Review: The Cold Stares Deliver a Riotous Set in Memphis, TN
In an unremarkable joint in Memphis, the Cold Stares arrived in a chariot of fire and intensity. Formed in 2008, the musical duo Chris Tapp and Brian Mullins performed on April 7 for a small crowd at the Lafayette Music Room. Fusing together Tapp’s powerhouse vocals and guitar-shredding skills with Mullins’ vigorous thumping on the stock drum-set given to him by the venue, the room was amplified and alive with the spirit of rock and roll.
The two music maestros started with one of their cult classics, “Jesus Brother James” and immediately lifted everyone’s gaze. Chris Tapp snarled and growled and rumbled. His vocal tones were reminiscent of Caleb Followill’s from Kings of Leon and Chris Cornell’s from Soundgarden. His pitch — rising, falling and breaking — was at a frequency one could equate with a wild animal; although he never lost poise or grace. He retained a wild, untamed element in his voice whilst subduing any tumultuousness or jarring scratchiness.
It is clear the Cold Stares have a niche, but they defy, or rather transcend, the confinements of any genre. They integrate an acoustic bluesy vibe with the Southern/country rock scene inventing a sound that is exceptional and exclusive to them. Much of their discology consists of songs ending in the word “blues,” including “Neighbor Blues,” “Red Letter Blues” and “61 Blues.” Their artistry contains flavors and inspirations that serve up a refreshing take on the blues/rock genre combo.
With a rasp that dealt sonically violent blows and a tension that had Tapp’s veins popping in his neck, one might assume the performance would be spurned by the faint of heart and hearing. Although his voice had a momentum and weight to it, there was a squaring, relaxing quality that could put more people to bed than warm milk. His rockstar anthems, such as “John” (the song of a guy losing a girl to a gravedigger), didn’t give off a pretense that he might swan dive into the crowd or smash his guitar to splinters on stage. Tapp had fluent control over every noise he uttered, delivering a solid performance that anyone could listen to while they dined.
Tapp even lost himself in his own music, as he would close his eyes to channel the mystical spirits that endowed him with such supernatural talents. It was as if he was singing soulful ballads to the heavens, seen particularly in his song, “God and Country.” Although his vocals were a gift of immaculate perfection, his ability to play his Fender Olympic white guitar was in a league the likes of Jimi Page and Jimi Hendrix. He tickled his guitar’s fingerboard swiftly and meticulously, like a rock idol. When he digressed into interim guitar solos, it coalesced with Mullins’ drum riffs like clockwork on stage. One shan’t undervalue Mullins’ brilliance either as he beat emphatically on the snare, cymbals and Toms that made up his drum-set, often swapping out his sticks with maracas to liven up the jive.
The Cold Stares have a veneer that is characteristically simple with no bells, whistles or accoutrements. Both were outfitted in jet-black threads, consisting of a t-shirt and jeans. Mullins, the “legendary drummer from Indiana” as referred to by his partner Tapp, fancied a beret and a white stripe across his sneakers, but other than that the two would be unrecognizable on a busy street. Tapp and Mullins had appearances uninhibited by elitism or notoriety, and that was their appeal.
Performance appraisals often use the word “authentic” as the operative term for Mullins and Tapp. As Tapp forayed onto the stage after an intermission, his returning statements reinforced this assertion. “I’ve been feeling a little under the weather,” he conceded. “I had to fix myself a little whiskey and tea for the night.” I suppose it speaks volumes about his resolve as well as his authentic nature. He was sick (and possibly a little intoxicated) and managed to keep a commanding presence on stage. He summed up his ailing feelings with the next track on his setlist, the 2016 single, “Whipping Post.”
As they continued their jam-fest, many of the audience members were compelled to stand up and dance in sync with the Cold Stares’ melodies. One woman excitedly twerked in the front of the stage with a glass of wine in her hand. An older couple decided to join in and shake their thangs in this phenomenal public spectacle. The night of boogying went on without a hitch, and it only seemed to embolden the Cold Stares’ performance levels. Their musical ferocity belonged in a stadium, but their aesthetic belonged in a small venue.