While the world's changed a lot over the past two administrations, there's not a huge need for new folk singers. There's just one reason to applaud the arrival of Safari, a six-month old Cleveland act whose rock swagger possesses a nice mixture of grime and barstool panache.
"I want to write music that you don't have to be an art-school student to understand," offers Safari frontman Nico Walker between shots of Jameson and drafts of Bell's Oberon. With his ample smarts and a nomadic upbringing that spanned the country, Walker's a well-traveled mutt with big dreams in a street-level reality. "I don't want to be pretentious, but I don't want to be stupid," he says.
His band's preparing to release its debut album, Bricks on the Brain, a record with more promise than any nascent local band has a right to. It opens with "Benny + Jenny," which features Walker's raspy croon, sounding like Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie channeling David Johansen's debauched strut, over crackling guitar that's part T. Rex, part Johnny Thunders, flourished with a dash of surf reverb. Indeed, while Walker's weary tenor has the spotlight, its misshapen sound wouldn't beguile like it does without guitarist Chris Hoke's keen grip on '70s glam.
Walker and his mustachioed sidekick Hoke first met as teens. The best friends of a pair of squabbling siblings, they were antagonistic rivals until the brothers left town, leaving both without best friends. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the two grew tight. Working in restaurants around Little Italy, there are stories of drunken, butt-naked runs down Mayfield and other youthful indiscretions.
They played together for a year in the Early Girls before Walker's girlfriend/drummer moved back to Germany and his best-bud bassist departed for the West Coast. Walker was ready to chuck it, but Hoke talked him out of it, and they reformed as Safari. A few months later, Walker saw high-school acquaintance Billy Webb, who replaced the bassist who left a week before their first gig. Since then, things have gelled quickly, judging from their nine-song debut.
There's an effortless appeal that runs rampant from the Bowery-born brio of the title track, which sounds like a new, high-def Television, to the gritty, circumspective ring of "Disco Rapture" (with its curmudgeonly cry, "they had it too easy") and the jangling vaguely Velvety ballad, "In a Lovely Garden." It's quite the triumphant start.
Walker claims he wouldn't play music without Hoke at this point and heaps credit on the taciturn guitarist. He cites Hoke's perfect pitch, guitar skill and background as a cello virtuoso, but there's also clearly a yin and yang to their personalities, abetted by the differences in their ages.
It's no secret that a band's success and longevity is more incumbent on the way they get along than skill of the players. Like any team sport, it's about roles. Webb is the guy who gets things done and handles crucial administrative tasks. A veteran of the scene, he played in a high-school ska band that moved to Portland but eventually broke up, sending Webb back to Cleveland, where he was considering grad school when Walker approached him. He brings touring experience and the willingness to do grunt work like booking shows. He's the unflappable, feet-planted glue that holds the quartet (drummer Charlie Sackman is the fourth member) together.
"When I was 13-14, I said, 'I want to start a band, and I want to make this happen.' I've just been driven to do this," says Webb.
They're quick to credit producer Alex Lackey, who helped rescue the effort when Walker's initial attempts to record the album floundered. Working for next to nothing because he appreciated the band's talent, Lackey helped bring the project to fruition. And the band is grateful.
"We've realized people will love you when you play, but if you don't have something for them to take with them, it's hard to turn that many people on," says Hoke, acknowledging that it's about passion and perseverance. "To even be in a band, especially in Cleveland, you have to have more moxie than the average guy, and we have two to three times the moxie of the leading band."