What kind of idiot drives six hours — each way — to see an opening act that has one hour to show its stuff? Ahem. I guess that would be me.
Granted, I basically knew what to expect, having listened to and been a fan of We Came From Space. But the band had done only a handful of gigs, and I wanted to check them out in the live setting.
It was a relatively small club in Pittsburgh, a homecoming for WCFS. Some of the folks there were already fans (including friends and kin); many were newcomers who wanted to hear the main act. They weren’t disappointed.
WCFS kicked things off with the title track from their most recent album, “Overlords”. This is the group’s penultimate song, featuring shifting rhythms and melodies within a driving framework. It’s also a challenging piece on a couple of fronts. “Overlords” is a tip of the hat to the great band Crack the Sky (for whom WCFS opened on their first-ever live performance). It goes beyond the music; the lyrics include mentions of many CtS songs. As such, it’s something of an insider piece, but it is catchy and fun. Live, it featured guitarist/singer Davc Buzard, who is a great front-man presence. The surprise came about ½ way through the song. Bill Hubauer — the best-known member of the band due to his work with Neal Morse — came out from behind his keyboards, picked up a guitar and kicked into a power solo/duel with Buzard. It was impressive and fun, and the two guitarists gave each other looks that indicated they were enjoying things as well.
That’s no surprise. Hubauer, Buzard and bassist/vocalist Dave Hawk have known each other since they were kids, listening to rock records in a home basement and dreaming about making it big in the music world. Drummer Tim Malone — the new guy — is now part of the fulfillment of that dream, presenting Prog and Roll to the masses. Or at least the folks in the clubs.
The band moved into “Vivid Colours”, a rocker from their previous album “While You Were Away”. With some music hall flourishes (featuring Hubauer’s piano), there is a Beatle’s feel to things. The lyrics talk about “those vivid colours turning grey,” but Buzard’s vocal and guitar break make for a colorful performance. Er, colourful.
“Pieces of the Sky” follows on the record, so it seemed natural that it would do the same in concert. It’s several notches down in terms of pace. It’s a bit dreary, sad, and yet there was still power in the proceedings. Hubauer and Buzard traded lead vocals — impressively. And Buzard’s guitar was hard and harsh, like pieces of the sky falling down.
And speaking of the guitar, the mix wasn’t always the best. Buzard’s axe wasn’t “up” enough, especially in some solo sections. Hawk’s bass provided a couple of jolts of feedback. And for these ears — admittedly old and abused — I’d have boosted the vocals a tad as well. But maybe that’s just me.
Next up — a third song from “While You Were Away”, “Business as Usual”. This one drives ahead, in a hurry and urgent. It’s a toe-tapper, a fist pumper, and a great example of what WCFS does in the song category (those that are less than six minutes in length). Hubauer’s keyboard solo was frantic but not out of control — and there were some points that reminded one of Steve Walsh and Kansas.
Then came the big hit single. Or it was supposed to be, according to emcee Buzard, showing his dry wit that adds to the overall performance. The problem was, the group kept adding things…. and before you know it, “She’s the Bomb/Atomic Blues” is a 10 ½ minute epic. But it’s worth every second, both on record and live. Hubauer’s piano provided strong underpinnings (as did the later synth section). This one could have come from the early Ambrosia catalog — lyrically interesting with a melody that grabs. Then Hawk’s ominous bass line announced the second part, and it is bluesy, just as the man said, the band building higher and higher in energy and volume until the end section took things down. Again, the keyboards grabbed the lead and didn’t let go. Bill Hubauer is a singular talent, in so many ways. This one demonstrated that fact. And then some.
The band then showed another of its influences, offering a cover of the Michael Stanley Band’s “Let’s Get the Show on the Road.” Hawk took lead vocals on this, with his mellow tone fitting right into a song about what travel and touring is like for most groups — it can become drudgery and wearying. WCFS’s version was a bit more uptempo than the original, a bit more sonically powerful. But I think Stanley would have approved. There’s just one problem with this one — it’s not available on record, yet, although it has been recorded. This one should be heard by the masses; the live performance proved that.
“Façade” was the real thing, another showcase for Hubauer’s vocals and keys. There were some Kansas organ flourishes midway through, but this was more power ballad than “Point of Know Return”. And Bill’s vocals were at their most plaintive, really hitting a range of emotions. Powerful.
On “Overlords”, that segues directly into “Seize the Day”. On stage, the boys broke it up as Buzard informed folks that the next one would be the last song of the set (okay, they’d gone over an hour…but who was counting?). The rhythm section of Hawk and Malone did some wonderful work on this one.Buzard added a crying guitar solo. This was a showcase for the band, pure and simple, and a great way to sign off. It’s hard not to compare the piece to “Time Waits for No One” by Ambrosia, lyrically as well as musically. And that’s a good thing, by the way.
As I noted earlier, the crowd was a mixture between friends of WCFS and those who didn’t know a thing about them. But it was telling that almost everyone gave the group a standing ovation when the set was done. That was impressive; it was also deserved. And it’s even more remarkable when you consider that these are four guys with day jobs, not full-time musicians, who get together here and there to create some memorable and compelling songs — mostly on record, occasionally in small clubs in the Midwest.
So what kind of idiot drives six hours — each way — to see an opening act that has one hour to show its stuff? I did. I would do it again for We Came From Space. I’d probably travel even farther. They are that good. And they deserve more live gigs to further build an audience. Don’t be surprised if you see me in the front row.