At the end of the summer, Boise-based band Smooth Old Fashioned High played a paid corporate gig in West Boise. A typical business shindig, black uniformed waiters moved through the crowd with platters of pastry puffs and plastic cups of white wine. The small-talking crowd ignored the five men on stage, and the five men on stage paid no mind to the preoccupied crowd.
Enclosed in the bubble of their own music, they jammed and joked and crooned, impervious to the "there-to-network set," and put on a tight show with a truckload of personality. Lead guitarist Nick McDowell even played a solo with his Les Paul behind his back—which only impressed his fellow bandmates because the crowd didn't even seem to notice.
Drummer Russ Lodge, 27, said that the band doesn't mind the corporate setting at all. "You get a paycheck, you make great connections and you get pulled pork. We'd probably do it for free."
"We just get a kick out of playing together," agreed bassist Eric Ingersoll, 25, who resembles a 6-foot version of Sheriff Woody without the cowboy get-up.
Smooth Old Fashioned High always seems to radiate that joy for performing. A mismatched group of University of Idaho grads with one foot in the frat house, the members have honed their sound into a cohesive kicky jam, each member bringing varying musical influences that have resulted in a familiar but fresh take on home-grown rock.
In 2002, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Evan Reed joined talents with McDowell to play for a battle of the bands. They invited Patrick Crozier on as vocalist after hearing him sing while washing dishes in their fraternity.
"I'm pretty sure I was singing [a song from] The Little Mermaid, which is embarrassing," said Crozier, 24, the youngest member of the band and the one whose tongue-in-cheek policy draws fuzzy lines between historical fact and entertaining re-write.
After rotating drummers, losing their bass player, finding him again and several cycles of college band battles under the name Sloppy Box, the band settled into its current line-up sometime in 2004. They also adopted the more cumbersome—but less vulgar name—Smooth Old Fashioned High. It was an unlikely group of musicians to join together. McDowell came in with jazz and blues experience and a love for B.B. King and Wes Montgomery, Reed was once the vocalist for a heavy rock band and Crozier honed his voice singing church hymns on Sunday morning.
"We got together because we each had our own instruments, rather than because of common interests," said Lodge. But the consensus among the band members is that the differences in taste create a better final product.
"After [a] song runs the gauntlet," said Reed, "We like each other a little less."
"But the music has gained a lot," said Ingersoll.
One argument that the band meant to use as an example and ended up reliving during the interview with BW was over a line in the song "Little Whiskey." During live shows, Crozier would change the lyrics "back out on the road again" to "blacked out on the road again." Lodge objected to recording the second line because he felt that it didn't fit in with the song.
"We're just debating over a little minute detail," Ingersoll said. Immediately both Lodge and Crozier corrected him: "Huge detail."
"Well, it's not going to be too hard to fix this problem because they'll have to find themselves a new drummer," said Lodge, half-frustrated, half-bemused.
McDowell described the creative disagreements the band faces as solar flares, not supernovas. But most of these aren't fueled by the ego; every band member is committed to the best interpretation of the song even if it means that his own part is minimized.
"I just try to think of how I want to hear that song," said Lodge. "I work on every detail to make it better. I'm not here to be a soloist in the band."
"There's no way anyone else could join this band without having really thick skin," said Reed, explaining how merciless each member is in the songwriting process.
"We're really comfortable with each other," Crozier agreed. "We're so open, it's almost offensive."
Their music is extremely well-conceived and disciplined—not surprising for a group of guys who have all graduated college and three of whom are fully invested in engineering careers.
Each band member has taken steps to improve his musical ability with some sort of formal training, and it shows. Each song takes the listener on a musical journey and communicates ideas and emotions before the lyrics come in.
They write about women, whiskey, past exploits and the changes in their lives and minds as the years pass. The lyrics are occasionally overt, but even the most patronizing chorus is framed with thoughtful, poetic verses that soften the impact of songs that are all hook-dependent. And the band's lack of lyrical subtlety, is sometimes paralleled in the song delivery. Crozier's bluesy growl—a less-disciplined version of John Kay from Steppenwolf—adds soul and energy to the dancing songs, but occasionally over-drives the softer tunes.
At their Nov. 24 show, Tom Grainey's was packed to capacity and the crowd was dancing. Everyone agreed that the band creates a great atmosphere.
Marco Farriuni, 51, who heard Smooth Old Fashioned High for the first time at that show, loved Crozier's presence. "He has a great voice and a twinkle in his eye."
Kelli Boyle agreed. "They're awesome. The lead singer has so much personality. I would definitely buy an album," she said.
The whole band comes across not as disillusioned rock-and-rollers but as men who are steadily maturing, changing from frat brothers into adults over time. They are generally well-dressed, well-spoken, well-read, and no one would mistake Reed's new house, where the band rehearses—with its Pottery Barn style decor and recently painted sea-foam green walls—as a haven of rock and debauchery. In fact, with all the trappings and decorations of a conventional 9-to-5 lifestyle in place, is there enough room between the BMW, engineering, golf clubs, significant others and substitute teaching for careers in music? "That's a question that we have all asked," said Crozier.
The band's upcoming album will be the moment of truth for Smooth Old Fashioned High. The band undoubtedly has the talent but might not have the time and resources committed to make something real happen with their music.
"The next six months are going to be a pretty trying time for the band," admitted Reed.
"If this album doesn't get the reception we're looking for, we'll all be taking a second look at what we're doing here," said Crozier.
For more information, visit Myspace.com/ smootholdfashionedhigh.