Two years ago, I saw the Vahnevants play a show on a city bus. The audience was an even split: Half of the people were bus regulars, just trying to get to their stop on their way to or from work. The other half was a mix of the kinds of freaks and art geeks who tend to turn up for these out-of-the-ordinary occurrences of live music.
Due to the circumstances of playing on a bus, the Vahnevants’ set was necessarily a more stripped-down crawl through the band’s loose take on 60-year-old rock and roll traditions. At the time, I doubt any of the songs from the band’s newest album, Freakout People, had been written. But something about that whole experience seemed to encapsulate the title perfectly: the invasion of scruffy punks in shredded clothing bobbing their head as the band howled through a handful of slowly plucked guitar jams from the back of the bus; the sunlight streaming in through clusters of leaves hanging over shaded blocks of brightly painted houses; and the wheezing old city bus weaving its way in and out of stops around processions of pedestrians and turning vehicles.
Freakout People takes its time. At points throughout the record’s seven tracks, it almost manages to shake away all the grit and grime from the deeply rooted garage rock of the band’s previous three albums. It feels more open, breezy — traveling music crawling over patched-up-pavement avenues. A hand curling in the wind through the open window.
The album opens with “I’ll Go,” and it might just be the cleanest song the band has ever recorded. The song strips away the usual chain of battered guitar effects in favor of a roving little lick that pulls the whole album closer to its roots in the blues. It then immediately piles it all back on with “Don’t Tell Mama,” which rips with all the same blown-out reverb walls as most of the band’s previous catalogue.
From there, the album begins to reconfigure the many genres that emerged out of American blues music. You can hear it most in tracks like “Midnight Splatter” — its spurs clink like a country ballad — or “Dark Luck,” “Hip Walkin’ Woman” and “I Can’t Help It,” where the messy blues riffs and piano plucking feel a bit like melted old Them 45s dug up out of the sand.
There’s a moment at the end of “I’m Your Man” when everything comes sputtering to a halt. Delayed-out guitar walls hiss into nothingness and the song sits silent for a moment. As it picks up again, it slowly reassembles itself into the skeleton of an outro that whispers and claws its way toward the end of the song. That moment feels like a bridge to the entire album. In many ways, it speaks to the album’s greatest strength in its ability to easily tear apart and loosely reassemble decades worth of old music formulas without ever leaving behind all the weirdos at the back of the bus — freakout people.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 277.