House of Blues – Cambridge Room (Dallas, TX)
– Words by Jordan Buford // Photos by Brooke Adams –
This night had long been anticipated. Months of preparation from both Exit 380 and their record label Hand Drawn Records had gone into making this show at the Cambridge Room of the House of Blues happen, and the payoff was so close you could taste it.
The show was in celebration of their latest album, Photomaps, and this was the vinyl release show for it. A few weeks before they had warmed up with a show in Fort Worth to mark the digital release of the album, which was surely a great one, but since they they had more time to work with here at the House of Blues, they had been promising this show to be a legitimate event.
Early on in the week, a photo was posted of their whiteboard with the set list for the show written on it. It whet the appetites of longtime E380 fans, as the main focus was going to be older songs. It also caused a bit of an uproar because one classic was left off, prompting them to guarantee it would be added.
The fans — which ranged from some who have probably been following the band for most of their fifteen-year career to young children who had been brought out — gathered around the stage once the five members took it at 10:59, eagerly awaiting how this was going to start.
It began with frontman Dustin Blocker back by the drum kit on his keyboard. “I awoke from a dream and escaped this soul burning train…” he crooned, while lightly plucking the keys. I’ve always thought that little reprise that is tacked on to the end of “Missy Gardner” is downright gorgeous; and this night, that quiet intro worked perfectly to set up the song it’s a reprise of: “Soul Burning Train”. As soon as he finished his part, lead guitarist Aaron Borden launched them into their first official song of the night, with the rest of the band following suit. It’s a typical opener for them, but then they hit the chorus — where the song really takes off — and it was clear this was not the typical Exit 380 you’ve come to know. The Hutchison brothers, bassist Jon “The Hutch” and rhythm guitarist Jeremy proceeded to kill it; and already The Hutch had you marveling over his abilities as a bassist (he really is one of the best).
The song’s only about three-years-old, so still fairly new, though already almost the whole crowd (which numbered at least a little more than a hundred) was singing along passionately. Blocker than took a moment to stress that they hadn’t been teasing but promising to play some old stuff for everyone, and their focus now shifted to 2006’s Last Monday album. “Closure” had everyone singing at the top of their lungs, almost overpowering Blocker on the chorus of, “If my love was the one for you…” It was the first of numerous magical moments. Bobby “Shoes” Tucker even seemed to have renewed energy, knocking out all the beats with a devastating force, while doing it with ease. The end of that one was toned down, providing a seamless lead into to the next one, while Blocker broke out his harmonica. I have never heard “2 Lie” sound as amazing as it did this night, and considering it’s a personal favorite, that just made it all the better. “Come on!” encouraged Blocker on the second chorus, when the crowd was loudly singing along, “…Press the girl against the wall, we’re going down…” “You don’t think, just desire, but don’t you fucking lie to me!” Blocker belted at the end, adding some extra emphasis when he dropped the F-bomb; while he opened his eyes wide and bugged them out for a moment. The most impressive part, however, came on that final word, which he stretched out and held for probably about ten seconds at least. I was starting to think he might never run out of breath.
The Hutch and Jeremy continued to showcase their topnotch skills on the instrumental breaks of “Love Lost its Youth”, which had been retooled from the album version. Blocker sang much of the song (particularly the verses) in a softer tone, giving it a totally different flow, which actually made it all the better. “What do you think about that fellow there?” Blocker asked, pointing to Aaron. “That son of a bitch writes some good songs…” he continued, with Aaron later remarking that Blocker at least gets to sing them. “My wife’s out there somewhere… I’ve got to look at her during this song.” said Aaron, while trying to spot her. Blocker mentioned this next was the first track on the B-side of Photomaps; and “A Song About Us” became the first song they did off the album this night. Jeremy had traded his guitar in for a mandolin on that number; and now, they welcomed Andrew Tinker (who produced the album and opened up this show) to the stage. “All the lovely, lovely keys you hear on the album. Like, 98.9%, come from Tinker.” Blocker stated, before mentioning both Tinker and the other opener, Jessie Frye, had both come out to the vinyl packing party they had done a few weeks before, where they shot a video for this next song. “The Love Sleeps” is unquestionably the catchiest tune off Photomaps, and Jeremy began it with the joyous cry of, “Arriba!” Aaron left his post on stage right at one point, and he and Jeremy stood back-to-back with one another, before attention shifted to Tinker, who did a lengthy piano solo.
“I think Tinker should play another one…” Blocker said when they finished, adding that even if anyone was unfamiliar with them, there was a good chance they’d know this song. The intro to Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” featured heavy amounts of the piano, which changed it up completely, giving it an even neater effect. Before the third verse, Aaron approached Blocker, saying something to him, before Blocker stepped aside and Aaron took the center mic, singing the third verse. Well, part of it, and then he recycled part of the first, with, “Poncho met his match, you know, on the deserts down in Mexico…” Blocker playfully kicked him, smiling the whole time, when he finished, and then reclaimed the mic to close out the tune.
That did it for the mandolin, and Tinker left. They weren’t done with Photomaps just yet, but now they were ready for the rock portion of the record. “Hearts In the Sand” was one such track, and the bass at the start was so thick it was intoxicating. There was even a humorous moment after Blocker did his solo on the synth, and as he walked back to the forefront of the stage, he looked at Jeremy, mouthing to him, “Not bad.” He even looked a bit surprised that his synth solo had turned out as well as it did.
Blocker started to talk about a music video they did for this next song a few years back, mentioning it took place on top of a mountain and was about thirty degrees outside. “…And it lasted about eight hours too long,” he said, thanking anyone and everyone who helped make that possible. Aaron had his lap steel guitar out for the lead track off the Townies album, and while not too old, “Run For The Gold” is a favorite of fans. Brandon Callies (of the Brandon Callies Band as well as The Screaming Thieves) happened to be in attendance, and he was invited up for this song. The bright lights hid him from the crowds view, but he took a spot behind the microphone at the keyboard, helping out with each chorus; and they got some more participation from the audience going, too. “What you got, Dallas?!” Blocker asked late in the song; and when he and the Hutchison brothers all harmonized with one another, the fans also sang along.
