Achilles Wheel had an extremely tough act to follow on Saturday, December 30 at the Crazy Horse Saloon: Themselves. The night before they had played their first show here in over two years and they approached it like six starving pirates feasting on an overripe cantaloupe. Percussionist Gary Campus had to be in Mexico for Saturday’s gig and he did everything possible to make sure he was missed. When push came to shove, Mark McCartney went into full on beast mode. Unleashing on his kit with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes, he made it clear he’s more than up for the challenge of crushing the drum role on his own. Whether playing in front of thousands at a festival or in an intimate room like ours, this band’s commitment to having fun is clearly one of the most endearing factors to their many fans.
45 minutes into Saturday’s first set, it seemed as if the fireworks of Friday might remain as the weekend’s highlights; a nearly 30 minute mystical journey through “Stones to Sand” being at the top of the list. This song continues to be the holy grail of improvisation for Achilles Wheel. On night two, the band was cruising along in their bouncy, bluesy mode which is fine and good. When they pulled out the old faithful, voodoo rocker – “Welcome to the Monkey House” – things proceeded to get dirty. A palpable wave of momentum washed over the room, the fuse was ignited and there was no turning back. A crackling version of “Ramble on Rose” encompassed us in euphoric emotion before the set soon came to a very satisfying conclusion.
The two nights were an electrifying mix of old favorites, beloved covers (including a sultry rendition of T Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get it On) and a pair of Tom Petty rockers) and smoking hot new songs from the band’s upcoming album. Given how well -developed the fresh material already is, one can have no doubt that 2018 will be another year of remarkable progression for Achilles Wheel. “Babylon By Morning” was a centerpiece of Saturday’s second set as the band spiraled down the rabbit hole of bluesy, psychedelic grooves. Aided by the seductive harmonica riffs of Scott Hickman, the communication between all the players reached an effortless peak. Exhibiting the utmost patience in letting the music breathe, every note landed like footsteps on a soft bed of moss. This set up a textbook transition into “Scarlet Begonias>Fire On the Mountain” which was as delicious as anyone could expect. The cathartic vibe on the full – yet comfortable – dance floor was off the charts. The crystalline sound quality was not only savored in-house but for anyone listening to the live broadcast on KVMR Radio.
Anyone who thought guitarist/vocalist Jonny Mojo’s nugget “Down in the Mine” would be a perfunctory finisher was sorely mistaken. Turning everything they touched into gold, no stone was left unturned in the next 13 or so minutes of razor sharp group improvisation. They are one of those bands that is almost as fun to watch as they are to hear. Bassist Shelby Snow is a human tornado of relentlessly funky, grinding grooves on his six-string slab. Paul Kamm’s smiles left nothing to the imagination as he embodied the alchemical reaction the occurs when the Wheel plays the Horse. His elegant vocal command and sneakily creative rhythm guitar work are major x-factors; not to mention top notch songwriting. Tucked in the dark corner like an unassuming Huckleberry Finn, keyboardist Ben Jacobs solidified the mix with cascades of melody and tasteful effects.
Standing calmly in the eye of the storm, Mojo is consistently the one who harvests nectar out of the ethers. The tone of his gorgeous turquoise PRS guitar has evolved to a point of refinement where it swirls around the room like an angelic comet with a life of its own. After not seeing them for over two years, it was spellbounding to witness how far the band has come. You could always count on Achilles for a pleasurable experience, but now they exist on hallowed ground which is only achieved through selfless surrender to the collective spirit of sonic creation. Here at the Crazy Horse, it catapults us into 2018 with a strong sense of inspiration, optimism and anticipation.