And now, a quick rundown of the hotbeds of bluesy, soulful American rock: Muscle Shoals, AL. Detroit, MI. Memphis, TN. Bethesda, MD.
Yes, we know. One of these things is not like the others. Yet that’s where the blues- and soul-tinged rock of Mission South originates from. So if you’re the type who believes that geography is destiny when it comes to music, you may have to get over it. Because this trio, hailing from a D.C. suburb known more for cul-de-sacs and lacrosse players, is emerging as one of the most promising such bands.
After a spring of touring as far as Austin and Colorado, they returned home on Thursday for a homecoming show at D.C.’s Rock and Roll Hotel, supporting Brooklyn blues rockers The London Souls.
As an opening act, their set was tight and lean. The supportive, hometown crowd was anything but lean, nearly filling the room for their 9:30 start time. Immediately it became clear, via the bluesy stomp of the opener, “Kerosene,” that this is a band that presents well beyond its collective years. And that’s a pleasant surprise in this era of ProTools and lazy, shoe-gazing musicianship. Chalk it up to the fact that these three grew up playing together in high school, studied music in college, and reformed to make a serious go at touring and recording when they returned home last summer.
They managed to sound tight while looking loose—a challenge for any band—as the rhythm section of John Beck and Max Harwood held down a near-perfect pocket, while frontman Dan Miller played to the crowd with a bit of jumping and gyrating. Miller’s voice is a surprise, too. Unassuming when he speaks, it gains weight, as if it’s carrying decades of wisdom and frustration, as soon as he begins to sing (“…When you set fire to your promises/Lips dripping with kerosene/And you set fire to your promises”).
The bass-driven “Saint” takes from the same soul-inflected playbook that the Alabama Shakes have mined to such great effect, while a cover of Prince’s “Kiss” took some of the funk out and turned the whole thing up to 11.
Like some blues bands comprised of white kids, the focus here isn’t on guitar solos (although Miller afforded himself a couple good ones, as in the slow burn of “Helicopters”). Rather, like the Mississippi blues and Memphis soul that clearly influences them, the emphasis is on dynamic tension. For an example, look no further than show closer “Peaches” (video below), which alternates a restrained, almost lilting bridge with a hammer of an electric guitar riff.
And that emotional build-up and release is what music like this continues to do so much better than its emo/indie competitors, who are content to hit an emotional plateau and stay there for an entire set.
Mission South is only two EPs deep into their career, but if the industry gave out a blues-rock Rookie of the Year award, they’d be in the running.
Mission South plays Iota in Arlington, VA, on June 28 and Webster Hall in New York on July 9.