Review & Photography: Kail Rose

Motorcycles and their admirers line up outside under the sodium vapor street lights, glittering in a dizzying assemblage of chrome, cigarette smoke and black leather. I can hear fading remnants of the last riff of soundcheck as security hands back my ID, swipes a black cat stamp over my hand and ushers me through the ominous dark-paneled gates off seventh street. I grab a Lonestar and survey the scene at Empire Control Room & Garage – this evening it’s bustling. It’s not one for the faint of heart. Beer and cigarettes, leather and silver, low-cut, hi-crop and tight everything; big hair, loud makeup and heavy Doc Martens. There’s a little old-school glam rock here mixed with grunge and biker culture, collecting to celebrate rock music of a classic era on Black Sunday. Tomorrow is a holiday, so there are no holds barred tonight.

I love the rock crowd – their big energy, and their raucously over-enthusiastic passion for the music and the community they’ve built around it. I greet friends and acquaintances; most offer a warm hug and witty, excited banter. We’re all here to celebrate what’s become an underground Austin movement – led largely by the very man who invited me here, Robert Wagner. Texan rock legend and son of Dick Wagner (who needs no introduction), Robert is doing big things to reinvigorate this cult classic rock community, right here in our own town.

As I ready my camera gear and chat with fans in the front row, we’re hit with the fuzzy opening riff of a sound that’s not entirely foreign. It’s so familiar, I’m halted mid-conversation. Maryann Cotton slides on stage with the self-assured swagger of a man opening on a much larger stage. Immediately, the presence and prowess of a rock artist who is destined for very big places becomes overwhelmingly obvious. Clad in skintight patent leather, buckles, chains, black eyeliner, fantastically big hair and a snarl that’s as gritty as it is sexy, he launches into his set. It’s dramatic, glamorous and oh-so-delicious to watch. I hear some Alice Cooper, a young KISS maybe, a little Motley Crue in there. Reminiscent of so many favorites, the crowd rocks as hard as the band. This is a production of truly excellent caliber. I catch myself thinking once again: we needed someone like this on the scene, and these guys are destined for big places. Maryann Cotton has ties to the Wagner family as well as a nod from Alice Cooper himself. With a varied discography released to date, their sound is a brilliant homage to the glam rock of the late 70s and 80s. The set is high-energy: it’s dirty, sexy, gritty and sweaty and leaves me wishing I could transport myself back forty years to see glam rock in its heyday. But who needs that when we’ve got Maryann Cotton?

Sir Robert Wagner is next on the evening’s lineup; his new band Black Smoke Sinners launches into a setlist heavy on covers. This is a band with a unique take on both their music and a lifestyle, priding themselves on being “lifetime riders but also lifetime musicians.” Forged from lifelong friendships, this crew wants to “bring the true ‘Rock Show’ Experience back to the National rally scene.” The roster includes Robert Wagner on vocals, Austin favorite Jake Sherard on guitar/vocals, Dave Beeson on guitar/vocals, biker and builder Chris Callen on bass, and builder and acclaimed drummer of Buckcherry fame, Xavier Muriel. As he always does, Wagner grooves, moves and schmoozes his brilliant self into our hearts and it’s an hour that passes in a second. Backed by musicians of such magnitude and passion, this little quintet has big plans and an even bigger future as they bring rock back to the rally world. 

Questioning whether we could top the energy and spectacle of our first two bands, we’re treated to a third set that blows us out of the water. Revving up for their first official SXSW showcase, Austin favorites Black Heart Saints hit the stage as our headliner. It’s immediately clear that their momentum is on an upswing. It’s an explosive set, beginning with a handful of cherished favorites from existing discography. They follow with some newer tunes, no less than flawless, before dropping into a couple of cover songs. When the opening grooves of Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song bombard my eardrums, these Saints hit a whole new level: this ain’t just another mediocre cover of a cult classic. Frontman Josh Ross hits those high notes just right; he’s a triple threat with powerful vocals, an inimitable stage presence and enough strut and substance to make Sir Robert Plant himself proud. Once again, Black Heart Saints harness a certain something about their music that’s rarely imitated. When we interviewed them almost exactly a year ago, we predicted a meteoric rise as one of the nation’s top emerging rock acts. Now on the precipice of a major SX set, we’ll be sitting smugly in the sidelines watching them take over the rock world.

What an evening. As always, the Austin rock scene brings us an evening of ineffable energy. From the sexy, gritty Maryann Cotton to the unbridled revelry of rock/rally heavyweights Black Smoke Sinners – or the dangerous, dirty and delicious Black Heart Saints – what a way to wrap a Sunday. 2020’s take on Black Sunday, that is. 

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