Rock & Soul
LadyCouch hits it with The Future Looks Fine
By Tommy Womack
Photography by Travis Commeau
It’s a typical Wednesday night at Dee’s, fairly bustling considering the times we live in. As usual, on the bar side of the room are the long-neck regulars and off-duty musicians shooting the breeze. On the show side are the fans; all the tables are full, and other folks are standing and swaying to the rock and soul rhythms, their eyes concentrated on the postage-stamp stage in front of the hanging gold tinsel. Amid a weekly December residency at this music and beer haven, LadyCouch commands a devoted fan base, even on Wednesday nights; even more impressive given how a band born barely two years ago has soared from nothing to the front cover of this magazine.
LadyCouch is that rare bird for which the pandemic hasn’t totally wiped away their touring schedule. Leading up to the September release of their debut album, The Future Looks Fine, they did 20 road shows in 40 days. “As far as in town,” co-lead vocalist and majordomo of the band, Allen Thompson says, “I guess about once a month we played, and then decided to end the year with this weekly thing at Dee’s.” On their solid and surprisingly mature debut, coproduced by Thompson and bassist Gordon Persha and released on the Blackbird Record Label, LadyCouch tastes like an amped-up Delbert McClinton, or Southern rock mixed with Muscle Shoals swagger and some Little Feat gone aggressive. Throw in some Otis Redding and Alabama Shakes for good measure.
Visually, LadyCouch is unadorned in the extreme. Denim is the order of the day. The two females in the band apparently didn’t get the Casual Friday memo and have dressed up some, with keyboardist Susan Hull resplendent in a maroon sundress and co-lead singer Keshia Bailey well-comported in nice brown sweater and slacks. (They’re also the only two band members without beards.) Bailey and Thompson share center stage, wreathed in smiles, clearly enjoying what they’re doing. She sings a song, and then he sings a song, back and forth. And, of course, they alternate verses a great deal too. Thompson is a genial presence in jeans and a T-shirt who likes to bop around a bit but is constrained by the fact that you would have to knock out the back wall if there were any more musicians on the stage.
The two guitarists, Clint Maine and Mike Ford, Jr., are stretching out with bends and peals, blending nicely and swapping rhythm and lead roles without stepping on each other. They flank the band on opposite sides and, given how they look almost exactly alike with their long straight hair and Les Pauls, frame the visuals nicely. Behind Maine on stage right is Hull and her keyboards, and behind her is the barely visible brass section: Paul Thacker on sax and Diego Vasquez on trombone. Behind Ford on the other side of the stage, cloistered in the back, is bassist Persha sporting a White Sox ball cap, and between him and the brass section is the bookish, sober-vibed drummer Ray Dunham, unassumingly holding down the beat while being swallowed up behind all the other bodies.
And on this night, this isn’t even all of ’em! Jake Blumberg has been known to man the keys as well, and on some nights, The LadyCouch Horns swell to four fellows instead of two (those other two being Robert Gay and Kirk Donovan on cornet and trumpet, respectively.) Also missing this night was the band’s multi-instrumentalist and “musical guru,” Grayson Downs, who mainly works in the studio with them — only occasionally onstage, as doctoral studies take up much of his time.
While the record doesn’t provide the visual component, it kicks off with the upbeat, New Orleans-flavored “Do What You Gotta Do,” and from there goes into the horn-driven, big-sound-ballad “Foolish & Blue,” with its shades of Tina Turner and Stax Records. Impressive vocal trade-offs occur between Bailey’s considerable pipes and Thompson’s gritty, convincing delivery; guitars, saxophone, and organ also get a chance in the spotlight. (These aren’t three-minute songs.)
“Delightfully Devilish” is just that, with a witty lyrical character study you don’t often find in this kind of music. It’s like a grits-and-gravy Ray Davies, even if it is a portrait of Seymour Skinner from The Simpsons. (“He’s Agnes’s boy but he’s Edna’s man. He’s an odd fellow but he steams a good ham.”)
The record goes minor-key with the riff-laden “Good God,” which carries a whiff of Amy Winehouse (if said dearly departed chanteuse was as full-throated as Bailey) while Maine and Ford shine with some good six-string gut punches. “As Long as I’ve Got You” could beat up anything else on the radio and showcases Bailey letting fly with her personal-best vocal (along with able backup from singer Olivia Burnette). “Heartache” shows off shades of Clapton and a vocal from Thompson that Slowhand couldn’t deliver if you put a gun to his head.
“Purple Rose and the Black Balloon” provides a chance for each horn to step up to the plate alone for a second: A big, blurty, bossy trombone, a Dixieland-sounding cornet, the trumpet, the sax, all hitting phrases in turn and then moving forward all together like dance steps in Little Richard’s band back in the day. And then there’s the auto-wah guitar lead that would have jam-fans losing their knickers. “Learn to Lose” is a firebrand departure, with words for the times we live in so direct that they must be quoted at length:
Fire in the streets. Fire in your eyes
Deconstructing Reconstruction’s lies
Take a look inside yourself
Heritage of hate isn’t good for your health
Pride don’t come from statues
Mountains fall, oceans rise
We’ve changed the color of our skies
Are you tired of winning yet?
Whatcha gonna do when there’s nothing left?
Nothing left to abuse
Gonna have to learn to lose
Thompson is from Virginia; Bailey is from Eastern Tennessee and African American. Sometimes it takes Southerners to tell other Southerners what’s what.
