Consider Taylor Hawkins.
As drummer for the Foo Fighters, Hawkins (et al.) has won more Grammys for Best Rock Album than any other artist. Also as a Foo Fighter, Hawkins (et al.) has shipped more than 10 million studio albums in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada. He has fame and fortune and everything that goes with it—including the ability to ring up his childhood idols, Roger Taylor and Brian May of Queen, to play on the album of his occasional side project. With his blond locks and toothy grin, Hawkins embodies many a boy and girl’s rock ‘n’ roll beach-boy fantasy.
But his boss is Dave Grohl.
Dave Grohl who Klark-Kented his way through the one-man-band album that launched the Foos that made Hawkins famous. Dave Grohl who spends his downtime larking about with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones in the power-trio supergroup Them Crooked Vultures. Dave Grohl whose name had been written into the history books as one third of a little band called Nirvana, just one year after having joined.
And though Hawkins has drumming chops and pep, he may not—to paraphrase John Lennon—even be the best drummer in the Foo Fighters.
It took a lot of moxie, then, for Hawkins to launch a side project in 2004 under the tongue-in-cheek name, the Coattail Riders, featuring himself, in Grohlesque fashion, as a singing-songwriting drummer. On principle for that alone, I like him. But moxie is only as moxie does, and at the Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders’ performance at New York’s Gramercy Theater earlier this month, self-deprecation and singing in public were as far as the leading man’s moxie stretched.
Over three weeks in April and May, Hawkins and the Coattail Riders played 11 dates around the U.S. and Canada supporting their second album, Red Light Fever. The tour’s penultimate show in New York on Thursday, May 6, 2010, began with a pair of decent, if mismatched, opening bands: James Maddock, described by one companion as “Rod Stewart without the pizzazz,” and New York-based trio the Brought Low, whose throwback guitar rock also opened for Them Crooked Vultures’ sold-out show at the Roseland Ballroom last February. As hold music in between, the venue played Led Zeppelin.
Then at 9:34 p.m., the Coattail Riders—guitarist Gannin Arnold, bassist Chris Chaney, and supplementary guitarist Nate Wood—took the stage, launching into a funky, walking bassline. In semi-darkness Hawkins soon followed, setting off a cacophony of sound and drums. It was a strong start: loud, fast, spastic. But one of the band’s weak links became quickly apparent: though the band has swing, the singer cannot sing.
Hawkins’ voice, though more tuneful than many drummers’, hovers between a childlike fog and a straining, breathy shriek. More bronchial than blue, his rasp, while intriguing in a speaking voice, has too little pitch to be sexy. Its quality is further undermined by his tendency to write melodies beyond his own range. Two-thirds through the first song, Hawkins hit his first in a long series of sour notes.
Arnold and Wood, however, performed admirably on the thankless task of covering the Queen-inspired background vocals, written for and performed on Red Light Fever by Roger Taylor himself. But without Taylor’s inimitable falsetto, the vocals ceased to make sense, stripping “Not Bad Luck” down to a confused, late-‘70s stomp that you’d swear you’ve heard before, even though you haven’t.
With foot still pounding at the bass drum, Hawkins asked the crowd, “How y’all doing?” and launched into “Louise”, a quirky, ‘90s-style, non-Foos Foos song off the Coattail Riders’ first album that, again, you’d swear you’ve heard somewhere before. The chorus of “Louise, it’s me /I’m a dead man walking down your street” bounced; it also repeated eight times in the 2-minute song.
Toward the end of “Louise”, the band cut out, and the crowd—taking the rest as its cue—screamed. Hawkins broke into a laugh, smiled, and, for a moment, flashed that sunny disposition said to be the backbone of his music. A friend on her eighth Coattail Riders show at that point had told me earlier that Hawkins looks “like he’s enjoying the shit out of himself” on the tour, but I just wasn’t seeing it. The show felt comfortable but anemic. By night’s end, Hawkins’ smiles were few enough to be counted, and though wide, they weren’t enough to hang a band on.
His teeth, however, were plenty evident. Singing through a curtain of blond hair that darkened as the night wore on, his lips stretched until they exposed his molars. You could almost discern the shape of his skull. With mouth open just wide enough to clutch a stick, Hawkins also manifested one of the strangest tics in the drumming world, punctuating every thwack of the snare by squeezing closed his eyes, scrunching his face, and popping his ass off the seat. While Hawkins shocked himself with his own beat, the Coattail Riders mostly studied their shoes.
The crowd at the Gramercy Theater was a friendly one, devoid of conspicuous drunks or other hostiles. The front two rows were mostly female, peppered with fans from the Foo Fighters forum; two carried a handmade sign asserting that “Hawks Rocks.” The mix in the rest of the room contained a high percentage of teenage boys. Maxing out around 250, far short of the room’s capacity of 600, Hawkins later described the show as “fucking huge for us” compared to the 50- and 100-person rooms they’d faced on the rest of the tour. When asked between songs, “Am I entertaining you?” the audience’s mouths whooped in the affirmative. During the set, however, their bodies hadn’t been moved to anything stronger than a head bop.
It wasn’t surprising: for all the quirky rhythms, hooky melodies, and black and neon chords of their two albums, the Coattail Riders’ songs just don’t go anywhere.
Red Light Fever is the first album to grow on me less with repeated listening rather than more. Despite its callbacks to beloved rock, pop, and glam from the 1960s through the 1990s, its songs are bouncy, catchy, and shockingly boring. The structures are predictable; the relentless, static iterations of one- and two-line choruses render the songs over halfway before they end. Hawkins imagined Red Light Fever as “sounding like me having sex with my record collection,” but delivered from start to finish with the same thrusts at the same speed with the same pressure, the music only humps the listener into numbness. I went to the Coattail Riders’ show in search of that live element that would motivate the tunes, that dynamic shift that would push the music to climax and lift the Coattail Riders off into the atmosphere.
