By Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford
Living in New England you grow accustomed to old things: mills from the Industrial Revolution, houses built by veterans of the Revolutionary War, cobblestone streets. While this region embraces its age, it’s not defined by it. The people and institutions in this part of the country have an enduring ability to rework and rediscover purpose from their fading history. It makes perfect sense then that a rock band named The Silks would hail from Providence, R.I., and that they’d play the rejuvenated Columbus Theatre on a stinging cold winter night.
The musky theater, built in 1926, features a simple lobby that opens to two connecting staircases. Fans of both The Silks and the evening’s headliner Patrick Sweany were led to a secondary theater set up for an intimate, urban rock show. Instead of old projectors beaming silent films to the masses, the rectangular cutouts behind the stadium seating housed spotlights that bathed the stage in red fluorescent light.
The band and the venue formed the perfect fusion of past and present. The Silks, who put out their first album in 2012, sound like the theater looks: aged, but teeming with energy. Daniel Ford and I met Jonas Parmelee—the band’s bass guitar player—and his Farrah Fawcett locks by the band’s merchandise table, which he was running on his own. He eagerly led us to the band’s front man, Tyler-James Kelly, whose hair and manic energy channeled Ted Nugent. After tracking down drummer Sam Jodrey, who looked like he crashed out of a Def Leopard music video, the band guided us through a side door that led to the Columbus’s main room.
“We have a lot of older influences, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. But that’s where we started. So if you think about it, we’re only like second generation blues guys,” says Kelly, who also plays guitar.
His assessment reverberates through the band's sound, which is an energetic, honky-tonk mix of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Cream. Despite their classic rock influences, the band makes it clear the sound is all their own.
“I don’t sit down and think, ‘Oh, I’m going to write an old timey song now,’” says Kelly, who crafts the majority of the band’s music.
He settled into a seat upholstered in hard leather perched above the silent, dark theater, flanked by his band mates. The long, wooden stage, watched by a sea of empty chairs spread out under the aging balcony, was once the home of vaudeville acts that entertained scores of Rhode Islanders.
“We want to make music to make people move,” Kelly says. “We write to please. It’s your time to fucking boogie.”
Parmelee saw Kelly play a solo set at a former rock club in downtown Providence called Club 201. They started making music together, found a drummer, and recorded a proper album. The Silks drifted through a few years of on-again, off-again touring, and then their drummer quit the band.
“You know, everyone has their reasons and their priorities, no hard feelings,” Kelly says. “It’s hard living out of a van and driving all over the place.”
Kelly, a little fidgety—in truth, the rocker rarely sat still the entire evening—explained that they’re “still making music the hard way,” burdened with day jobs, long road tours in the van, and hawking their own merchandise at gigs.
The touring paid off, though, in the form of Jodrey. He joined the band almost a year ago after Parmelee and Kelly watched him play a gig in Detroit. Jodrey learned the band’s songs on the fly, sometimes in the bathroom right before a show.
“It happened so fast,” says Jodrey, “It still feels super new, but at the same time it feels like I’ve always been here.”
When asked about touring and replacing the band’s previous drummer, Jodrey put it simply, “Everyone wants to be in a band, but no one actually wants to be in a band.”
The band’s fate is far from certain, however, Jodrey seems to have invigorated The Silks. They had just wrapped principal recording on a new album, and were prepared to debut the new tracks during that night’s set.
"We were just sent the final mix of the last song,” Kelly says. “It sounds petty good."
Like a newly minted father eager to share baby pictures, Kelly dug out his smartphone to play a rough track from the record. He apologized for the crappy cell phone speakers and pushed play. The transformation of the rockers was immediate. The music—indeed, good rock ‘n’ roll worthy of moving your body to—caused the trio to pound their feet on the ground and gyrate as if the rhythm was hardwired into their nervous systems.
Kelly became somewhat cagey when asked about the band’s future, the state of rock ‘n’ roll, and how artists change once they’ve hit it big.
“Oh, we’re not trying to get bigger,” Kelly says. “I just want us to be self-sufficient and be able concentrate all our energy on making our music. Rock hasn’t gone anywhere, we’ve always been here, you know. We find stories and we go play them.”
The band claimed that they don’t write about their own problems. Everything else inspires them, including the time Kelly saw a woman in a fur coat walking in the cold and thought, “Tundra warrior princess.”
“It would probably end up sounding like a bad KISS song,” Kelly says. “But some songs are like that, and others are about that girl sitting at the end of the bar. And we all know what those songs are about.”
Later, on stage, the band appeared much more relaxed, more comfortable showing than telling, cavalier in their mission to get the crowd moving. Kelly had promised us a few mid-tempo numbers, but that the band was “just going to hit you in the face with everything else.”
As The Silks moved through their set list with an impressive acuity, each song incorporated a slightly different element of their sound (a harmonica there, a slide guitar there), but the groove was always there, triple-dog-daring you to get out of your seat. They looked aloof and nonchalant while they performed; Parmelee bopped away on the bass like Paul McCartney during his bowl cut years, and Jodrey slammed the drums like it was the last concert he’d ever play.
The only exception occurred during one of Kelly’s solos. He was the image of musical professionalism, and his intensity simmered the energy in the small theater until the dark room started to boil over, finally exploding when Parmelee and Jodrey rejoined in boisterous continuity.
Kelly had claimed earlier that he’d “bleed for you on stage.” His words sounded overly serious and out of place during the awkward, formal chat in the darkened theater, but were eerily prescient during the show. It’s rare for a musician to turn down a free beer, or substances of any kind, but that’s exactly what Kelly did when Daniel and I offered to buy him a drink before the show.
“Nah, but thanks, man. I cut out drinking and all that stuff,” Kelly says. “Really. I’ve been focusing on the band and writing. What we’ve been talking about.”
The focus shows. The band’s new songs offer a new, but welcome, twang and folksiness to their familiar classic rock sound. New track “Let It Ride,” is as catchy as anything off their debut album “Last American Band,” but it carries an undercurrent of confidence that The Silks might have been lacking. They’ve also added an additional touring musician solely dedicated to the slide guitar. The total effect is a robust sound that knocks you off your chair.
Conversely, The Silks, deep into the set list, pulled out a slow jam called “Home” replete with harmonica, blues undertones, and a melody that warrants repeat plays. “Home” could very well be what grants The Silks the attention they deserve. It’s a track that unequivocally proves that The Silks are capable of making real, important rock music, something the airwaves consistently lack.
On Saturday, March 5, the band is returning to the Columbus Theater. New and old fans alike might just be catching the start of something rare: fresh lungs belting out an old sound. Much like the city they call home, The Silks have rekindled an old and long-mourned fire. A fire that has just begun to rage.