Saturday night South End got a visit from Raleigh-based Heads Up Penny, a self-described Winnebago soul band, who are making a name for themselves in Charlotte. With Rushton Loring on vocals and guitar, Matt Privette on percussion, Mitchell Shaw on lead guitar, and Patrick Shaw on bass (left-handed, I might mention), Heads Up Penny played a mix of covers and originals in a sound that is all their own: laidback, with a little country thrown in and a lot of harmonic creativity. I suspect these guys have cousins with Southern accents.
They opened with a cover, which served as a good lead-in for what was to come. For guys who look like they have experienced their fair share of “a case of the Mondays,” they’ve got chops. When they played “Dock of the Bay,” was when Mitchell solo prowess first made me stop and maximize my cortical engagement. At that point, I longed to see them playing shows outside the brewery circuit where people can dance loosely in the sun. There is an element of joy in their music, and when Mitchell hits those flawless solos, head bobbing, he appears to be passing through the threshold that divides Earthly existence from musical Valhalla. Rushton wasn’t kidding when he said of Mitchell, “he writes really good solos.” Heads Up Penny made “A Horse with No Name” sound less depressing, like being stranded in the desert with a referentless equine could actually be kind of fun, maybe a chance to get weird, get wild, and to learn a few things in the process. Rushton’s vocals had a quality to them that made me wonder how much time he’s spent singing in bathrooms.
The covers mixed in with originals encompassed a range, which they were able to infuse with a playful inventiveness that turned classic rock on its head and went further, balancing it, aesthetic and precarious, like a Dutch sculpture. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, The Beatles, the Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, Sublime, Van Morrison, and Bill Withers were among those represented by Heads Up Penny.
They played an original called “Hiding from My Hands.” The drums were strong, the vocals restrained, and the bass holding it down so Rushton’s higher vocals wouldn’t float away. The rhythm guitar found a home somewhere between funk and an intimate rock song. Heads Up Penny are musical shapeshifters in the way that the boys of Maroon 5 (love ‘em or hate ‘em) are. When they played “Life in the Fast Lane,” they gave it a Southern twang that made me glad I wore my boots (even if I bought them in West Hartford, Connecticut). Their version made me really question what it is about Southern rock that makes it so… Southern. Is it knowing the difference between a properly fried gizzard and… the alternative? (Frankly, I can’t tell, and I rarely eat in gas stations in the US anyway.) If I were a better mathematician, I might take a stab at an explanation.
When the band took on Hendrix (“Hey Joe”), watching Mitchell’s transcendent solo was like watching Daniel Woods climb a 5.9 – measured, smooth, and apparently effortless. Another original, called “Chords on Porches,” featured some fun syncopation, rhythms, and guitar against vocals – buttressed by drums and bass – that came across as raw and from the heart. Patrick plays with a unique astuteness, with just the right amount of sound to incorporate crucially without being overpowering into the rest of the group, like the onions in a curry. “Chords on Porches” made people look away from the Pats game and listen.
Rushton introduced “Pastor’s Daughter” simply: “Long story short, I was engaged and now I’m not.” With vocals reminiscent of Hozier and supported by a funk guitar rhythm, Rushton channeled the god of music. On stage (which was cleverly supported by one end of the bar… I think the owners of Sugar Creek are nuclear engineers or something), Rushton appeared to be having an out of body experience. Everyone there witnessed something intimate and magical occurring between the vocalist and the air molecules he set into motion before they reached my tympanic membranes.
Heads Up Penny is a group that can let go, enjoy themselves, and create some earnest music. How they could give a psychedelic twang to Sublime I’ll never know, and Rushton’s ceding the stage to Mitchell for “Ain’t no Sunshine When She’s Gone,” delivering soulful vocals from the floor, was a humble move. In all fairness, Mitchell’s solo did make me bite my lip.
Their own “I’ve Been Waiting on You,” is like a blast from a squirt gun loaded with neon paint. They played the song with their hallmark element of fun, paired with intended precision and earnest vocals. The vocals held a bit of an old timey feel, but stayed away from the borderlands of kitsch. And when they played “Heard It through the Grapevine,” Matt and Patrick had something primal going on.
Heads Up Penny “Dressed to the Nines”
Heads Up Penny left me feeling entertained and craving some hydroponic fried green tomatoes. What’s more, they seem like really nice guys. They even enjoyed packing up, singing to the Sublime, Harvey Danger, Dropkick Murphys piped through the speakers with the same glee that took them hours west from Raleigh to delight the Charlotte crowd. Check them out, add them to your Music Library, and rock on.