TME REVIEWS: Brandon Callies Band and Exit 380

The Kessler Theater (Dallas, TX)
– Words by Jordan Buford (The Music Enthusiast) / Photos by James Villa –

Life is Still Good

There was a special night of music going on at the Kessler Theater in the Oak Cliff part of Dallas. It wasn’t just because the venue was playing host to some amazing local bands, but the only non-local act (though local in heart), the Brandon Callies Band, was celebrating the release of their brand new EP.

In promoting the show, all the acts stated they were proud to have the opportunity to play “one of the best listening rooms in Dallas”, which is quite true. The Kessler isn’t your typical venue you find in Deep Ellum or other parts of Dallas, nor Denton or Fort Worth for that matter. There’s little standing room available in the elegant venue. Instead, they have opening seating (at least it was open this night), with patrons being able to pick which spot works best for them and just relax and enjoy the show.

Hand Drawn Records Presents: Brandon Callies Band and Exit 380 at The Kessler Theater - Photo by James Villa 2013

They took the stage a little later than intended, nearly twenty minutes later, but luckily that didn’t impact them at all, and they still got to play the full 48-minute long set they had planned.In order to better fit in with the environment, each of the three bands had switched things up from how they typically do it, doing some softer, even slower songs instead of their louder, more rock numbers, and the first group to do this, this night was DFW’s own, Exit 380.

Vocalist Dustin Blocker got things going, lightly tapping on his keyboard as he sang in more of a falsetto voice, “I awoke from a dream and escaped this soul burning train…”, the chorus and gentle/beautiful lead in to the single from the Townies album, “Soul Burning Train”. That’s a wonderful intro for that killer song, and fleshing it out a little more were guitarists Aaron Borden and Jeremy Hutchison, the former rocking an electric, while the latter used an acoustic, though it really sprang to life at the first chorus, when Bobby “Shoes” cut loose on his drum kit. That was one of the few times this night that Exit 380 came close to their rock roots, as they opted more for their country stylings, edging closer to that as Jeremy exchanged his acoustic axe for a mandolin.

Blocker took this time to pimp their record label, Hand Drawn Records, who released a compilation album the year before, which featured their next song, the sweeter “A Song About Us”. They followed that love song with “Missy Gardner”, a track that goes in the complete opposite direction, since it’s more of a concept song about cheating. It tells one of their best stories, though, and is a personally favorite of mine, and it was only made better this night when Dustin’s sister, Christi Blocker, joined them about halfway through. For those who saw their CD release show for The Life & Death of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Stone album back in mid 2008, you remember the band made a spectacle out of it, incorporating a ton of their family members into the show that night. Well, they were doing somewhat of the same thing this night, just on a much, much smaller scale. She, along with Dustin, Aaron and Jeremy shouted out the chorus, “My house was full of enemies. My days were left to chance…”, putting a lot of force behind it, making it sound exceptional.

Before continuing on, Dustin took a second to introduce his sister, saying “…She’s always been a little bit of a better singer than I am…” They then tackled the serene “Where Do We Go From Here”, which lyrically is one of their most moving songs, and upon finishing it they kicked things back up a few notches.

“Papa Hutch” AKA the father of Jeremy and bassist Jon “The Hutch” Hutchison joined the band, getting in front of the microphone on stage left, with his sons right next to him. Now, Dustin is a mean harmonica player, and had used his harmonica a few times already, but he and his sister took a seat on the drum riser now as “Papa Hutch” took over those duties, cranking out some sweet notes just seconds before the band tore into the mostly instrumental “Sinful Bliss”. He got pretty into it all, but the best was yet to come for him, and he exited the stage shortly after the Blocker’s moved back to the forefront of the stage, delivering the few lines of words that song has. That’s one song from 2008’s The Life and Death… record, and just like that album, they bled things perfectly into the subsequent track, “Sweet Remorse”. As far as softer music from that record goes, those are some of my favorites, and it was nice getting to hear them again.

Upon finishing those slightly older tracks, Dustin mentioned they had been around for awhile (about fourteen years), noting they had “waxed and waned”, also saying they had gone through a few different styles of music, adding they were probably going to stick with their most recent, the slightly country/Americana genre. With that, the now quintet of just the core band members fired up “Run For The Gold”, Aaron using his lap steel guitar for the song, which is certainly fitting of the vibe the song has, and in many ways it creates that vibe. After “Daddy Was A Freight Train”, Jeremy pulled his mandolin back out, as they prepared to debut a brand new song. The band is planning to release a new record, “Photomaps”, later this year, and have been teasing their fans for awhile now on the social networking sites about an even newer sound they’ve cooked up, and finally their fans (at least the ones in attendance) were going to get to hear it firsthand.

They’ve mentioned they were putting a bit of a Spanish flare on these new batch of songs, and I never imagined it would sound so phenomenal, or that they could pull it off so well. It was a fantastic song, and honestly, the last time I was so taken by an Exit 380 song was the first time I heard “Quid Pro Quo” many moons ago. I can say I’m already in love with that song, and I’m eager to hear what the rest of those new songs are going to sound like.

They weren’t done with the special treats just yet, and next did the oldest song that was in their set list this night. “…I’ve got this one…” Aaron said to Blocker before he was about to introduce the song. He couldn’t remember exactly what year it was written, but mentioned the early 2000’s, saying he knew many of their fans here this night had never heard the song they were about to unleash. The golden oldie he spoke of was a song from 2006’s Last Monday record, “Closure”, one of my favorite songs off that specific album, and one I had not heard in far too long. For me, that was definitely the highlight of their set, and while it did appear that Blocker stumbled over a word here and there early on, he quickly recovered and it didn’t impede that masterpiece of a song.

