Rock music is supposed to be fun, right?
The four members of Texas-based Bright Light Social Hour answer with a resounding “Hell yes!” through their vintage-tinged brand of party-friendly rock and their notoriously rollicking live shows.
Until about a year ago, though, the band was largely unknown outside of the Texas club circuit and Austin’s indie scene, where they cut their teeth and honed their foot-stomping sound.
The quartet spent a few years booking themselves at clubs around the Lone Star State, and slowly building a die hard fanbase in Austin. They drove around the state in their tour van — nicknamed “Vaniel Day Lewis” — and played for crowds of as few as eight people.
“There are so many bands and musicians in Austin, it’s really fierce competition,” O’Brien told me from a recent tour stop in Minneapolis. “The first couple years, we couldn’t get much attention because we were there.”
That all changed last year.
Last April, the band and it’s self-titled debut album swept the 2011 Annual Austin Music Awards at the South by Southwest Festival — that annual showcase of all things hip in music. With the eyes of tastemakers and artists on the festival and the awards, Bright Light won across six categories, including Band of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year for “Detroit.”
The awards, seemingly overnight, turned the hairy Texans into instant darlings of the indie music world.
They stopped cold-calling club owners to get gigs, got an international booking agent, and hit the road — where they’ve been since and which will bring them to Belly Up on Wednesday April 18.
“The nice thing about being on the road is we’re just really tightly practiced,” O’Brien says. “We’ve got a lot of energy right now, and it’s a lot of fun.”
It’s hard not to believe the hype as you listen to the band’s self-titled disc and the sweaty, raw taste of a set recorded on “New Year’s Live,” from the band’s New Year’s 2011 show at The Parish Austin.
O’Brien shares lead singing duties with keys player A.J Vincent and guitarist Curtis Roush. They’re backed by drummer Joseph Mirasole. But it’s safe to say O’Brien is the showman of the group. He’s a natural at whipping a club crowd into a sweaty dancing mob.
His bushy, Zappa-esque handlebar mustache has become a band signature — even becoming the subject of the fan tribute website jacksmoustache.com.
“A couple years ago I shaved it in, just as a joke,” O’Brien says. “But then people started to know us as ‘the band with the guy with the mustache.’ So the guys were like, ‘No, keep it!’ And I just got used to it.”
Facial hair aside, this is simply fun rock music — enthralling in the pumped-up, carefree, groupie-fondling spirit of ‘70s rock like Kiss or Foreigner. But it also innovatively manages to make those old sounds new — blending meat-and-potatoes rock with doses of funk, metal, soul, dance, R&B and just about anything else under the Texas sun.
There’s no small amount of disco in the sounds of the Bright Light Social Hour. Like the mustache, it’s hard to say whether it’s there for irony or not — but listen to their danceable, infectious songs like the “Shanty” or “Back and Forth” and you won’t really care.
The band found its endearingly blended rock sound after experimenting with the outer edges of music, trying out anything a band can do with instruments, O’Brien says.
Bright Light evolved from an arty collective at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas that included Roush and O’Brien.
“It was hardcore experimental,” O’Brien says. “Screaming vocals. Really erratic stuff.”
Pushing the bounds and playing weird-for-weird’s-sake rock ended up being valuable for the band, as it helped them find the loose style that’s beginning to win them fans and acclaim. Their influences seem limitless, along with the possibilities for what they can do on stage.
“Between the four of us we listen to such a wide variety of stuff, from classic rock to blues, funk, house ... We just mixed everything together, without restrictions, and then fine-tuned it,” O’Brien says.
Between the mustache and O’Brien’s stage attire (pink tank tops, spandex-tight blue jeans) and the crude crowd sing-alongs he leads at shows (to wit: “Face down. Ass up. That’s the way we like to...”) you might be tempted to call the band goofy.
“I wouldn’t say we’re goofy, we just try to be natural,” he says. “So many bands put so much energy into taking themselves too seriously. If we’re having fun on the road or whatever, we’ll portray that. If we’re ever in a more serious mood, that’ll come out too.”