Sunday evenings in downtown Wheeling are sleepy events. On quiet asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks, there are no echos to absorb from non-existent crowds.
The towering concrete structures tease a once teeming life-blood that has run stale and coagulated in a network of one-way veins that end in stop lights and signs that offer no excuse of traffic to justify their obnoxious behavior.
But that might be slowly changing. There was no parking to be found for a block radius surrounding an historic basement that just six weeks ago stood vacant, covered in grease and cobwebs.
CLEAR! *tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump*
That, my friends, is the sound of city life. It’s the sound of bands packing out a venue on a rainy, Sunday evening, July 26th, as over eighty people milled about a new restaurant that has been generating generous amounts of community buzz — a mixture of professionals and avant-garde artists and musicians that gathered from around Wheeling and Moundsville, the greater Ohio Valley and even a much more culturally rich Pittsburgh. They gathered under the sign of The Vagabond Kitchen, and as the doors opened and closed, the sounds that escaped gave the streets something to absorb.
Three bands gathered on this particular evening. Two local bands opened for the headliner, Loves It, out of Austin, Texas.
As children danced in front of the stage in light-up cowboy boots and billowing dresses, and people zipped about catching up with friends — old and new, enjoying handcrafted food, and drinking their favorite wines, beers, and spirits, the music pumped on.
Hello Mingo, comprised of Richard Herndon, David Wallace, and Jesse Benson, provided the first burst of blood that pushed from the aorta, rolling with a dose of earthy, southern-folk rock served with a side of your grandmother’s meatloaf and grandfather’s hand-chosen switch from the backyard.
Herndon said the venue nor the night disappointed. “We were a last minute addition to the night. I had heard nothing but good things about this place, and man, it was dead on. The space is really open and it was a great turnout.”
Following a quick reset, Mr. Fancy Pants took the stage. Sean Decker, Ryan Sears, and John Keitzer brought their Tri-force of Rock experience and did not disappoint. Playing a set that was equal parts Elvis Costello and Weezer, with cameo appearances from the likes of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” between songs, Decker and his cohorts showed why they alone claim the right to rescue Princess Zelda and defeat the likes of the evil Gannon.
After Sears jokingly insisted that their growing success stems from his new focus on working his pecs, and insisting I touch them, Decker sang the praises of Matt and Katie Welsch, owners of the Vagabond Kitchen.
“Well, first of all, we just want to thank Matt and Katie for bringing a really great venue to Wheeling. This was a really receptive audience. It filled up way more than we expected, and it we were really happy to be a part of it.”
Loves it took the stage to an anticipating crowd. M. Welsch has lifelong ties to Vaughn Walters, one half of the duo that comprises the heart of the band, through their time in West Virginia 4-H and later through Matt’s work in booking and promoting shows throughout the Ohio Valley. So while he knew what to expect from M. Welsch as a promotor, he still didn’t know what to expect from Wheeling’s reception of the band and it’s unique style.
“Matt has been planning and promoting shows for me, literally, half my life, so I knew that [this show] would be special. Still, for being only our second time in Wheeling, this crowd, their enthusiasm, and the vibe was really unexpected.”
Jenny Parrott, the other half of the Loves It duo said that what Matt and Katie are building is rare, if not unique to their experience. “Nothing makes you feel like you belong like having a personal drink with the owner. What Matt did here tonight, with the entire crowd, going table to table with a bottle of whiskey, I have never seen that done anywhere across the country. He transformed this venue into something special.”
With over three years of constant touring, it can be hard to maintain a passion and love for performing the same music over and over again, but Loves It put on a fantastic show. With music ranging in sound from Woody Guthrie and Willie Nelson to Loretta Lynn and Jenny Lewis, but always infused with a lighthearted homage to the great American nightmare, a la Violent Femmes, Loves It got regular West Virginia welcomes and Appalachian appreciation between songs.
What Loves It does that seems to be unique and completely engaging is that although their music is as vintage Americana as road trips in big cadillacs down route 66, with sounds that teeter between your grandfather’s honky tonk and your father’s rock-and-roll, they carry a stage presence that points to underpinnings of punk rock waywardness mixed with folksy lyrical depth — and the commitment to whimsy that flow through both.
Walters and Parrott showed their years of performing and writing together as their harmonies were almost flawless, their energy with the crowd and each other electric, and their mixture of taking their craft but not themselves too seriously, perfectly blended.
By night’s end, the crowd and the band appeared content if not a little staggering from exhaustion and revelrie. They departed the doors finally, well past the time most expected to leave, but this time, with the crowd moving along the asphalt and concrete veins, the sounds of laughter and discussion provided a true heartbeat to a recovering city. And the thing about the heart is that once it starts beating, it wants to stay that way.