Ryan Harkrider wasn’t expecting the moon when he wrote to local concert promoter C3 Presents to ask about a gig on the indoor stage at Stubb’s, where his band the Nightowls has played several times over the past year or two. So imagine his surprise when he ended up on the bill for C3’s marquee event, the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
“I had emailed, saying, ‘Hey, we want to do another show at Stubb’s, can you please please let us in?’ And they said, ‘Sure, how about you play ACL, too?’ I was like, ‘Oh my god.’”
The Nightowls celebrate the release of a new EP on Friday at Stubb’s.
It was a very nice surprise for the 10-piece Austin soul revue, though not entirely out of the blue given the dues the Nightowls have paid since forming in 2011. After building a devoted local fan base playing early week residency gigs at South Lamar hangouts the Highball and One-2-One Bar and Rainey Street indoor/outdoor bar Icenhauer’s, the band put out a record last year with the express purpose of raising the stakes.
“When we made the album in August, that’s essentially when we signed on and hired McGuckin (a local public relations firm) to work for us,” Harkrider says. “And our specific goals were: We want to play Blues on the Green, we want to play ACL. Let’s do that in two years.”
They realized both goals a year ahead of schedule, playing KGSR’s popular Blues on the Green series in Zilker Park this past July as a prelude to next month’s ACL gig. They’ll play Oct. 11 at noon on the Austin Ventures stage, following Riders Against the Storm in a one-two punch that should kick off the fest’s final Saturday with a prime local flair.
“Good As Gold,” the album the Nightowls released last December, brought fresh focus to a band that had established itself as a worthy pairing with the local cover act Matchmaker at the “Motown Monday” series, which recently returned to the reopened Highball after an extended stay at the One-2-One Bar.
Like Matchmaker, the Nightowls are adept at churning out entertaining versions of Motown classics. This past Sunday at Icenhauer’s, the back patio was filled with patrons basking in the sun and snacking on free chicken and waffles as singers Harkrider and Tara Williamson and seven backing musicians ran through hits such as “Heat Wave,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.”
But “Good As Gold” proved the group is fully capable of bringing its own original material to the fore. Renowned local jazz guitarist Jake Langley helped the Nightowls craft nine songs that represent their stylistic range as well as their tight professionalism with arrangements and production.
Four more cuts that didn’t make it onto the album have been gathered on a follow-up EP, “Good As Gold B-Sides,” which receives a formal release party this Friday at Stubb’s. Among the highlights is “Nobody Ever Wants to Leave,” a song Harkrider wrote five years ago for an Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau contest. Harkrider’s tune ended up winning the contest and was adopted as the bureau’s official theme song for the city.
“I traveled all over the U.S. with the bureau,” Harkrider says, recounting trips to locales including Chicago and Alaska. “Sometimes when they’re bidding on a convention for Austin, they’ll send me as an Austin ambassador to go sing this song.”
Lyrically it’s a pretty simple tune, and not overly specific to Austin; other than brief references to the Hill Country and Congress Avenue, it could probably be adapted for other cities. Musically, though, it’s an instantly likable and memorable number, one that seemed ripe for revisiting beyond the initial recording Harkrider made in 2009.
An Austin native, Harkrider finished up a music degree at the University of Texas that year and was recording his solo debut, “Days Like This.” But he’s learned a lot since then, and that experience is brought to bear on the new version of “Nobody Ever Wants to Leave,” which streamlines some of the verses and punches up the instrumentation with a more sophisticated touch.
The first recording “was part of my first attempt at making a record as myself,” says Harkrider, who gigged around town in high school and early college with the band Hallow. “The learning curve was very high at that point. I feel like, five years later, I have a better grasp on what works and what doesn’t. And I’ve got a better band.”
Harkrider refers to guitarist Amos Traystman, also a principle in Matchmaker, as “my right hand man” and a key player in planning the group’s business affairs in addition to his onstage contributions. Bassist Rob Alton, a graduate of Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music, is the band’s musical director.
At the fore vocally along with Harkrider are Williamson, a recent West Coast transplant, and Harkrider’s wife, Ellie Carroll. Drummer Ben Petree and keyboardist Oscar Interiano fill out the back line, with Austin scene veteran Sweney Tidball sometimes filling in for Interiano on keys.
Out front with the vocalists are the “Fresh 2 Def Horns” – Javier Stuppard on trombone, Michael Rey on trumpet and Joseph Serrato on saxophone. (Williamson’s husband, Justin Smith, sometimes fills in on trumpet.)
Though the band celebrates the new EP at Stubb’s this Friday, Harkrider is already excited about a new recording the band made last month at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where much of the iconic soul music that has influenced the Nightowls was made in the 1960s and ’70s.
“We wanted to make a pilgrimage to one of the birthplaces of Southern soul music,” Harkrider says, noting that they enlisted house studio greats including Spooner Oldham and David Hood to play on the sessions. “We wanted to challenge ourselves to write something on the fly, be inspired by the history of the studio, and allow that inspiration to come out creatively.
“And it was terrifying!” he adds with a laugh. “But we’re really proud of it. I think that it’s going to be something special. We definitely want to reach a bigger audience with this thing. It ties into the history of soul music for the last 50 years, so there’s definitely a wider appeal for it.”