Last year, the smart money had The Natives — Jesse Bates, Ryan Hitt, Judson Spillyards and Joshua Spillyards — as the latest in a long line of local musicians who've glimpsed the mountain only to return with a story to tell and a spot waiting tables at a pizza joint. As the backing unit of Chris Denny, easily the brightest folk rock prospect Little Rock's known in recent memory, the group toured nationally and recorded an album for a New York indie label with buzz. But before the label could ready the album for release, Denny cut The Natives loose and mostly withdrew from performing.
His backing unit returned to Little Rock and revived old instrumental projects and started new ones, and that seemed to be that. But, as it never does, cosmic justice swooped in: Through members of ascendant California indie folk act Dawes, who toured and became fast friends with Denny and the Natives, the guys got hooked up with Luke MacMaster, a lead singer with a project called Romany Rye — already endorsed by Kings of Leon — in need of a backing band. Both parties hit it off and on Tuesday, July 13, The Natives-infused Romany Rye (with Little Rock keyboardist Whitman Bransford and without Bates) comes to Juanita's more than halfway through a tour that's already taken them from one coast to another in a matter of weeks.
The Romany Rye is opening for Delta Spirit, another popular California act built around big, sunny melodies. It's the same spot Dawes, now signed to ATO Records, home to My Morning Jacket and Radiohead, found itself in last year. Which is not lost on lead guitarist Judson Spillyards.
"It's definitely the best opportunity we've had going for us," he said last week, hours before Romany Rye took the stage at the Bowery Ballroom in New York.
Still, Spillyards and his mates are under no illusion that, even if the band does sign to a label, it'll lead to real money.
"We're all doing things we've never done musically and getting to see places we've never seen. If we have to do this for years where we're not making money, we still feel like it'll pay off as long as we're growing as people and as musicians."
The band is touring behind Romany Rye's debut, "Looking Back Carefully," a gentle folk rock album MacMaster recorded in the home studio of Delta Spirit multi-instrumentalist Kelly Winrich. Live, Spillyards said the sound is amped up: electric guitars replace acoustic ones and nearly every song now features three-part vocal harmonies, with Hitt and Spillyards singing along with MacMaster.
"We didn't do any of that with Chris," Spillyards said. "He didn't discourage it, but didn't encourage it either. We all love singing now. When we headed out to California [to practice and begin the tour], we put ["Hello, Goodbye"] on and tried to figure out how to make the harmonies work and tried to learn harmonies for Neil Young and Beatles songs. We looked down at the clock and we'd been in the car singing for 8 hours!"
After Little Rock, The Romany Rye has dates in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before finishing its tour in California at the end of the month. Already, the band's booked another tour for November opening for Dawes. In between, the guys plan to recharge in a camper at Big Bear Lake and thereafter, likely start work on an album. Already, the Arkansas contingent's worked with MacMaster on a handful of new songs that they could pair with six or seven songs he'd written before they came aboard.
But in the meantime, the band's stoked for Tuesday's homecoming show.
Several musician friends, including trumpeter Rodney Block, are likely to join them onstage. Don't forget, with apologies to Delta Spirit and David Vandervelde, the band that you care about will be playing early, so in this rare case at a concert, punctuality matters.
Romany Rye with Delta Spirit and David Vandervelde
9 p.m. Tuesday, July 13
$10, 18 plus