The WhigsThe Whigs
The Pulse is throwing a birthday party. Marking its 10th year as Chattanooga’s alternative newspaper, it will host a rock ‘n’ roll celebration at Rhythm & Brews at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 13, featuring four bands—The Whigs, The Bohannons, and a couple of great bands from the resurgent Muscle Shoals in Alabama. It promises to be a memorable evening of vintage rock—as befits a birthday bash for a local weekly created in 2003 by two young dreamers with barely a dime between them. Zach Cooper and Michael Kull started the paper because they believed Chattanooga was undergoing a renaissance and wanted to be part of it. And much of that renaissance has been fueled by the city’s passion for good music.
Headlining the show will be The Whigs, whose Who-flavored power pop anthem, “Rock and Roll Forever,” seems set to join the pantheon of songs celebrating the liberating impact of three chords and a yard of attitude. With its muscular chords, driving bass and pounding drums, it’s “a bratty little song,” said guitarist and singer Parker Gispert, whose snarling delivery gives it just the right touch of garage punk veracity. As he said in Rolling Stone interview last summer, “Obviously we’re a rock band, that’s what we do. That’s what I’ve done my entire adult life—driving around in vans, touring rock clubs, just playing in a rock band. So it makes sense to have a song about what you do and the kind of music that you love.”
It does make sense. And when what they do sounds like “Waiting,” another track on their current album, it’s clear that all that time spent listening and playing has paid off. It has the seething, barely contained energy of one of The Who’s early singles. “We talk about The Who a lot when we’re making songs, and …. I think bringing out the Keith Moon aspects in our drummer, Julian Dorio, is always good,” said Gispert. With the guitar and the bass locked into a staccato rhythm, drummer Dorio is free to play wildly wheeling patterns as Gispert sings against the beat before taking off on his own short, fiery solo. The song captures the fierce fire of those early records so well it sounds almost like a forgotten outake.
That’s how Gispert works; he doesn’t analyze the records he loves, but internalizes them. “I tend to tap into a vibe or an emotion that I’m hearing in a record,” he told me. “It makes me feel a particular way and I want to make something that makes me feel that way.” For him, rock and roll is simply “an attitude. It’s how you strike the instrument.” When he strikes one of those “Won’t Get Fooled Again” chords he embodies his belief that rock and roll is an ageless, open-ended, endlessly, joyously liberating force inviting everyone to sing along, “Aaaah, aaaah, aaaahhhh … rock and roll! For eeeever!”
Opening the show will be two bands representing the heady resurgence of Muscle Shoals. Renowned in the 1960s as the place where classic tracks by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge (and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers) were produced, it has been undergoing a resurgence of late with the much-celebrated Drive-By Truckers, as well as Alabama Shakes and Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. And now St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Creating quite a stir in Birmingham—one blogger compared them to the Irish soul-shouters in Alan Parker’s love letter to the classic sounds of Memphis and Muscle Shoal in the 60s, “The Commitments”—they’ll be making their Chattanooga debut.
St. Paul and The Broken Bones’ lead singer, Paul Janeway, is a mild-mannered accounting major from the University of Alabama by day. But when he and his band take the stage at night, he turns into an uninhibited Wilson Pickett-style soul-shouter. “I am kind of a wild man on stage,” he told the Birmingham alt-weekly, Metro B. “Jesse and the other guys have to really stay on point while I am up to something stupid. We were playing a show at Bottletree (a club in Birmingham) one night, and I was dancing around doing my thing. For some reason I decided to stand on Jesse’s guitar amp and continue the dancing on the amp. Unfortunately, the amp toppled over. I fell on the stage and tore a ligament in my knee. I finished the show with a bad knee, but the next morning I was in so much pain I had to call someone to help me put my pants on. My father was really proud of me for that one.”
Before St. Paul and The Broken Bones take the stage, Muscle Shoals-born guitarist and painter Browan Lollar, who’s also been playing with The Broken Bones recently, will open the show with his own band, The Grenadines. They’ve recently released a five-song EP on This is American Music (streaming on soundcloud.com). Until last year, Lollar was the second guitarist in Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit. Equally successful as an artist (he painted the cover for the last studio album by Isbell and The 400 Unit, Here We Rest ), Lollar is a gifted singer, writer and player. The EP is a broad ranging mix opening with “Freight Train Hearts,” a loping country rocker with some fine fractured fuzztone guitar dirtying up the rangy bar-band harmonies. The next song couldn’t be more different, it almost sounds like another band. Called “Cars,” it’s an airy upbeat Southern California pop rocker. The harmonies are a ringer for the early Eagles, while the band sounds like Crazy Horse playing a light-hearted country boogie shuffle. “Hotel Bars and Ringing Ears” is another breezy pop sparkler, while “One of Every Color” is a low-key bass drum driven shuffle with a lazy dragging rhythm and a Ritchie Furay-style double-tracked vocal. Between them these two bands represent what one blogger called a “southern renaissance.”
