Sparks Fly 

“Alt-country” rockers J.W. Blackout are good. Damn good. Amen.

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Jamison Wilkins, the J.W. of J.W. Blackout, wants to listen to music during the interview—Iggy Pop, to be specific. It’s not his individual choice, but an accord with his bandmates (bassist Jason Rock, guitarist Herc Ottenheimer and drummer Pat Young), reached with an economical exchange of words and nods. Beat ’Em Up, Pop’s most recent disc, is set spinning.

It’s awkward. Usually a guy has heard a band before he sits down to interview but, due to reasons both cosmic and earthly, the assignment comes late. And knowledge of J.W. Blackout is limited to scant secondhand details (“J.W. Blackout? They’re alt-country-ish. Jamison played drums in J. Majesty. Live show is awesome. They’re just damn good”) and the twangy strains emanating from Herc’s Avenues abode. That is, before I knock, effectively hitting the “stop” button. Looks like we’re gonna find out all about J.W. Blackout together.

Local music fans with a modicum of deductive ability already have put the two-and-two together. I sit in the semi-legendary Herc’s Living Room, the humble recording studio room for so many great local albums. The room is strewn with cords, instruments and amplifiers. An orange combo amp stands out among its mostly black comrades. A Gibson SG rests against an erstwhile component of a ’70s dinette; other stringed cousins lay in similar, scattered repose. Mics on mic stands await voices. This silence sucks.

“Tell me what you want me to know about your band” serves an icebreaker (at least, J.W. Blackout seem willing to overlook it, in hopes of killing the quiet). Wilkins offers a simple “We just want to be a rock band.” Ottenheimer, Rock and Young utter amens.

Wilkins hands over a band bio and two copies of J.W. Blackout’s debut, Everything Changes. The one-sheet skinny, paraphrased: SLC native Wilkins existed nomadically, moving from Boise’s The Tree People to New York’s J. Majesty to sundry experimental and trad projects in New York and Pennsylvania. After a tour with J. Majesty, Wilkins returned to SLC and wrote, taking the songs to friends Young and Rock. The trio hooked up with ace local session guitarist David Prill, played shows and recorded Everything Changes with Herc at the boards. Prill departed to live a peaceful small-town existence. Herc, himself a fine guitarist, stepped in.

Instead of taking the logical step and stopping Pop to play Blackout, we talk about the band’s sonic aesthetic. Is it alt-country? Is the generalization welcome? The consensus is a diplomatic “no.” Wilkins says there might be twang in the mix but, “You wouldn’t call the Stones alt-country for playing [twangy songs], would you?”

All four explain, completing sentences in round robin, J.W. Blackout is anything you want it to be—a rock band, an alt-country band or something altogether different. “Call it what you want,” say Herc and Wilkins in unison. “We’ll play it,” completes Wilkins.

More silence, as it sinks in: J.W. Blackout is a rock & roll band, and they dish it up with honesty and urgency. Based on references made during our talk, a clearer mental, if not aural, picture materializes. Bowie, Eno, Richard Hell, Pop, Dylan, the Stones, Zeppelin (Herc offers this indirectly, coaxing the riff from “Black Dog” from the unplugged SG), Wilco—all play into Blackout’s sonics.

But are they any good? This we’ll discover on the ride home. The anonymous CD player that comes in the 2001 Nissan Altima swallows up a copy of Everything Changes. The first 40 seconds of “Bumper Cars” bode well, Prill’s roller-coaster slide guitar and Wilkins’ smooth bourbon vocals paint a vivid scene: “Bumper car/State fair/Sittin’ at the wheel with no control/Sometimes sparks fly …”

No shit, sparks fly. The ensuing tracks are like a symphony of welders working union-approved overtime, constructing towering, melodious tunes. The manic “Makes Me Crazy” finds Iggy and Hell on a roadhouse barstool. The carefree “That’s OK” marries The Replacements to Joe Walsh with a Smith & Wesson blessing. “Stumble” takes The Kinks and Caulfields to Wilco’s favorite dive bar.

I pass my house and elect to keep driving. J.W. Blackout is a rock band. J.W. Blackout is good. Damn good. Amen. J

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