“Here’s a little rock ‘n’ roll off Photomaps,” Blocker announced. Bob had already started laying down the beat for “Lonely Days”, which was even more intense live than I had anticipated. It also saw Blocker doing something I haven’t seen in a long time: he ditched the mic stand, wrapped the slack of the cord around his hand and took on the role of frontman completely. Afterwards, he reiterated the fact that they had been promising some old songs, and now they got to one they hadn’t done in six or seven years. “Plane Ticket!” someone shouted, and Blocker responded with, “There are some things I won’t do!” He was clearly joking, but that wasn’t the song they had prepared for. Instead, they did “Breakdown”; and Aaron held his axe up and out to his side when playing the opening licks. “Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?” said Blocker as they got to the first chorus, making it sound more like a statement than a question. Live, the song had a strong kick to it and was far more ferocious than I expected. Honestly, that’s one track I’ve never cared much for off Old Songs, New Tape, but it made me a believer this night. At the last chorus, Blocker pulled the mic out, then kicked the stand over, asking everyone, “What you got?!” as the fans helped in closing it out.
The room erupted in cheers when Blocker mentioned this next song made him think about Firewater. That was one venue I never saw them at (that 21+ only policy screwed me out of a ton of awesome shows back in the day); and he mentioned that while the venue may exist again, just under a new name, it will always be Firewater to him. With that, they tackled the two greatest cuts from The Life and Death… record. It had been far too many years since I or anyone in this room had heard “The Wrangler”, and you could tell everyone was elated by it. The band was going into overdrive now, and during the instrumental break, Blocker rushed over to a box they had on stage, quickly opening it and pulling out a tambourine that he proceeded to shake while finishing the tune with, “We all die alone…” A weird silence followed. Sure, there were cheers for that one, but then it was just quite, as folks awaited what was next. Then Aaron ripped into the subsequent track from the disc: “Quid Pro Quo”. This was the most well received song so far, and everyone was having a ball singing along. It hit it’s lull, and fans softly began to sing along, “Swallow your pride and some of me…” “I hear ya.” Blocker said, who encouraged more of that. It was such an awesome moment to hear everyone start building up to it, before finally yelling, “The poor and the hungry are the one who’s free!”
“Purgatory” was another one savored by all the longtime fans; and once again the mic stand found itself to be completely useless and was placed out of the way as Blocker raced around the stage during the impeccably tight performance. Before they could go any further, some shots appeared on stage, and one of them joked that they had to act like they were young again and drink them. Blocker turned to Big Pete, asking their longtime friend/fan what the cheers should be. “Exit 380!” he shouted. Blocker noted he felt weird saying that, “But since you said it, I will.” he finished.
It was made to sound like this next one was their last song, and Blocker mentioned it was the one that had “accidentally” got left off, until fans pointed it out. “…Some of you probably know the words better than I do.” he told the crowd, who did appear to be more familiar with the mighty “Dammit”. It turned into a clap along right at the end; and the band made it seem like they were done.
Aaron started to remove his guitar; Blocker was almost off stage, but they didn’t do anything like make people “bring” them back out by chanting their name. They got no further, and then resumed their positions. “That feels like too sad a song to end with.” said Blocker. He had a point.
More than a year before releasing Townies, the outfit released the Cities Townies EP in 2010. A few songs found their way onto the LP, while others were exclusive to that EP, and “Street Trash View” was one such song. It stands out as the best track off that release; and Blocker dragged the mic stand around, appearing to dance with it for a few moments at the start, before again leaving it behind as the track escalated.
Their 77-minute long set was nearly over; and Aaron used this time to thank “Jeremiah” as he called Jeremy, saying what a fantastic guitarist he is, but also joking that he used to be the “skinny guy” in the band. “But then he started playing guitar.” It made for a good laugh; and then they got to what I still consider to be the best song they’ve ever done. Once upon a time, “Death March” was how every show ended, and then as new material got written and they took a different direction with their music, it got phased out. While his band mates got it going, Blocker sit the mic stand down in the photo pit. His behavior on stage fit the extremely aggressive number, and he even made little motions with his hands at times, conducting it in time with the music. The start of the final chorus was left up to the fans, who shouted at the top of their lungs, “Hey! Stop the party, we’re coming in. Put your hands in the air, we’re coming in.” Everybody threw their hands in the air when it was appropriate, and the band welcomed the dedication all their old friends were showing them, right up to the very end.
If this night proved one thing, it was this: Exit 380 excels at rock music. It’s what they do best.
They’ve explored a lot of different styles in their fifteen-years, and they do them all well, but this night, pulling out all of these classics, they appeared reinvigorated. Actually, I’ve never seen them perform even halfway close to what they did this night. They were so on point; they were so excited, and I don’t think that excitement stemmed solely from this being the vinyl release show for Photomaps.
It came from the joy of busting out this old stuff, and I’m still not sure who was more pumped up about it all, if it was the band about playing it or the fans about hearing it again. From the looks of it, I’d honestly have to go with the band.
As they were loading their gear out, I said something to Blocker along the lines of I didn’t know they had that in them. He laughed and said he didn’t, either, it was just something they uncovered as they took the stage.
Whatever place it did come from, I hope they find it and can harness it; and if that means they have to add a lot of these older songs back in rotation, well, I think fans would be okay with that. Because this night, Exit 380 was operating on a level very few bands will ever reach, and I really hope this won’t be just a one-time thing.