Updated Wed, Mar 14, 2012 3:49 pm
The Smiling Skull may be one of the cozier venues in Athens, but the actual music experience there is more like a stadium show.
Its intimacy is of a different kind than that of a place like Donkey Coffee; the fact that the stage is eight feet in front of the onlookers only makes the guitars screech louder and the drums crash harder.
Accordingly, the three acts who shared the bill on March 3 all had a raw, powerful edge, increasingly complex in sound but equally intense: Independent guitarist Jesse Wilkes, rock trio Emily & the Complexes, and self-described "surf-metal" group The Combustioneers.
Jesse Wilkes' solo set started off with a pleasant surprise. Brandishing an acoustic guitar as he stepped up onto the stage, it appeared that the Weston, W.Va, resident would go for a more restrained, folk-oriented sound. But as soon as he plugged into his amp and hammered out the first power chord, it was clear he understood the type of venue he was playing.
Chugging through a dozen songs, Wilkes distinguished himself as a one-man pop-rock band, with a swift, rhythmic picking technique. His aggressive guitar tone was balanced by his honest, friendly style of singing that kept his performance more accessible and varied than that of the average aspiring punk. Come to think of it, Wilkes' music wasn't that different from folk. Sped up and toughened, yes, but still keeping the same honest quality that's typical of musicians who play in Athens.
Columbus, Ohio's Emily & the Complexes were up next, filling up the small stage with just their guitar/bass/drums lineup.
"If at any point you feel my vocals aren't loud enough, let me know," lead singer and guitarist Tyler Verhagen announced after greeting the audience, a telling proclamation given the band's vocal-centric aesthetic. Verhagen's impassioned shouting over the steady drive of bass player Jordan Finke and drummer Tom Konitzer paid homage to the classic grunge bands of yore.
Even though the group paid a tongue-in-cheek homage to careless rock life with a tune entitled "I Don't Want to Brush My Teeth," their arrangements were anything but thoughtless, including tasteful riffs and varied sections in their songs. Sometimes they drifted into slow, feedback-drenched parts, other times they broke into fast punk and thrashed around. Their torch-carrying for the old alternative sound seemed to resonate with the many young adults in attendance.
Rounding out the bill were the adventurous five-piece Combustioneers, who spilled off the Skull's stage with their two guitars/bass/keyboard/drums lineup. With some songs recalling the style of early shredders like Dick Dale, The Combustioneers managed to flirt with new wave, rockabilly and a Beach Boys sound, sometimes in the same song.
"Deep Inside Me" began with stern organ chords before jumping into more traditional rock and roll, with lead guitarist Jonathan Sowers' trebly tone paying homage to early '60s surf legends. Among their many surprises of the evening was an instrumental entitled "Troll Bridge" with a curious medieval flavor. Its veritable salad of riffs, combined with a danceable feel, was territory I can't say I've ever heard a local band venture into before.
The Smiling Skull has a knack for drawing in groups that go beyond typical barroom noise. There may not be a 3000-seat concert hall in this area, but with venues like the Skull and the quality (and power) of the groups that perform there, Athens concertgoers can get their big arena fix on a tiny local stage.