It started, as these things so often do, by chance. Five years ago, Matt Shigekawa and Eric Parham stopped into JJ’s Bohemia on an open mic night. What they were thinking when the nervous young lady with her hands in her pockets stepped up to the microphone is lost to history. What happened next is not. She sang, and when Ashley Hicks sings, she owns the room. The boys were so impressed with the singer whose only accompaniment was a basic trap set that they recruited her as an opening act for their band Grassy Blue. A short time later Grassy Blue disbanded, and Matt and Eric approached Ashley with the idea for a new project. They recruited drummer Dan “The Metronome” Walker—and Ashley and the Xs was on its way.
From the beginning it was agreed that the single most important aspect of the band was passion and the ability to deliver it through performance. Listeners would have to feel the music, feel its gritty realism and intensity and know that behind every word and note was genuine heart and soul. Indeed, Ashley has said point blank, “It doesn’t matter if we mess up a song as long as the audience is feeling what we are feeling.” She needn’t worry about “messing up a song” though; clearly the band has put in the rehearsal time and dedication to develop the kind of tight playing that would be the envy of the most demanding jazz bands. Their performances are proof that passion and precision are not mutually exclusive.
Like so many great original bands, classifying Ashley and the Xs is a tricky business. They are at times blues-driven, other times they are alt-rock. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine them as a great little R&B band. Ashley has cited Janis Joplin as a personal influence, as much for emotional content as actual singing, and that shows, but she seems equally adept at channeling Natalie Merchant and Chrissy Hynde. Particularly noteworthy is her ability to project power without sacrificing nuance. A lesser singer would generally sacrifice one for the other. Sultry and absolutely dripping with sensuality, her vocals are the centerpiece of some very powerful music.
As mesmerizing as her vocals may be, much of that impact would be lost if it were not for the professional chops of her very talented bandmates. Shigekawa’s guitar playing is strong, clean and versatile. On their album’s fourth track, “Never”, the guitar is hard-driving, manic rock and roll, while “Silence is Golden” delivers a jazzy Andy Summers vibe and “Lizzie” is just good old-fashioned blues well done. “Crash and Burn” features some particularly haunting bass riffs from Parham, and Walker’s drumming on the whole album beginning to end is absolutely top notch.
There is no ego in this band—and that’s refreshing, and even unexpected given the considerable talent of its members. To the contrary, on and off-stage, Ashley and the Xs evince a good-natured “aw shucks” attitude that is quick to praise their fans, contributors and associates while never making too much of a fuss over their own accomplishments. They take their music seriously, they take their live performances seriously, they take their fans seriously, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, and that’s a very endearing quality in a band. Indeed, even as they blister it on stage, five minutes spent over a beer during a set break reveals a quirky sense of humor and real familial affection for one another. That kind of camaraderie isn’t necessarily essential to a band, but it is certainly nice work if you can get it.
Their eponymous album was more than a year in the making, with the band taking great pains to capture the essence of their live performances in the recording. Through their dedication and the impeccable instinct of producer Derek Mazurek, they have managed to do just that, with nine solid tracks neatly packaged in some spiffy cover art by Jeanne Carmichael. Newcomer to the band Jessica Nunn unfortunately came along too late to make it onto this album, but the addition of her viola ought to bring an interesting dimension to the band’s sound at their August performance at The Honest Pint (TBA), and they can frequently be found at the place that started it all, JJ’s Bohemia.