The Whigs aren't confined by their roots

05:00 AM, Mar 13, 2013

The Whigs have a show at The Club at Water Street on Friday. (Joshua Black Wilkins)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: The Whigs.
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: The Club at Water Street, 204 N. Water St.
Tickets: $13 advance, $15 the day of the show, available at waterstreetmusic.com.

Google The Whigs and you don’t get the old political party — four of our presidents in the mid-1800s were Whigs — but the rock band from Georgia. That’s as it should be. William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachery Taylor and Millard Fillmore weren’t particularly highly regarded, even in their day.

This later edition of The Whigs, a rocking power trio playing Friday night at The Club at Water Street, have been highly regarded since 2004, when the band signed a development deal with RCA Records. But, the recording industry being what it is, and always has been, things quickly went awry. “It seemed like they liked the band, but they wanted us to re-write all of our songs,” lead singer Parker Gispert says. “The person we were working with thought of himself as an artist. He wanted to come up with ideas for our songs. He kept saying, ‘What if you guys sang this here?’ ‘What if you said that?’ “

Gispert and his bandmates were 20-year-old college kids. The label guy was in his mid-40s. This was their first big break. Could they stand up to him? “He wasn’t an evil man,” Gispert says. “Artistically, they just weren’t good ideas. I mean, empirically bad. We decided there wasn’t a better way to ending our musical career than making a bunch of bad music. We just said no. We ended up doing it by ourselves. That way, it was purely us.”

Purely themselves worked. Rolling Stone magazine named The Whigs one of its 10 Artists to Watch in 2006, when the band was still unsigned. True, most of us are still watching and waiting. The Whigs continue to fly under the radar for the most part, living on small labels, creating excellent songs, existing as living proof that artists can be true to their craft, fight the good fight, and maybe win once in a while.

For a rock band with a fairly low profile, The Whigs do dominate in one field of entertainment: as musical guests on the late-night talk shows. The Whigs have played them all, some multiple times.

It’s something from when we first started, oddly,” Gispert says. “A lot of bands we’ve talked to don’t like it. Their nerves maybe get to them, or they feel uncomfortable playing just one song. But I grew up idolizing David Letterman. To see a band perform on national TV, on such a big stage, was always a big deal, going back to The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.”

Gispert’s rundown on the late-night action:

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (The Whigs have played twice). “A lot more laid back than Letterman. I think it’s the difference between L.A. and New York. In general, Leno has a West Coast, relaxed vibe.”

The Late Show with David Letterman (Three times). “I mean this in a great way, a little more intense of an experience than Leno. There’s more of a buildup.”

Late Night with Conan O’Brien. “We did the old show, when he was in New York. I guess he plays guitar, so we had a little chat about guitar playing.”

Jimmy Kimmel Live! (Twice.) “He he seems genuine despite the sarcasm. The production of that show, with the guys doing the sound and cameras — basically the whole operation — they all seemed like they were having a good time.”

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. “Fallon was really fun. They had a song from the album which they suggested we play, and it wasn’t the single, which was really cool because it seemed like they had listened to the record. I wore my studio name tag on my shirt while we were playing, just being goofballs. They took us back to his dressing room, which isn’t normal, and he told us a couple of funny stories about his family down south.”

Likewise, born and bred in Georgia, and now living in Nashville, The Whigs are a southern thing. At least, geographically.

We travel a lot, and people will make a point to say that to us,” Gispert says. “I guess they have a different perception of what southern people would be like. We’re well-educated, well-traveled. I suppose we reflect the southern disposition, the genuineness. We’re kind to people, we treat people with respect, we’re welcoming people, we’re polite, we have good manners. Southerners have an openness. The southern hospitality thing is true.”

But musically, that regional thing is hardly noticeable when compared to the literate, southern rock of the Drive-By Truckers, who The Whigs have been touring with this winter. In fact, few people would call R.E.M. a southern band even though it, and The Whigs, each started in Athens, Ga.

We do say ‘ya’ll,’ but we don’t sing about the South,” Gispert says. Borders, and stereotypes, are fading in the 21st century. Gispert majored in philosophy at the University of Georgia, and it shows when he uses Dylan as a songwriting yardstick: writing with the vagueness of “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” verses the specifics of “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” The Whigs are also influenced by Led Zeppelin and the Seattle grunge rock that was popular in their teens, minus the darkness. “I’ve been writing more positive songs, leaning a little bit on the naivete that comes naturally to me,” Gispert says. “I’m aware of it, and I can catch it. But it’s good to not filter it sometimes.”

Their southerness also seems less about NASCAR than a contemplative round of golf, a sport which Gispert says gives a man a good opportunity to dwell on the local vegetation. “It’s a good test of your patience,” he adds.

Patience has brought The Whigs the reward that might have eluded them had they not walked away from their first major label opportunity.

It’s what we’ve wanted to do, always. It’s something that we’ve always done. This is the first band that I’ve been in, the first band that the drummer’s been in. We were in high school together, we’ve always played together because we liked it. It’s just kind of worked out that it became our job, how we make our living. That might be inspiring to someone, that you can do something naturally, find a way to make it work for yourself, and not have to change who you are to be a success.”