Small-town rock

The Avant Gardeners, veteran rockers from Quincy, Calif., get crowds moving with floor-trembling organic rock

The Avant Gardeners can move from a Chili Peppers’ sound to James Brown in a matter of seconds.

The Avant Gardeners can move from a Chili Peppers’ sound to James Brown in a matter of seconds.

The Avant Gardeners will play March 15 at the Bar of America in Truckee.

My favorite thing about the Reno Jazz Club is its floor. As far as I know, it’s the only venue in town with a wooden floor, and if you ask me, more venues should invest in them. Whenever anyone starts to dance, or even taps his foot in time with the music, everyone else in the bar can feel it. And let me tell you—watching a show from a floor that’s almost throbbing in time to the music is a pleasurable experience.

The Avant Gardeners did exactly what I would expect from a band at the Jazz Club— they really got that floor rolling.

That’s no easy task with a crowd of less than 25. But their music compels people to dance, or almost dance. It’s fluid and organic. The band could easily jam for hours, and it would be difficult to tell whether the music was rehearsed or improvised. And while drummer Jimmy Leal doesn’t play the fanciest beats I’ve heard, he seems to have a keen sense of what makes people want to move.

Apparently, people in the band’s home town of Quincy, Calif., agree, because nearly a dozen of them followed the band to Reno to watch the show—probably setting the record for the number of cowboy hats in the Jazz Club at one time.

Lead singer and percussionist Dave Willis describes Quincy as very supportive, its inhabitants almost like a big family to him, but acknowledges its limitations for musicians.

“The music scene in Quincy is really slow,” Willis says.

As a result, the Avant Gardeners frequently take to the road, playing any city they can drive to in a single day. They come to Reno and the Lake Tahoe area several times a year.

Bassist Mary Lynn Risley says she’s enjoyed playing Reno since the first time the Gardeners played at the Beer Barrel in 1986.

“I have fun in Reno. I like to come here and see music myself,” Risley says.

The band takes a different approach than most in the way it structures its music. Band members play sets that are less song-based than I’m used to, seeming to prefer long instrumentals and improvisations.

They even managed to sneak a five-minute instrumental into the middle of a cover of the Beatles’ “Daytripper” at the Jazz Club show, which would probably be considered blasphemy to some, but no one present seemed to mind.

It’s hard to pigeonhole their genre because of the diversity of the members’ styles. Guitarist Art Garcia seems to favor funk-style guitar, but Leal doesn’t play the drums the way you’d hear them in a funk song; he sticks to rock/dance beats.

Risley’s bass lines are the bridge between them; she’s just funky enough for Garcia, and just solid enough for Leal. And Willis is a vocal chameleon, moving from Red Hot Chili Peppers to James Brown in 6.2 seconds.

But the Avant Gardeners aren’t interested in conforming to a more familiar format.

“We have some disdain for the whole MTV, getting signed [thing], because there’s just so many snakes in the music industry,” Willis explains.

“It’s all about playing live,” Leal adds.

And as a live band, the Gardeners really work. They’re just fun. They have that comfortable stage presence that can only come from a decade of experience. They’re totally relaxed, and it rubs off on the audience.

But most important of all, they get the Jazz Club floor moving. And isn’t that what it’s really all about?