As they got ready to call it a night, they did one last Townies number, the fun “Little Trip”, and then ended with a explosive finale. “Papa Hutch” again joined them on stage, and I believe it was Jeremy that noted his dad had been inducted into the South Dakota Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, meaning they had a celebrity on stage with them. He let loose some more lines on the harmonica before the band ripped into “2 Lie”, though the intro for the song was extended, allowing him to get in great form, and he was really throwing down, just having a good time. This was another song the band slightly crossed the border into rock territory, doing probably the most dynamic rendition of that song I think I’ve ever heard them do.

From the brand new, to the current and the old classics, the array of songs they selected to play this night was incredible, and certainly fitting of the venue. Plus, the overall performance was one of the best I’ve seen them give, with some seriously tight musicianship. This show also served as an excellent way to say goodbye for the time being, given that they are taking a little hiatus for a few months. Don’t fret, though, for they plan on returning around the fall to winter, and shortly after that they will hopefully be releasing their new record.

It didn’t take long for the Austin based Brandon Callies Band to get setup, and once they were ready, they embarked on a set that was comprised of nearly all newer material.

They began with little instrumentation, as singer and rhythm guitarist Brandon Callies, keyboard player Jason Myers, bassist Omarr Escoffie and drummer Chris Evans all harmonized and sang the first few lines of their opening song, a song that is one of their strongest in my opinion. Those glorious harmonies sounded great in this room, and it was a fitting song to ease into their show with. Eventually, it becomes a real beast of a song, and things only escalated a bit when they moved on to their next track.

Upon finishing it, they finally got to a song from their brand new Life is Still Good EP, but first, Brandon got a little personal, mentioning that the day these records came in was the same day he found out that “the sweetest” and greatest on in the world had passed away; his grandfather. He said near the end he had talked with his grandfather a lot about what was to come, and had written a song about it, for him, titled “Leaving Here Alone”. There was a certain tranquility to the music bed, with lead guitarist Charles Cohen lightly plucking the strings of his axe, while Brandon crooned about life, with the overall message being that with family and friends, we all have somebody, and are never truly alone. There’s a certain degree of sentimentality to it, and I dare say it’s the most beautiful, moving song they have in their arsenal, just from the lyrics to the nice, albeit brief solo Jason has towards the end.

This song’s called Midnight Drive…” said Brandon once that song was over, as they immediately moved on to the song from their first EP, continuing the barrage of alternative country music, with just a hint of rock thrown in, and that song seemed to go hand-in-hand with the one that preceded it.

It not exactly here, it was around this time that Brandon mentioned how glad they were to not only be playing The Kessler, but just be on this bill in general, with two other great bands. “…We dreamed this up…” he said, and I believe it was Chris who then made the remark, “It was a wet dream.” That got some laughs from everyone, fans and band mates alike, with oBrandon soon saying, “You can’t say that on TV.” They joked about for a few seconds, before doing two more of the songs from the new album, one of which was “Fairy Tale”, while the other was “Pack is Dead”. Both of which sounded very different from any of their other material, and if they end up taking their future music in that same direction, well, it’s going to be amazing.

Oddly enough, music from their only full-length record, The Gunner, was mostly overlooked this night, sans the prelude to the title track, “The Gunner (Prelude)”. Brandon encouraged everyone to participate and help them out on it, and as he and his other band mates at the forefront of the stage began rapidly clapping, so too did some of the crowd, while Chris handled the singing on that one, showcasing his excellent voice, that can almost, almost give Brandon a run for his money.

They segued it right into another song, before doing another lighter track from their debut EP, “Away for Awhile”, one I don’t believe I had heard live before, but I thoroughly enjoyed it now. Before moving on to the next song, Brandon asked where Dustin Blocker was, inviting the Exit 380 front man on stage. “…We haven’t rehearsed this” he stated, before lightening the mood by asking Blocker how tall you had to be to be in Exit 380. “I think the minimum requirement is six foot four, so I don’t quite make the cut, but they let me in anyway…” Blocker answered. He occasionally added some backing vocal on that song, as well as some licks on his harmonica, while the band cranked out what was probably their longest song of the night, and it had a nice inspirational feel to it. Charles even had a time to shine on it, doing a sweet guitar solo, while Omarr balanced it out with a stellar solo on his bass, and both of them showed off what seasoned pros they really are.

They had one final song left in their 49-minute long set, and it was the one I was most hoping to hear them do this night, and the same could probably be said about most of their other fans who were there. Earlier this year, the band released a video of them covering Pantera’s “This Love, as a way to pay tribute to one of the most notable metal bands ever. It should go without saying that they put their own spin on it, and if you were unfamiliar with the song, and didn’t know it was a cover, you’d certainly never guess it was a metal song. It was that tender cover that brought their show to a close, and the softer tone they give seems to give the words even more weight, making it more of an impactful song. It was a splendid way to close out their show, and if they never try that again live, well, at least I got to hear them do it once.

I liked the fact that they did some softer songs, verses say, the songs from The Gunner, because not only did it show off a different side to the band, but also offered a deep look into the direction they are most likely headed in. Besides that, like Brandon pointed out at one point, some of those songs on the EP may well never be played again after their CD release shows, and it was fun to be able to hear them at least once.

They’re an amazing band, and out of the handful of shows I’ve seen them do, this was by far the best. You could tell they put a lot of effort and work into getting ready for this show, and it paid off well for them, as they were very cohesive this night, and from the energetic live show to Brandons’ killer voice (which sounded in rare form, even for him), they were no doubt a force to be reckoned with.

James Villa