Music: Out of Nowhere

MidPoint Music Festival participants Sohio shoot their roots out beyond Seven Mile

Jim Noelker

Though from small-town Ohio, Sohio has bigger ambitions for their music.

Plan: Meet Sohio at The Comet. Scratch that. The Sidewinder Café. Even after settling down in the private section, this already sidetracked interview gets worse. Like using tweezers to yank out a wisdom tooth. No nitrous.

The difficulty doesn't arise from attitudes. Far from it. Actually, the band is unusually laid back.

What makes things tricky is that they switch subjects like madmen in a witty, hilarious style.

Welcoming, mischievous and hard to follow, they suck others into the banter, as if everyone's in the band. Even the wall artwork participates.

Through constant clever, sideways action, the professional interview is murdered, morphing into Where the Wild Things Are. Help!

Then there's the music: two lead singers, switching from electric to acoustic, everyone playing everything. On stage, they seem to randomly pick up whatever whenever they feel like it, but here's the biggest joke of all: The music is tight. And catchy.

For example, turn to The Holy Grail, not the sacred chalice but the underground, reddish-black Corryville bar that's more like hell than heaven. Headlining a recent show, the members of Sohio greeted friends warmly, as if at an outdoor wedding. Around midnight, flocks of ladies in low-riders rolled in, perhaps wearing synchronized watches.

Royce Spurlock (vocals, guitars) sang part of a Whitney Houston tune, goofing off for the sound check. Mark Houk (vocals, guitars, keys, harmonicas) offered up the bizarro house specialty, blueberry beer.

Opening with "How High Can You Fly," Houk on vocals, Sohio punched out guitars, drums, then memorable harmonica, the full-on traditional Rock song embracing Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. With the second song, the vibe changed drastically. Spurlock took the mic on "What You Want," droning in a raw tone. Coldplay-ish, with added meat.

Sohio's set was grounded by Evan Wirtley (bass, keys) and Brian McKinney (lead guitar, keys, vocals). Drummer Chavis Colwell's spasms were right on, anchoring it.

Back to The Sidewinder, where I'm dragging out info. Here's something: All hail from Seven Mile, Ohio, near Hamilton.

"We're country boys living in the middle of nowhere," Houk says.

The name Sohio comes from the old gas station chain but also stands for Southern Ohio, their birthplace. Roots.

"Sohio is our home," Spurlock says, laughing. "I hate interviews."

Originally the sole lead singer, Spurlock wears a tan cabbie hat. With sparkly eyes and an infectious smile, he could easily be a late-night comic.

"I started playing at birth," he jokes. He explains that at age 2 he'd listen to records and perform.

"Royce is the song and dance man," McKinney says.

Beginning with school choir at 19, Spurlock picked up guitar, and he and McKinney learned Blind Melon covers. Or, as he puts it, "Me and BJ played a lot of crap."

McKinney, with scruffy facial hair and glasses, is as warm as a relative. As a kid, winning prize money from showing pigs at the fair, he purchased his first guitar. McKinney jammed with Colwell growing up, and the two played in a Metal band he describes as "Radiohead meets Tool."

Houk, a tall, lanky writer-type, jumped on the acoustic guitar train late, at 18. Listening to Dylan, he learned harmonica. Then he wrote a slew of original songs, practicing piano on a roommate's Baldwin.

By 2001, hard at work on a solo act at Oxford open mics, he met Spurlock and McKinney, who sometimes sat in with him. Playing with "one amp and a crappy microphone," Houk's catalogue of songs became part of the trio's collective set.

"We all sang then," Spurlock says. "It was like The Beatles."

Then Colwell, a wild-haired fellow, came in on drums and gangly Wirtley learned bass specifically for the band. Both were old high school friends.

"Adding them totally changed the sound with a solid rhythm section," McKinney says.

In October 2003, "Sohio was officially born," Houk says.

Their influences range from great oldies to edgier modern bands — they mention Wilco, The Doves, The Strokes, Josh Rouse, Cat Power and Pearl Jam. On sound, Spurlock says, "It's tight. We do a lot of 'band learning' field trips. We go to shows and learn from others." Performing mainly in Cincinnati and Dayton, Spurlock says, "We're getting there. We've done 40 shows in two years so far."

Houk looks up at the ceiling, then straight forward. In a serious tone, he says, "We'll just be another local Cincinnati band, even though we're good, unless we branch out. We have to branch out. We definitely want to do this with our lives. The chemistry is really pushing us."

Already spinning at radio stations in Cleveland, Hamilton and Northern Kentucky, Money and Love, released in May, is full of heart, from chest-hurters like "An Open Field" to the darker side of "Lisa Jarnot." Houk's voice holds a raspier, old school sound. Spurlock's voice is dreamier, longing but not overly sentimental.

Some songs are stronger than others, but the strong ones are glaringly so, leaping out obviously. No long-winded BS needed here. It's excellent, especially for a debut.

"Speckled Dust" — which plays during the trailer for Cincinnati director David Tourner's film that showed at Howard Stern's film festival and also appeared on the final episode of Dane Cook's HBO docu-series, Tourgasm — is multi-layered, poignant and sticks in the brain, getting better with each listen. That song isn't the only head-spinner. Stick with the strong ones on the next album, and they could end up far from Seven Mile.

"It'd be a dream come true to make music for a living," McKinney says. "Not a million dollars. Make a living."

Brotherly chemistry runs deep. With genuine mutual respect and support, a hometown bond and a down-to-earth feel that reaches out from their handshakes, this connection leaks into Sohio's stage presence, enveloping it, track to track.

SOHIO ( plays at 9 p.m. Thursday at Neon's for the MidPoint Festival.

Scroll to read more Music Feature articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.