It's an unseasonably cold spring evening at Blue Cats in the Old City, but the weather isn't the only thing that looks bad for Knoxville's American Plague. Old-school rockers opening a show for flavor-of-the-month Nu-metal nimrods, they're out of their element, shag-topped black-shirts in a sea of baggy trous and Korn-row hair.
But when lead singer and rhythm guitarist Jaw slashes into the opening chords of "Past the Machine," and the rest of the band kicks in with all the raw fury of a Harley in full throttle, it doesn't take long for the momentum to shift—violently—in the Plague's direction. By the time the band launches into their now-traditional set closer—a feral, buzzsaw rendering of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades," the Korn-rows are hooked, yelling for more of the Plague's not-so-Nu mixture of metal and punk.
"We've been discovering another group of people, a new territory we weren't aware of," explains Plague bassist Dave Dammit, 23, in an interview a few days after the show. "It's great to play for people like this, because they're so rabid, so into what you're doing. They're uber-fans."
"The people who come out to Blue Cats for an Extreme rock show have never heard us; they don't come out to shows at the Pilot Light, or Java or other places we've played in the past," adds Jaw. "The funny thing is that we knew they would love us, when they finally heard us. They just didn't know it yet."
It shouldn't be a surprise that the American Plague have finally begun to expand their local fan base beyond a core group of punk rockers and scene hipperati. They're one of the best, and certainly one of the most underrated, balls-out purebred rock 'n' roll bands to come out of Knoxville in a very long time.
What's held them back is the fact that they're also one of the least prolific. Though their first, self-titled CD was blurted out within only two months of their forming in February 2001, their second full-length release would be another four years in coming. Entitled God Bless the American Plague , their sophomore CD finally hit stores in early May.
Not that the band was idle in the interim. A driven fellow, with more than 10 years of experience as a live performer at the still-tender age of 28, Jaw took the Plague on the road whenever and wherever he could find a gig. The band hit their peak touring-wise in 2002, playing more than 150 shows across the United States in that single year.
"It was dive after dive for a while there," Jaw says. "At the time, I thought it rocked. But then you get home, and the rent's not paid, and you don't have a job, and you're sick all the time..."
"We're not trust-fund babies, and we don't have a label behind us," he continues. "If we wanted to make another record, our only option was to work. We had to start picking and choosing our battles, road-wise, save some money and work on new songs."
Recording took time, but the result is telling. Having acquired flashy lead guitarist Scott Oxendine and drummer Tilman Navare in 2003—both of them hard-rock virtuosos, steeped in '70s proto-metal— God Bless the American Plague is even heavier and more viscerally satisfying than its hellbent predecessor.
It's almost a metal record, overlaid as it is by the powerful, doomy legacy of classic heavies like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, yet still driven by the punk tunefulness and propulsive hardcore instincts that marked their first release.
"Scott is about the best guitarist in Knoxville for this genre, and the same is true with Tilman on drums," Jaw says. "Our earlier songs were more like the Ramones, because they were written based on my inability to play guitar. Well, now we've got this phenomenal guitarist, so why play songs like the Ramones all the time? Our music used to be written around limitations. Now, we don't have any limitations."
"Simplicity is bliss," says Dave Dammit. "We still play hard, fast music with a lot of hooks. But with the talent we have now, we make it more interesting. The basic elements are still simple, but there's more complexity in the details."
Though God Bless the American Plague was released only days ago, the Plague have been road-testing many of the songs live for more than a year. The new material has gone over famously, both with longtime fans and with the mainstream rock radio crowds AP has occasionally played for since 2004, when they broke with their tradition of fraternizing exclusively with more eclectic punk and rock artists.
"This is the way all my favorite bands grew," says Dammit. "The common thread is that they all started out headlining shitty dives, moved to opening act status, and then started upstaging the bands they were opening for. Playing those Blue Cats shows has been our epiphany. We have more appeal than we ever knew. We know now that we will rock the masses."
What: The American Plague w/ Joe Buck Yourself and Vulpine
When: Friday, May 13, 9 p.m.
Where: Blue Cats
How much: $5