Getting the Band Back Together: The Relatives Rock SXSW

Gettin the Band Back Together: The Relatives Rock SXSW

It seems the unlikeliest of pairings: a group of gospel singers from Dallas who got together decades ago join three 20-something  kids from Austin to blend soul lyrics with raw and wrenching melodies. But when Reverend Gean West, 75, and his brother Reverend Tommie West, 66, dressed in matching white blazers, led their band, the Relatives, in a choreographed slide across the stage while belting out “Let Your Light Shine” before a packed SXSW crowd today at the Four Seasons ballroom, any age difference, any unlikelihood was—well—all relative.

Last month, Yep Roc Records released the Relatives’ first studio album, Electric Word, a mix of new songs, covers, and past singles like “Speak to Me” to much critical acclaim. Reviews in both the New York Times and Texas Monthly applauded the band on their raw, original sound that is decidedly back-to-basics funk.

The Relatives got their start playing regional shows around Dallas in the 1970s, releasing three singles with a psychedelic-gospel-R&B sound early on in the decade. But after a short-lived career onstage, the group faded into obscurity.

Cut to 2009, when Heavy Light Records producers Noel Waggener and Charisse Kelly tracked them down. The group reassembled to play to a sold-out crowd at the Continental Club; after that, guitarist Zach Ernst, BS ’08, and drummer Matt Strmiska joined for shows and festivals and eventually became part of the band. Later on, bassist Scott Nelson joined the two to form a backing trio that Tommie coined the Disciples. “They brought more spunk to the group and they was easy to blend in with what we was doing,” West says. “It seemed like they was born for it.”

For Ernst, who grew up in College Station and remembers acts like the Dixie Chicks and Garth Brooks rolling through town, the road to playing with the Relatives—seemingly light years away from those country roots—has been paved with good business sense and an appreciation for genres way before his time. Ernst first learned to strum chords in middle school and eventually headed to UT, where he enrolled in “The Blues and Rock and Roll According to Clifford Antone,” co-taught by Antone himself. At UT, Ernst buried himself in music, building his record collection from the recommendations of his teacher and friend.

Now, Ernst has taken on a mentoring role, guest-lecturing for music business courses at the University. He also brought what he learned into his career, forming a backing band. Before joining the Relatives, Ernst and Strmiska were also members of Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears.

Ernst is now dedicated to preserving the original sound that the Relatives mastered so many years ago. “I think the band and the management and the way that we approach the music behind the vocals is to keep it as raw and unpolished and old-school as possible,” Ernst says. “[We] just try to capture that spirit that they have or that spontaneity—just stay out of the way but give them a way to get their message out.”

In 2011, as talks of releasing a new album began, Ernst and the producers were unsure if the band had any new songs. The Relatives handed over a cassette tape complete with never-before-heard tracks. One called “Things Are a Changing” was something the group had written way back in the ’70s and never got around to recording. The cassette also included “Your Love Is Real” and “It’s Coming Up Again” which the Relatives wrote in 2011.

“When they gave us this cassette tape we could tell that it was really special and that they had some really cool ideas,” says Ernst. “I think that’s what drove the recording process—not only is there this great story from before, but that they’re still writing.”

This year, the Relatives have taken their music to audiences on both coasts. They’ve recently played in New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle.

“I used to hear a young man [preach] and he said, the good lord can take you places that you never thought you could go and all the years that you’ve been trying to do it, he can do it in a few months,” Gean said. “So it’s just been a beautiful experience since I’ve been back.”

While in New York, Ernst told me that the Relatives had begun playing around with lyrics to new songs, so while Electric Word is still fresh, he didn’t rule out the possibility of working on another album in the future. He also wants to continue cultivating his backing-band expertise and broadening his collaborations with artists while maintaining a dedication to authentic, old-school sounds like those that the Wests set out to share. “For us young guys, it’s cool to have something on vinyl,” Ernst says. “For them, it’s cool to have something on CD because their friends can actually listen to it.”

The Relatives will round out their SXSW appearances with a show at Waterloo Records this afternoon and tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. at The Ginger Man. Both events are free to the public.

Photo courtesy Andrew Shapter.

From left: Matt Strmiska, Earnest Tarkington, Zach Ernst, Tommie West, Dale Burns, Gean West, Tyron Edwards.


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