The four guys in J. Roddy Walston and the Business want to make a small but crucial distinction: They're not a rock band. They're a rock 'n' roll band.
It might seem like a subtle point, but for the Baltimore group, those two extra words are all the difference. Nickelback plays rock. Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the band's heroes, plays rock 'n' roll.
"Rock 'n' roll is big and mysterious and romantic," singer/pianist J. Roddy Walston said. "We feel like rock 'n' roll does matter. If you ask somebody if there's a difference between rock and rock 'n' roll, the only people who see it are the people who care about rock 'n' roll."
By tapping into the raw energy of early American rock 'n' roll and ratcheting up the intensity, J. Roddy Walston and the Business has become one of the biggest acts on the Baltimore music scene. The group's rollicking live show routinely sells out clubs like the Ottobar, and has stirred up interest from major labels.
The rockers sold thousands of copies of their album "Hail Mega Boys" by themselves, and booked hundreds of shows in bars and clubs around the country. After years of going it alone, the band signed with Fairfax/Vagrant, which will release the group's self-titled debut Tuesday. The guys are celebrating with a show at the Ottobar on Saturday before continuing their 15-date tour.
The new album comes on the heels of a fiery performance at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, that had critics buzzing. Spin magazine labeled the band a "must-see," and Philly Style said "watching these guys perform is like watching a live bull fight, with audiences dancing for their lives in the aisles." Now, with a label behind the band and an album about to hit shelves, J. Roddy Walston and the Business is poised to be the next indie rock breakout.
"This is definitely a milestone," Walston said. "Hard work pays off, but hard work with other people helping is exponential. … We're not shooting for obscurity."
A Southern boy, Walston moved to Baltimore from Tennessee in 2004 with a previous incarnation of the Business. His then-girlfriend (and now wife), Sarah, studied at Peabody Institute and is now a professional opera singer. Not long after settling in Baltimore, Walston met guitarist Billy Gordon, who recorded and produced albums for local bands. The two started working together, and Gordon joined the band, along with drummer Steve Colmus. When original bassist Zach Westfal recently bowed out, Logan Davis took his place. Their practice space, in a warehouse at the corner of High and Low streets (a fitting location for a band on the brink), is a jumble of pianos, drums and other instruments.
In 2007, the band self-released "Hail Mega Boys," a musical grab bag of Walston's best songs, from poignant acoustic stompers to full-throttle rock 'n' roll. To date, the band members have sold about 6,000 copies of "Hail Mega Boys" themselves, mostly at shows.
Baltimore may be home base for J. Roddy Walston and the Business, but the band members have spent a considerable amount of time on the road. They tool around in a white 1997 Ford van emblazoned with the logo of its previous owner, a Christian academy. They've played everywhere from a barn in the middle of nowhere to Midwest dive bars.
At heart, J. Roddy Walston and the Business is a live band. It seems right at home in cruddy bars stuffed with shoulder-to-shoulder fans. Walston hammers away at the piano, whipping around his mane of long hair and howling into the microphone while Gordon tears through solos. A J. Roddy Walston and the Business show is an aural assault.
The four band members seem perpetually a day removed from a shower. All except Colmus have long hair, and everyone has a beard of varying length. When Walston's not banging away at the piano, he's drumming his fingers on a table or running them through his long hair. Colmus, the group's unofficial spokesman, seems the most composed. Davis is the young pup, eager to make a good impression, and Gordon is the most detached.
On tour, they routinely crash on friends' couches and floors, and have amassed plenty of road tales. Once, after a show in Arkansas, they just missed a violent episode with a deranged man who slashed one of their acquaintances in the back with a samurai sword. Davis, who has been in the band only for a few months, was groped by a female fan who said "you wear your jeans like Bon Jovi."
For years, various labels had courted J. Roddy Walston and the Business, but the band held out.
"People wanted us to give them the record and then not really do that much for it, financially," Walston said. "We stopped believing in that system early on."
The band finally found the right fit with Fairfax/Vagrant, a partnership between Fairfax Recordings and Vagrant Records. It's common for record labels to push an album for a couple of weeks and then give up. Not so with Fairfax/Vagrant, Colmus said.