Killer bill

Eclectic set by S.F.’s Killer Whale highlight of fun summer show

Killer Whale frontman and yacht-rockin’ hillbilly Thomas Johnson (with drummer Nathaniel Bilbrey).

Killer Whale frontman and yacht-rockin’ hillbilly Thomas Johnson (with drummer Nathaniel Bilbrey).

Photo by Carey Wilson

Killer Whale, Surrogate and Solar Estates, July 6, at The Maltese.

This is the kind of potentially rich assignment that music writers crave. From the preshow online promo: “Surrogate (Legend Status Indie Chico Vets), Killer Whale (Neo Soul Blues Psychedelia from S.F.), and Solar Estates (Tite Bros of Electronic Rock Music).” An interesting and promising mix, especially since I had somehow never seen the two locals, both of which are well-established and venerable by Chico rock-band standards, with Surrogate founded in 2007 and Solar Estates having descended from band leader Aric Jeffries’previous project, French Reform, in 2014.

Solar Estates opened the program with a set of moody, electronically infused songs built on a quiet-to-loud dynamic. Jeffries used ambient keyboard textures rather than obvious melodies or rhythms as support for conveying the emotional intensity of his songs. During the set, guitarist Loren “Cobby” Weber and bassist Stephen Galloway swapped roles at times, and it was musically interesting to see and hear their different approaches to their instruments. Weber on bass is rather staid, rock solid on stage in the manner of John Entwistle of The Who fame, while Galloway becomes possessed by the music, engaging in the facial grimaces and rock-star postures that erupt involuntarily from acolytes of sonic exploration.

Watching Solar Estates, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a comment my friend Matt Hogan made to me while watching a nearly transcendental performance by the Downsiders, much revered Chico noisemakers from the 1990s: “They certainly are earnest, aren’t they?”

Sandwiched between the two locals was San Francisco’s Killer Whale. The band debuted in 2013, manifesting in various forms in Austin, Texas, and Baton Rouge, La., before eventually settling into its current Bay Area home base. Led by guitarist/singer/songwriter Thomas Johnson, the three-piece—completed by Nathaniel Bilbrey on drums and Shawn Wyman on bass—brought a refreshing melange of styles to dextrous and exhilarating life on the cozy Maltese stage.

Looking like, and sometimes sounding like, a yacht-rockin’ hillbilly in bib overalls, trucker cap, black shades, shoulder-length hair and an impressive mustachio, Johnson reminded me a bit of Primus’ Les Claypool, both in looks and his confidently laid-back approach to presenting inventive solos. And the guy can sing, too, often in a clear falsetto reflective of old-school rhythm and blues, but also in a soulful natural tone well-suited to music that blended several branches of rock ’n’ roll’s musical family tree. For instance, “What It Means” employed a chiming, finger-picked riff on the Fender Telecaster that was reflective of both Caribbean influences and country-blues to support a longing lyric, with hints of gospel tucked into its melody as well.

Throughout the band’s nearly hour-long set, Johnson and his lucid rhythm section kept tempos danceable. And the few dancers in the crowd made the most of it, particularly a slender young dude in heavy ink and sleeveless tee who performed a sort of self-directed interpretive dance with what appeared to be a Magic 8-ball rolling between his hands.

Following a rousing whoop of approval for Killer Whale’s psychedelic honky-tonk, the local heroes of Surrogate commandeered the stage with veteran nonchalance as the crowd doubled with an infusion of patio-dwellers crowding in to see their favorites. Unfortunately, the volume in the room, both from the stage and the audience, also seemingly doubled, making frontman Chris Keene’s lyrics incomprehensible and most solos a bit blurred beneath the sonic assault.

The songs hewed with considerable faith to the indie-rock ethos, being very well-crafted, catchy and perfectly executed artifacts of the genre. And the cheering after each song made it clear that Surrogate’s local following is familiar enough with the band’s work to not be deterred by overblown sound, devoted as they were to showing up and just rocking out.