Last Friday night at the Mud Island Amphitheatre, the folk-rock band the Avett Brothers played before a packed house of enthusiastic fans.
It wasn't the band's first time in town. They've worked their way up and were playing their biggest stage yet, riding the wave of not only their own considerable musical progression but a larger trend that's seen acoustic-oriented bands of their ilk — from mainstream titans Mumford & Sons to indie darlings Fleet Foxes — emerge as popular counterprogramming in a pop marketplace that tends toward the glitzy and electronic.
If Memphis has an act in this cohort, it's Star & Micey — a band whose core trio of Josh Crosby, Geoff Smith, and Nick Redmond sometimes expands to a four-, five-, or six-piece assemblage. But Star & Micey, whose sound is rooted in energetic acoustic instrumentation and intimate, sometimes spirited vocal interplay, didn't emerge in the wake of this national roots-music trend. Instead, the band evolved organically alongside it.
"God, you know, we've noticed that," Redmond says with a somewhat rueful smile, when asked about the raft of similar bands that have risen to various levels of stardom since Star & Micey's eponymous 2009 debut album.
"We're so happy that it's happened, that people are listening to that kind of music," Redmond says. "The singer of the Avett Brothers was mistaken for Josh once. They kind of had this doppelganger moment. That's one band that I always thought, once I started hearing them, that we'd get along with. But you see them, and you see Fleet Foxes. It's encouraging. And we want to go camping with them."
With the Avetts?
"With whoever," Redmond says.
The band is huddled around a pitcher of beer in the cozy bar at Billy Hardwick All Star Lanes, an East Memphis bowling alley. They're scheduled to meet with a trio of fans who won a "go bowling with Star & Micey" internet contest. But the band had no idea how popular bowling is, at least at Hardwick's on a Wednesday night. All the lanes are booked.
"We might go rob a bank, I don't know," Crosby says, mulling over alternate plans. "Maybe we'll take them to CK's. How about 'Star & Micey take you to dinner ... at CK's.'"
Most local bands with a single indie album under their belt probably wouldn't draw much interest from fans wanting to hang out with them, but if Star & Micey aren't as well known nationally as the likes of the Avetts or Foxes, they've been embraced locally and regionally. Earlier this year, they were ranked at the top of Paste magazine's list of "12 Tennessee Bands You Should Listen To Now," and, more recently, they finished third among Flyer readers in the "Best Band" category of the annual Best of Memphis poll, behind two acts that have lorded over the local scene for more than a decade: the North Mississippi Allstars and Lucero.
But if Star & Micey are highly regarded in their hometown, the band and its label, Ardent Music, are hoping to expand that footprint starting this week with a new four-song EP, I Can't Wait, and a month-long tour that will take the band throughout the South, Midwest, and Northeast.
The EP was recorded at Sweet Tea Recording Studio in Oxford, Mississippi, with producer Dennis Herring.
"When we got with Dennis, he asked us to send him everything we'd been doing in the past six months. It was about 85 songs. So we sent him those, and he picked four," Redmond says.
"It was a lot of fun recording the first album. With Dennis, it was more serious. It was totally professional," Smith says. "It was hard, hard work — I think it was the hardest the three of us have worked on a record."
Even at four songs, I Can't Wait is a sharp portrait of the band. The contemplative "No Pets Allowed" showcases Redmond's husky voice. The sunny, toe-tapping "Soul Stormin'" puts Crosby's airier vocals out front. "Love" captures the band's rousing, celebratory side. And the title single builds insistently into an understated but communal anthem.
"We used to have this fun thing where I'd say, 'Here's what's great about [gypsy-punk band] Gogol Bordello,' and [Josh would] say, 'Here's what's great about [country-folk duo] Gillian Welch & David Rawlings,'" Redmond says about the origins of the band's style, which does indeed find that implied middle ground between folkie party music and beautiful simplicity.
The band also has a visual/theatrical sensibility that manifests itself in everything from stagecraft to performance to some terrific videos. The video for "I Can't Wait" features the band — and a couple dozen friends — being slapped in the face, edited to match the song's percussion. "I've been a fan of theatrics as long as I can remember," Redmond says.
While I Can't Wait was recorded as a trio, the band will hit the road after this week's EP release show at the Hi-Tone Café as a four-piece, with on-again/off-again drummer/songwriter Jeremy Stanfill on-board as a full-time member.
"Jeremy is back in the fold," Smith explains. "The three-piece thing is on hiatus now, and we're more like a rock-and-roll outfit. We're building up a solid live show with Jeremy. It's freeing us from the foot percussion thing and lets us focus more on the songs and making them sound as good as they can. Jeremy also exudes confidence, which is important to us."
It's a big moment for the band. Crosby suggests the EP amounts to testing the waters for a new full-length project.
"Right now, we're just trying to build something," Redmond says.