If you had to pick one or the other, the record is soul with rock, and the live show is the other way around. Do they sound like the Allmans? Yeah, a little bit. Do they sound like Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes or Sly & the Family Stone? Yeah, a bit. St. Paul & the Broken Bones? To a degree, yes, insomuch as both bands give a wide berth for both guitars and horns to live together in peace and harmony. All that said, do they sound like anybody else working right now? Not really, no. It’s rare for a regular soul band to know what to do with the guitars, and it’s equally rare for a rock band to know what to do with the horns. Essentially though, LadyCouch is its own animal and, unless it has escaped this humble scribe’s attention, nobody else in town is doing what they do. They’re also a hell of a lot of fun.
Back at Dee’s, the first set of originals is followed by a set of Black Crowes covers, a fun twist in the “this is a love song I co-wrote with Paul Overstreet” type of show original-music acts in Music City generally offer up. When pressed about the Crowes cover set, Thompson explains, “Grimey [Mike Grimes] booked us to do a set of their tunes at the East Nashville Beer Fest, and it got rained out. We’d learned all these songs, and they’re fun to play, so here was our excuse to do them.” It’s not Thompson’s first foray into the Nashville tribute tributary; he’s helmed an annual Last Waltz tribute since before there was a LadyCouch when he was leading the Allen Thompson band.
“The death of my band and the birth of LadyCouch was at The Basement East in August of 2018 when we were on the bill for a Music City Roots taping,” Thompson says, as he and Ms. Bailey sit sipping joe at the Frothy Monkey the following fine morning. “I had been trying to book a first gig for LadyCouch, and I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to kill my band, announce on [WMOT Roots Radio] that this is what we’re doing next, and have everybody there, so that’s what we did.”
“I’ve made four records under my own name,” he says, “but this is our first as ‘us,’ and it’s one of the easiest records to make that I’ve ever done. We believe in each other, and we believe in what we’ve created, and I think that comes through. This is the first release I’ve ever done that I listen to, and there’s not a single thing that I’d change or fix. There’s nothing that makes me cringe or gets me angry.”
“Foolish and Blue” sounded the knell of a new direction. “I feel like that one was the beginning of us really understanding the mode of the record and what we wanted,” Thompson explains.
“Once that song was done, and we’d done it with the entire band, it was like, ‘Okay, we’re honing into exactly what we imagined and envisioned,’” Bailey elaborates. “It was there in a matter of minutes.” Thompson adds, “I think it probably took us about 20 minutes to write the whole thing. And that’s when we knew that if it was that easy for us, we should keep doing this.”
Do they write everything together? “We try to, for the most part,” Bailey says. “During the pandemic when it got a little difficult to get together, we did a lot of ‘I’ve got this idea, let me send you half of this,’ then Allen sending me something and us trying to put it together.”
“Two of the songs on the album I co-wrote with Bob Lewis,” Thompson says. “He’s got the band Slow Force. But even with those songs, Keshia would be the first person we’d show it to. If it gets her seal of approval, then it’s a LadyCouch song.”
With songs in hand and recorded, they turned their attention to getting them released. “We released two of the songs that we recorded in Franklin, Kentucky, [which] came out on Café Rooster Records,” he says. “During quarantine, they were thinking about restructuring, so they introduced us to their friends at Blackbird Record Label in L.A. We decided to release the package with them. It’s been a really good relationship. They’re really cool.”
When discussing the record’s buzz, Thompson admits the attention from radio and the press has exceeded expectations. “It’s hard for a baby band to release a record in the fall, especially in a year when there are so many people who had a full year to make records.”
And about the band’s name? Thompson explains, “A couple of friends moved into my house, and someone gave us this ridiculous giant Yankee Candle. The scent was called ‘Man Town.’ It smelled like AXE body spray, and there was a picture on it of a dude watching football. It was disgusting. And that became the house nickname: Man Town. We were all working at The 5 Spot and lived within walking distance of there just behind the high school. Everyone would come over after the bars closed. And every party at Man Town, the couch in the living room would be the ‘lady couch.’”
Bailey takes up the thread, “We ended up with shows booked before we had a name, so we were sitting at the 3 Crow and thinking, well, we’ve got three shows coming up, and we don’t have a name. So, after a couple of cocktails and deep thinking, LadyCouch became it.” No one seems to know how it became LadyCouch as one word, but perhaps it’s best not to overthink these things.
Thompson says, “I think there’s something about it — when I see our posters or hear our name, the band I imagine in my head sounds a lot like us, and I think it’s that way for most folks. It’s like how the first time I heard the name Little Feat, I kind of actually knew what they sounded like!”
The Future Looks Fine is a record with an arc, starting with upbeat danceable numbers, then to the angst of “Good God” and other moments of trouble, and then it rises back up to the sunshine of tunes like “Free to Breathe” to wrap things up on a high note. Thompson assesses it this way: “That sense of dynamics for me – all the bands I loved growing up and still do — there’s a jam band, and there’s this dance music happening, but when you get into the meat and potatoes of these tunes, there’s some real shit going down. You’re not just getting high and twirling around. There’s something to pay attention to as well.
“That’s always been important to me because that’s how life works. Not everything is a total bummer, but it’s not always great either. It’s that push and pull. That was important to me: to have our shows and our recordings reflect that.”
In other words, hope springs eternal. And there you have it. Horns, guitars, keys, dance rhythm, soaring vocals — there’s not much more needed to make LadyCouch your gutbucket charming soul-rock, one-stop shopping place. For Thompson, Bailey, and the rest of the gang, the future looks fine even in these uncertain times.