Following on the heels of the two Alabama bands will be hometown boys The Bohannons, another reason people are starting to talk about the South rising yet again. Featuring vocalist and lead guitarist Marty Bohannon, his brother Matt on rhythm, Josh Beaver on bass, and Nick Sterchi on drums, The Bohannons are a blistering rock-and-roll band. Their new album, Unaka Rising (also on This Is American Music), is a solid slab of unstinting rock. Take “Tim Tim.” Opening with a nice, spiraling guitar riff and tight sibling harmonies driven by Sterchi’s furiously propulsive drumming, the song is a rocker worthy of the The Kinks or The Who at their mid-’60s pop peak. Another highlight a few tracks further into the record is the instrumental, “The Cradle.” It wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the early Led Zeppelin albums—a thunderous rocker with a wall of guitar bass and drums meshing into a seamless, steamrolling wave of sound.
it’s a musical line-up—and birthday celebration—befitting The Pulse. But probably not one either Cooper or Kull would ever have envisioned before they committed to the alternative weekly 10 years ago. Cooper had no intention of sticking around after college, much less creating a newspaper in his hometown.
“When I was a student at UTC (in the early 1990s) I could never have imagined that I would stay in Chattanooga,” Cooper said, echoing the feelings of many people his age at the time. The 1980s and early ’90s saw the city at its lowest ebb. The blocks between 2nd and 9th streets between Market and Chestnut, for example, were pockmarked with abandoned storefronts and broken windows. And good jobs were scarce.
“I didn’t see much here,” Cooper recalled.
But in the early ’90s the city began reinventing itself. The much-admired partnership between private (often foundation) and public (tax) money began to rebuild the city. Cooper was initially skeptical, but then began noticing not only that young people who had “previously been fleeing the city in terror” were opting to stay, but that people from across the country were beginning to migrate to Chattanooga. Cooper and Kull, both graduates of UTC’s School of Music, saw the paper as a voice for intelligent young artists and professionals who began investing in Chattanooga in the mid-’90s.
The city was still mostly potential at that point, but Cooper and Kull saw a place for a weekly paper promoting the burgeoning arts and cultural scene developing in pockets across the city. “People often ask, ‘So, who are you writing for?’” said Cooper. “I always tell them, ‘Well, we’re writing for us.’ We’re producing this for ourselves,” he explained, “but we also think it reflects our audience.”
Cooper and Kull gambled on their belief that the city would support a paper with “intelligent writing.” They had enough money to keep it going for three months when they started in 2003. Luckily, they found a number of kindred spirits willing to support them. Tim Kelly (the president of Kelly Auto Group) and a number of other local (mostly small) business owners saw the paper’s potential and bought the advertising that sustained them while they found their audience.
Initially it was a struggle. “Our format was familiar to our readers and to the advertisers we were targeting,” Cooper said, “but the voice was quite different.” They assumed that their readers were smart, well-informed people who would be willing to read what they and their contributors had to say even if they didn’t always agree with it. “It’s a little bit of give-and-take with our readers,” said Cooper, who realized even then that people might sometimes get mad at some of the pieces published in the paper. He thought then—and still does today—that it’s important for the paper to take a stand.
Their confidence in what people are now calling the “can-do” city has been borne out. Kull left the paper in 2008 when the partners opted to sell it to Brewer Broadcasting. Cooper stayed on as editor-in-chief and publisher. Despite the change in ownership, Cooper still thinks of the paper as an independent entity. “Having the same mindset as the person who owns a small storefront on Main Street is exactly how I think about the paper,” he said.
Two years ago Bill Ramsey, a graphic designer and journalist with more than 25 years of daily and weekly newspaper experience, joined The Pulse as creative director and became editor at the beginning of this year. Ramsey embodies the attitude Cooper has always embraced. “In the year and a half I’ve been editor,” he told me recently, “I’ve turned the guns on local politicians and media, calling them out for their inadequacies, sometimes using language that makes some people uncomfortable.”
While he keeps Cooper grounded, he also regularly challenges him to maintain the ideals with which he started the paper. “I personally have upset people several times with things I’ve published—not only subjects, but our owners—mostly by telling some notable people to take a jump.”
They both work at least 50 or 60 hours a week, and both have trouble separating their personal and professional lives, but Ramsey’s long history helps keep them focused. “We’re not always fair and balanced, but that’s not our role,” he said. “The best alt-weeklies report with a flair and style that a certain part of the city’s culture ‘gets,’ and we do it on a shoestring, but still manage to tap the city’s best writers and photographers.”
After 10 years in business the paper is stronger than ever, said Cooper. His long shot has paid off, and he still considers himself “lucky to be able to do this week in and week out”—and now he’s ready to celebrate.
The Pulse 10th Anniversary Concert starring The Whigs with The Bohannons, St. Paul & The Broken Bones and Browan Lollar
9 p.m. • Thursday, Dec. 13
Rhythm & Brews • 221 Market St.