But it never came. Not through the belting “Hole in My Shoe” or “You Drive Me Insane,” with its lilting guitar solo and steady rhythm that anyone from Pearl Jam to Helloween could launch. Not through the bar-band-hopped-up-on-Styx “Your Shoes” or the aborted mess “Get Up I Wanna Get Down.” Not even through “Running in Place,” every high school rock band’s high school rock band ballad, complete with echo effect, mismatched rhythms, and pretty opening riff giving way to the inevitable high-speed denouement.
When Arnold’s breezy guitar of “Never Enough” opened into Hawkins’ low toms and bass drum, I thought we were on to something: with its simmering low and dramatic content, the pieces were all in place for a devastating climax. Instead some of the fan club girls chatted. The guy next to me checked Twitter. The band turned many well-executed donuts but never advanced down the runway. As Hawkins sang, then screamed, for the nth time “I give you everything. / It’s never enough,” I began to wonder what was missing from Hawkins’ and the Coattail Riders’ everything.
It wasn’t musicianship: Arnold, Wood, Chaney, and Hawkins’ talents were evident, and Chaney, in particular, laid an urging, if tragically underused, foundation. It wasn’t the lack of original sound, either: although simplistic and frustrating, few of Hawkins’ songs are any worse than the dippiest Foo Fighters anthems. And though Hawkins sings like a 19-year-old hurtling through the hills with the radio blasting, his voice is not a cardinal sin. It’s not even all that unusual.
But while the band knew their craft and generated plenty of sweat, they lacked what it took for opener James Maddock to spread his legs and thrust his pelvis forward during a song fit for the Dawson’s Creek soundtrack.
They lacked what it took for Maddock’s keyboard player to throw his full body repeatedly into the pressing of a single plastic key, bending his elbows and contorting his limbs like a chicken on a hotplate.
They lacked what it took for Brought Low singer-guitarist Benjamin Smith, looking for all the world like Little Britain’s Andy escaped from his wheelchair, to raise his fist high in the air and declare a cappella, “I want to be your motorman.”
Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders, though established musicians, lacked an opening band’s balls.
Everything about the Coattail Riders but the drummer’s singing voice is safe: the childhood fantasy-fueled album; the derivative, unvarying songs; the tour’s small venues. Even Hawkins’ drumming. As Hawkins himself explained to the crowd, he had considered stepping up front to the mic, but “I like it back here. This is my comfort zone.”
We were so far into Hawkins’ comfort zone that, for all the energy and sweat he generated, he didn’t produce any heat. Every lift-off was tethered; every song resembled another. While Grohl faces a large room and makes it feel small, Hawkins and company faced a small room and made it feel vast, looking more motivated to finishing the set than setting fire to it. This man who has played for millions in stadiums around the world was trounced by some nameless guy dancing Fosse angles around his keyboard—for 40 people—with gusto.
Halfway through the set, no one looked more relieved for Hawkins to stop singing and start drumming after the (supposedly) soulful opening to “Running in Place” than Hawkins himself; but painful as his vocals can be, they take guts. The result may have been abject failure, but the risk was worthy of song.
The concert’s lowest and highest musical moments came toward the end of the main set with the band’s pseudo-single, “Way Down.” A cute enough song with a persistent, jaunty beat, it opened with a few taps on the cowbell, on the bass drum, and not one, but two off-key verses. Having started on the wrong note, Hawkins floundered at a Chipmunk pitch until stumbling into the chorus.
No drumkit could hide the blunder. But it forced him to fight harder.
Capping off a rising, Brian May scale, the music dropped out, and Hawkins, Arnold, and Wood harmonized the song’s title—“Way Down”—and it happened: the song went up. The band woke up. The harmony was shaky; the song’s structure choked off the momentum. But for the first time all night, pushed by two tone-deaf verses and two bright notes punching through the haze, “Way Down” ended higher than it had begun. After 45 minutes on the hamster wheel, Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders finally sounded like a band.
They played the remainder of the set as they should have when they began, pushing through “It’s Over” and the two encores, “I Don’t Think I Trust You Anymore” and “Sunshine”, with a newfound alertness. They listened to each other; they played off one another. Through prog- and rock-fueled melodies, they showed how brightly they would shine if they would just abandon the lyrics and let the players jam.
Arnold set the tempo for the final song, eliciting with its speed a laugh and smile from Hawkins, who launched into the beat with gusto. His hair was dark and plastered tight behind his ears. His t-shirt was drenched across the chest, over the shoulders, inching down the sleeves. Hawkins described “Sunshine” as the song in which they “get (their) rocks off as musos”; at last, the band and music sounded like it.
But for much of the audience, it was too late. Pockets of excitement bubbled around the room, but most of the crowd remained at a head bop. Some had run out of even that much. After waiting for more than an hour, the audience had peaked. At 10:40, the band was gone.
Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders isn’t a bad band. I’m told that in a 50-person room Hawkins is even chatty and engaging. He has also treated friends of mine well. I imagine his cover band, Chevy Metal, is one hell of a good time: familiar tunes without all the pressure.
As for Hawkins and the Coattail Riders, catch them in a tiny club where the pressure runs low and the taps high. Just don’t expect them to rock your world. Musical genetics and bird metaphors are all Hawkins and his Coattail Riders have in common with bossman Grohl’s extracurricular activity. But their name sure does take a lot of moxie.