Surfer Blood Doesn’t Miss a Beat With New Lineup at L.A. Show: Live Review

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Buzz bands come and buzz bands go. The real challenge is to sustain a career beyond that early excitement. At different times, both Surfer Blood and second-billed Cayucas have enjoyed buzz band status, so the groups’ Friday night (Jan. 8) pairing at the six-month-old, 600-capacity Teragram Ballroom in downtown Los Angeles was a test of sorts.

Could they deliver beyond the hype and show potential to stay in it for the long haul? Top-billed Surfer Blood has already shown staying power. After its breakout album, 2010’s Astro Coast, the band graduated to Sire/Warner Bros. Records and put out Pythons in 2013, but it wasn’t a happy marriage. Before that album dropped, singer/guitarist John Paul Pitts was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery. Although no charges were filed, the accusation undoubtedly hurt the band’s standing, while certainly taking a toll on Pitts.

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However, Surfer Blood rebounded, returning to the indie ranks for its latest album, last year’s 1000 Palms. It has also survived a few lineup changes last year. First guitarist Thomas Fekete was forced to bow out after he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer (the band continues fundraising efforts for him) and was replaced by Mike McCleary. Later, long-time bassist Kevin Williams left the band for a job in Texas and was replaced by the band’s high school pal Lindsey Mills.

Judging by their hour-and-10-minute set Friday night, Surfer Blood is doing just fine with the new lineup. Mills added a nice feminine presence and sweet backing vocals, while McCleary proved to be an ace guitarist, adding interesting touches and textures to the band’s songs. Pitts only alluded to the lineup changes in passing, noting that Friday night’s show marked Mills’ first visit to Los Angeles (she, like the rest of the band, grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla.) and he dedicated “Say Yes to Me,” “to our friend Thomas,” adding, “He wrote some of the guitar parts.”

Sporting a dark V-neck sweater on top of a button-down shirt, Pitts looked as if he just stepped off the set of Happy Days, but that didn’t stop him from leading the reconstituted lineup through a tight set of melodic punk pop that fell in the sweet spot between the Pixies and Weezer. He earnestly delivered his vocals with a slightly nasal tone, occasionally launching into a scream to highlight the slightly dark undercurrents true to the band’s name. The only obvious misstep was a false start on “Miranda,” which Pitts noted is the band’s fastest song.

Aside from ripping through its selection of songs from its three albums, Surfer Blood added to the proceedings by throwing out candy to the crowd midway through the set. A few songs later, Pitts put down his guitar and ventured into the crowd on the tropical-infused “Take It Easy,” which he described as “his favorite song ... It’s about how to lose 30 pounds on tour.”

Other highlights included “Voyager Reprise,” which bounced along with a melodicism reminiscent of New Order; the anthemic “Swim,” and “I Can’t Explain,” not the similarly named Who classic, but a Surfer Blood original that had Pitts kneeling as his guitar was squealing at the song’s conclusion.

For a final encore, Surfer Blood brought up half of Cayucas for a rough take of “La Bamba,” a fitting choice considering Los Angelenos Ritchie Valens and -- decades later -- Los Lobos, turned the traditional Mexican folk song into a hit.

For the uninitiated, openers Cayucas telegraphed what they’re about with their choice of walk-on music and sounds. The band took the stage to “Juan El Pescador” and the sound of crashing waves, signaling the quartet’s beachy, slightly exotic vibes. The band’s short-sleeved, button-down shirts further hinted that Cayucas may be the hipster equivalent of Jimmy Buffett.

While they didn’t waste away in Margaritaville, the band’s nearly hour-long set was pleasant enough, but not terribly exciting. Led by singer/guitarist Zach Yudin, who occasionally also played keyboards, and his twin brother Ben on bass, the band mined African and other world music influences similar to those explored by Vampire Weekend and Paul Simon. Standouts included “Hella” and the non-com radio hit “High School Lover.”

While Cuyacas certainly has potential, it’s still unclear at this point if they’ll grow beyond the buzz or if they’re just a passing fad.

The double bill continues to hit venues in California through next week. Cayucas’ last date is Jan. 16 in Flagstaff, Ariz. Surfer Blood continues to roll with various openers through Jan. 23 in Gainesville, Fla.

Surfer Blood - Friday, Jan. 8 / Teragram Ballroom / Los Angeles Album Review