“It’s got that ‘we’re putting on a show’ feel,” says Memphis comedian and drummer/vocalist for Memphis band HEELS, Josh McLane, of the Hi Tone’s small room. It's the site for HEELS’ upcoming Christmas variety show on Saturday, December 21st. “That’s why I like this room so much. The Christmas show is a prime example of that.”
McLane says he owes his wife, Cara McLane, for the inspiration to transform the Hi Tone’s small room into a winter wonderland for a Christmas-themed extravaganza. Earlier this year, Cara threw him a birthday party in the music venue. “She made the entire room up with pink and streamers, and she got a 4-foot, blow-up unicorn,” McLane says.
“I’m a sentimental sucker,” McLane explains. “I’m a fan of old-school television, and with Brennan [Whalen] and I pushing, not so much a comedy gig, but having a lot of banter, I was like, ‘Why don’t we do something that nobody would do in Memphis? The variety show.’”
And a variety show seems an ideal task for the duo of McLane and HEELS guitarist/vocalist Brennan Whalen. The band, with its frequent lyrical nods to Memphis wrasslin’, comedic stage banter, and seemingly uncategorizable performances, is primed to take on such a challenge. But how did McLane and Whalen become, well, HEELS?
“When we started … I think a lot of people took from a lot of the Goner bands that nobody was talking. There was no banter anymore, it was just ‘Let’s get just up there and blow our rock down your face and kick ya in the teeth and be done with it,’ which is a great thing,” McLane says of HEELS’ transformation into a part-band, part-comedy-duo musical amalgamation. “I’ve been doing stand-up forever, and Brennan’s adorable and really funny, and nobody knows about it. So we made a rule that you’re not allowed to talk on stage unless it’s into the microphone. No matter what it is. 'My string broke.' 'Sorry, I fucked that song up.' anything,” McLane goes on to explain. “The whole rule of the band is we can be funny in between songs all we want; we’d never write funny songs.”
Okay, fair enough, but why Christmas, one might wonder. What about trucker hats, tattoos, love songs about a box of porn found in the woods, and a bombastic stage persona adds up to spell Christmas variety show?
“We’re both big suckers,” McLane says, explaining that the band’s veneer of sweat and sarcasm hides two tender teddy bear hearts. “So I wanted to bring in a bunch of people we like playing with. We don’t really play with bands a whole lot. When we book our own shows, we usually do stand-up [comedians] because it’s easier for me to pay stand-ups.”
“I love Christmas, so we brought our friends out. I’m using all the characters in our little world,” McLane says of the variety show. “Mitchell Manley shows up as Santa because we wanted to invite Santa to a Christmas party.” McLane excitedly continues, saying, “Ben Ricketts is doing a song. Kitty Dearing is doing a song. Brando from Wailing Banshees is doing a tune,” McLane continues, reeling off a list of names that includes Michaela Caitlin from Rosey, as well as Mitchell Manley and Josh Stevens from Glorious Abhor, a Memphis group for whom specially themed shows are old hat.
Glorious Abhor hosts the Memphis’ Last Waltz events every Thanksgiving — when the psychrock band recruits other Bluff City players to help recreate Martin Scorsese’s famous documentary about The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz. HEELS has joined Glorious Abhor for past Memphis’ Last Waltz shows, and Whalen does a mean version of Neil Young’s “Helpless.”
McLane continues: “Jason Pulley from Tape Deck and a million other bands [including Glorious Abhor] is playing. I’ve been in bands with Jason since Mrs. Fletcher, so he’ll always be my piano player, even though I haven’t been in a band with him for 10 years.”
“You just want to be Johnny Carson who gets to play in the band,” McLane’s wife told him, and the comedian and musician assents that she’s right, asking, “Why just play regular shows if you can bend the rules?”
HEELS Xmas Variety Show at Hi Tone, Saturday, December 21st, 9 p.m.