Rock music has been declared dead or dying nearly as often as it’s been played. And right now, as DJs and sundry fusion bands dominate the live scene, plenty of people are lining up to write off rock once again. But bands like Boulder’s West Water Outlaws are keeping guitar-driven, blues-influenced rock alive with high-voltage live shows.
Bucking the trend has actually helped the young band get a leg up on other newcomers over the past few years, said West Water Outlaws drummer Andrew Oakley.
“Being classic-rock-oriented gives us an advantage,” Oakley said from Boulder, where the band was recording new material late this summer. “I think it gives people an escape for something alternative.”
Bred on Led Zeppelin, classic rock and the blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, the band formed in 2010 in Boulder. It played house parties at frontman Blake Rooker’s house and elsewhere, and then it quickly started landing gigs in bars around the Front Range. Over the past two years, it has graduated to playing regular sold-out shows at the Fox Theatre while touring Colorado’s mountain towns and zigzagging the U.S. in a van on national tours, building buzz show by show and gaining industry attention at South By Southwest in Austin. The band plays a free show at Belly Up Aspen on Sunday.
Along the way, it released EPs and singles, with stand-out songs like the anthemic, fast-paced party-starter “Come On” and distorted blues rockers like “Real Killer.” Last year, it logged more than 150 shows and recorded its first full-length album, a 13-track self-titled disc released in February.
The album shows off the band’s blues-rock chops in tracks like “Caught in the Headlights” and “57” (with the chorus “I got $57 in my bank account!”) and fuzzed-out guitar foot-stompers like “Feeling Coming Back.” But it also shows some range from the up-and-coming Boulder band, with offerings like the ballad “I Sing Myself” and the hard-edged metal of “665.”
West Water Outlaws’ is a scruffy and seemingly unpolished brand of blues-based rock, with soaring guitar riffs, pounding drums and Rooker’s shape-shifting vocals. Guitarist Will Buck, who also plays some lap steel on the new album, and bassist Vince Ellwood round out the lineup.
The band’s aggressive live show has been its calling card, winning over fans with high-energy affairs over the past four years.
The old-school road-warrior approach keeps the band away from Colorado more and more, and its crowds in the hinterlands can be hit or miss — on a given night, the band may find a packed house or an empty bar, though in recent days it’s more the former than the latter.
“We call it the bittersweet curse,” Oakley said of the touring life. “On tour you’re homesick and you’re tired. Then you get home, and all you want to do is get back on the road.”
The band’s members are all 26 and younger — Oakley is the youngest at 24. The idea of a bunch of young guys starting a guitar-driven rock band seems a bit of an anachronism in this cultural moment. While a generation or two ago, rock-star dreams were standard among musically inclined young people, today a teenager is more apt to doodle away on his or her laptop than to form a garage band.
Ironically, going back to meat-and-potatoes rock has helped West Water Outlaws find a niche in the bluegrass- and DJ-flooded Colorado music scene.
“A lot of bands today don’t stick to one genre, and we pretty much do a high-energy rock ’n’ roll show and stick to rock ’n’ roll and blues,” Oakley said. “People come up to us and say, ‘I haven’t seen a rock show in ages!’ People are refreshed to see rock ’n’ roll.”
West Water Outlaws have played a handful of shows at Belly Up and opened for Black Pistol Fire’s sold-out concert here in July. They play the Boulder Theatre the night before the Aspen show and plan to try out some new material on the local crowd Sunday.
“At some point we’ll compile it all into an album,” Oakley said. “We went awhile without having time to write and record, so we set aside some studio time in August and July. Now we have at least an album’s worth.”
Compositionwise, the four-piece has found its best songs come out of collaborating as a whole and recording together.
“The most common way is we get together and we jam, and a lot of times in that jam there are elements that can become a song,” Oakley said.
The West Water Outlaws concert is among an offseason kickoff of free and inexpensive shows at Belly Up, which began Thursday night with electro-houe DJ JackLNDN. The run continues tonight with local bands Jes Grew and Echo Monday ($5, no cover before 10 p.m.) and continues with the Boulder-based reggae outfit Politiculture (Saturday, no cover), the West Water Outlaws show Sunday and San Diego roots-reggae band One Drop on Monday (no cover).
“Being classic-rock-oriented gives us an advantage. I think it gives people an escape for something alternative.”