Melina Paris, Contributing Music Writer
In December, after numerous invitations to check out Blue Cafe, I heard Family Wagon. Their music was intense, alive, and powerful. It was rock ‘n’ roll in its youngest and purest form. In four words: I was blown away.
The San Diego-based band consists of Calen Lucas on vocals, Gareth Moore on bass, Bryan Bangerter on guitar, Jarel Paguio on piano and Steve Serrano on drums. Together just four years now, they bring together blues and funk with some psychedelic sounds and 60s and 70s rock. Quite often they sound reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, injecting soulful lyrics with eclectic sounds.In 2012 the band went to Austin, Texas to perform at the esteemed South By Southwest Festival. They performed five shows in four days and have been invited back again this year.
Serrano, the manager and drummer, admires The Band and Spoon and growing up he listened to Led Zeppelin. His drumming comes through powerfully and distinctively.
“We stay with the rock and roll aspect,” Serrano said. “We haven’t gone over into using electronic tracks. One thing I feel about rock and roll music is it’s about the imperfection of it as much as the perfection.”
The band’s name came from a van that Moore lived out of when he was taking a break from college, after his freshman year. When he returned, his friends welcomed him with humorous reactions to his adventure.
“I still had the van and another band member remarked, ‘You still have the family wagon,’” Moore recalled. “It stuck. That van’s been with us for a long time.”
Family Wagon’s latest extended play album, Last Drag, is evidence of the group’s diverse elements. Last Drag, which was released this past July, was recorded at The Compound in Long Beach.
The first cut, “Hard Times” has a bluesy undercurrent and soulful organ that carries along the infectious melody. Lucas is believable when he asks:
“When did the good sorts become bad? he affirms;
I look for love in the hard, hard times,
even if it takes me my whole life
Don’t lose sight in the hard, hard times.”
Then, there is a stirring female background vocal that’s reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” This song’s hook makes its way into your head and stays there indefinitely. The guitar and bassist Moore’s funky style makes this song live up to it’s lyrical message of not loosing sight. Moore cites Jimmy Hendrix, Robbie Shankar and The Black Keys as his influences. He projects raw high energy and he’s powerful.
Update: Robbie Shankar’s name was mistakenly changed when this story was originally posted. The correction was made at 2:53 p.m. Jan. 14, 2013
Lucas has his own special brand of charisma and his intense stage presence comes naturally. He has a sweet, clear voice that he can change over into a howl when needed. He was trained in opera, classical music and choir growing up. Before he started college he sang and listened to Christian rock. Jim Morrison and The Rolling Stones influenced him later in life, both of whom he exudes naturally on stage.
Deeply soulful is the best way to describe keys player Jarel Paguio, unabashedly boogying and bopping at his keyboard. The keys seem to administer an electrical charge that possess his fingers, his arms, his body and his mind. He comes from a music education and jazz piano background in college. Growing up, he listened to a lot of Beatles music and his biggest influences are jazz artists Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson.
Within the title song, “Last Drag,” the lead guitar as a Southern rock sound. Paguio’s organ performance draws out the emotional power that you hear in church music. The result is a melodic story of an on and off again relationship declaring:
“I’m the cigarette without the last drag,
by the time you figure out who you want me to be
I’m gone again.”
Bryan Bangerter’s guitar expresses the emotion that’s in the lyrics, telling the story of a worn out relationship and the freedom gained from ending it.
“Wonder if She Knows” is a sweet ballad. It leads with an acoustic guitar and kick drum, with Lucas’ voice coming through crystal clear. It’s a soft song that speaks of a man taken by a woman he’s trying to understand. The song builds to a crescendo, bringing together more instruments including the organ, bass, drums, cymbals and vocals, giving the song a quality of purity and loveliness, before quieting again to a soft close.
“Keeper of the Medicine” is a hard driving electric, psychedelic song. Lucas sings as if he were a sage weaving together warnings of life’s pitfalls against the backdrop of Bangerter’s furious guitar chords. One can almost envision smoke swirling around him as he prophesied.
In addition to being the guitarist, Bangerter is a drummer and the main songwriter of the group. His parents were musicians and he grew up on funk and soul artists such as James Brown, The Jackson Five and Stevie Wonder. He said that it was important for his parents to expose him to these artists. The connection to these great artists’ poetic verses is carried through in Family Wagon’s meaningful lyrics.
Each one of these musicians stands out.
“Freedom to create, express, get loud and have a good time: That’s the freedom of rock and roll,” said Lucas about what glue holds the members together.
For the month of January Family Wagon has a residency at Casbah in San Diego every Monday night and have invited other bands to share bill with them.
You can find Family Wagon on Facebook at: http://www.familywagonmusic.com