisher and Gary Wheat and vocalist Eric McGinty.
In the Birmingham music scene, it can be extremely difficult to make a living playing original songs; in an extension of the unwritten rules of the busking, cover songs are generally more lucrative. For Grant and Branson, the Song Reader provides an opportunity to find a “middle ground” between covers and original songs and to allow their musical backgrounds to shine through.
“What’s cool about this project is that it needed a group of guys who had all these different sensibilities,” Branson said in an interview with You Hear This?. “In Birmingham, you have musicians like that; guys with creative sensibilities, but also with academic sensibilities and street sensibilities. This is something we can really sink our teeth into and to showcase our abilities.”“It’s not a jazz show,” Grant added, trying to explain the presence of jazz regulars like Wheat and Fisher. “I tried to hire the guys in town who can kind of do it all. Throwing it back to the ‘20s and ‘30s, when people would gather around the piano and play and neighbors would come over and bring their horns – that’s kind of our approach.”
It’s hard to tease out exactly what to expect from the show, but for longtime fans of Beck, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. “There’s a little bit of New Orleans second-line – after the funeral march, the upbeat, happier stuff,” Grant explained. “But then there are so many elements of Beck himself, some odd time signatures, some odd phrasing, that you probably wouldn’t find as often back in those days. It’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing: ‘Well here, here’s a songbook, but it’s my songbook.’”
The final choice of venue was hardly accidental. Lander lobbied hard to perform at Iron City, knowing that resident sonic wizard Mike Creager had been given free rein to install the highest-quality sound equipment. “Being able to have that room, to have that sound, and to be able to record it – that’s huge,” Lander said. Grant also praised the plug-and-play approach to sound that touring bands can find at the new venue, as well as Iron City’s helpful approach extending even to local musicians.
In addition to the Peytones’ performance, there will also be several booths with local artists – many of them friends of the band – selling their wares and painting whatever the concerts inspires from them. “Local’s the key,” Lander said. “It’s a community thing.” In the spirit of Beck himself, the addition of the artists is a step in the direction of multimedia versatility that’s long been a part of Birmingham venues.
Before the show and during the scheduled intermission, there will also be a DJ playing tracks and remixes from Beck’s catalog throughout the night. And in that local vein that seems so important to Lander and the Peytones, Good People Brewing Company, as part of AlaBev, will sponsor the show.
Trying to arrive at a true Birmingham sound – with echoes of our industrial past, our storied jazz history, our many folk artists and our commitment to unflinching rock ‘n roll – is one of the key objectives for the Peytones. Or maybe, as Grant intimated, the goal is just to paint a sonic portrait of the Magic City that could do its unique character justice. If that proves too herculean a task, Scott Lander has a related, worthy goal in mind.
“That kind of gets to the essence of the project,” Lander said. “We’re trying to bring back an era where you had to experience music as a family or as a community. Because there’s no other way to experience this album.”
The Peytones will perform Beck’s Song Reader on the evening of Saturday, March 30 at 7 p.m. Admission is $17.50. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com or call (205) 202-5483.