Steel-string magnolias

Common knowledge says that if you scratch the surface of even the most dogmatic, four-on-the-floor punk rocker, you’ll likely find a shred-happy metalhead underneath. And similarly, inside the guy you’ve seen playing bass in a retro-’60s power-pop band is maybe something not quite toppermost of the poppermost.

Which is to say, during a chance weekend encounter at a Midtown car wash, Alex Bohl of the Polymers was chatting up the other side of his musical persona, one he insisted would be on display at the Fox & Goose the following Saturday night. The band names sounded kinda’ interesting, if a bit jam-bandy: Pushtonwalli and the East Portal Express.

Then, a week later, an old pal from out of town called and wanted to have lunch. We ended up at the above-mentioned R Street pub on a Saturday afternoon, me sipping a Coke and recalling the many pints of Guinness my friend and I knocked back over the years at the Goose, the Abbey Tavern, the Starry Plough and other pubs around the north state. The Goose’s whiteboard listed the two bands the guy at the car wash was touting, along with singer Kate Gaffney. The show was later that evening.

So I returned later, a couple of songs into a set by a band that had renamed itself Pushtonawanda sometime during the week. There was Bohl onstage, and the singer, a Muggsy Bogues-sized scruff named Ian McGlone, was trying to explain something about when people typed “Pushtonwalli” into Google—what came up were many pages on Islamic paramilitary groups in Afghanistan. Ergo, a name change was suggested. The band’s music was the sort of timeless well-worn-shoe pub rock that’s been played, since around 1970, wherever pints are served and people sneak out for puffs of the green between sets.

On this night, apparently a few key players—a violinist and a female singer—were taking the night off. So when McGlone wasn’t singing, the band’s guitarist, Shawn Vreeland, was the focal point, and he’d step forward and launch into meaty solos heavy with hammer-ons and pull-offs, the kind my old pals with thick mustaches would call “tasty.”

The next band, the East Portal Express, had more of a true jam-band flavor, with Bohl on bass joined by Steve Bisel on keyboards, Evan Mahoney on mandolin, Natan Rodriguez on pedal steel and, occasionally, Joaquin McPeek on congas and Gaffney (whose band closed the show) guesting on vocals. According to Bohl, the flavor of the band’s set typically changes from song to song, based on who wrote the tune, and some of that was in evidence Saturday—a song by Bisel had a funky, Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia feel, whereas one by Bohl was more strongly rooted in pop-music convention.

But this was Vreeland’s night—a CD-release party for his new solo disc, The High Country. Thus, much of the music had a strong Southern-rock feeling, along the lines of the Marshall Tucker Band’s work, with Vreeland taking the Toy Caldwell parts on his Heritage Les Paul, and Mahoney doing a George McCorkle behind him on mandolin. The songs—like “Deep Magnolia River” and “Find Me an Angel”—also had that ring of familiarity; nothing new here, just well-worn ingredients served nicely.