On the Run
By Dave Kirby
Blake Rooker, West Water Outlaws’ soft-spoken guitarist and lead singer, fondly recalls the origin of “665—The Neighbor of the Beast.” That track is one of a handful of menacing, take-no-prisoners gravity wells that lace the band’s first CD, released in November. Like much of the record, it’s not for the faint of heart.
“There’s this place in Birmingham, Alabama, called The Nick. It’s a grungy, grungy rock club that stays open until something like eight in the morning. It’s pretty much the craziest place around,” Rooker says. “Above the door, there’s a sign that says ‘665,’ and someone wrote next to it ‘The Neighbor of the Beast.’ “’Neighbor’ was misspelled, and we almost included THAT on the album,” he laughs, “but we thought ‘Neighbor of the Beast’ was weird and abstract enough.”
Road stories and dubious residue on the soles of their feet (they once had to stamp out roaches while gigging onstage in the Deep South) are stock-in-trade for West Water Outlaws, and a pretty good sign that what they’re doing—slamming on heavy, guitar-based rock to club crowds—is connecting. The CD is steeped in riffs carved from deep in the rock-mythology playbook, ranging from the runaway gallop of the lead-off “Caught in the Headlights,” the desperado shuffle of “Rising Sun” and the lusty slide-guitar boogie of “Bless Your Soul” to the icy blues of “Things I Meant to Say.” Dangerous women, shattered love, whiskey-drenched regret: There’s a restless old soul behind these songs.
Up from the basement
The band got its start about four years ago as a Friday-night distraction, playing for friends in Rooker’s basement. They scored first place in 2010’s Battle of the Bands competition at CU, and began to play at the smaller stages in and around Boulder, usually for beer or food, before eventually landing early-week gigs at Boulder’s estimable Fox Theatre, a résumé booster for any local outfit trying to gain a little traction. By 2013, word-of-mouth momentum had taken the band on tours of the Southeast and Texas, and their Fox gigs were sellouts.
No huge breaks, no surprise hit single. Just an old-school slow, steady climb. “We started in the basement and it just started clicking,” Rooker says. “The Sink gave us some of our first shows. For a while there, we were on the any-gig-any-time kind of schedule. We got our name out there just by playing as often as possible. I think Boulder’s been real good to us.”
And this is no small achievement. While the town has seen the promotion of plenty of talent, from also-rans to festival headliners, a lot of that success has come to bluegrass and jam-band genre bands, who have also worked hard but have benefitted from Colorado’s well-established acoustic-music community and festival tradition. In addition, a significant portion of the local stage time these days features DJs and other forms of largely instrumental, dance-oriented acts, catering to Boulder’s unique demography. Dance music and DJs have been on the ascendant in the club scene on both coasts in the last few years, and a lot of the student and post-student nightclub clientele come from there. Straight-ahead rock bands, while not extinct, have had their work cut out for them gaining a foothold.
‘We’re just big rock fans’
It’s been suggested to West Water Outlaws more than once that swimming upstream against the popular tide is a little bit like a crusade. Rock has always been about rebellion, even if its sharp edges have been softened by endless rotation on classic-rock radio, but Rooker seems notably reluctant to rebel.
“I’ve heard people describe it that way, yeah,” he says. “But really, at the core of it, we’re all just big rock fans. I just miss seeing a good rock show once in a while.” Both he and bassist Vince Ellwood credit the immensely successful Rose Hill Drive as an immediate (and local) inspiration. They grew up watching Rose Hill Drive, and say the shows meant a lot to them.
“It’s been crazy for me,” Ellwood says. “Those guys were my heroes back in the day, and now to be doing stuff like that—playing the Fox and hitting the road—is just really fun.”
Thank you, parents
Rooker credits his parents’ record collections and car-radio tastes as influences on his own musical direction—something, it might be argued, that would have been a rarity in his parents’ day. How many kids growing up in the 1970s really, really wanted to make music like Glenn Miller or Chubby Checker? Ellwood, whose family has lived in Boulder since 1919, running a dry-cleaning business where he still works when he’s not on the road, says his own tastes, too, were heavily shaped by his parents’ musical tastes, and old Boulder radio.
It’s not as if the music of their time growing up was entirely lost on them. “The Roots would definitely be at the top of the list,” Ellwood says. “And some of the ’90s stuff, like the Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest. But growing up, I was definitely more into my parents’ records. I got a record player when I was in high school and got all my parents’ records out of the basement. And old-school KBCO—Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, old U2 and stuff.”
Says Rooker, “I’ve always been kind of a romantic about it. It’s like that old AC/DC song, ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n Roll).’ It’s something that we try to live by. I guess we’re all just living in a fantasy world where it’s still 1975, you know?”
“You have to go out and pay your dues, unless you want to have 15 minutes of fame and then fizzle out,” Ellwood says. “You really have to work that grassroots following, bands like The Black Keys and Queens of the Stone Age. Or Alabama Shakes—those guys played together for 15 years before they got discovered.”
So it’s one step at a time. It’s a long way to the top, whatever that is these days in the music business. Did Rooker ever lose faith?
“Well”—he thinks a minute—“not enough to quit, but there was definitely a weekly faith-losing day for a while there.
“For me, I always thought that if I don’t try as hard as I possibly can to do this, then I’ll end up a bitter old man yelling at kids to keep off my lawn. I decided early on that I have to try; I can’t not do it.” ≤
Dave Kirby has been writing about music for various publications since 1978. He and his wife live in Boulder with their dog. You can see West Water Outlaws perform Dec. 6 in Lyons, Dec. 7 in Evergreen and Dec. 13 in Fort Collins. Check www.westwateroutlaws.com for the group’s many Colorado ski-town gigs and more.