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Nashville Psych Outfit All Them Witches Hits the Fillmore in San Francisco

By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- In the space of the past decade, Nashville-based quartet All Them Witches has established a name for itself as one of the more creative heavy rock bands to emerge in the U.S. Initially a partnership between guitarist Ben McLeod and drummer Robby Staebler, the group added singer/multi-instrumentalist Michael Parks, Jr and Staebler's longtime friend Allan Van Cleave on Fender Rhodes electric piano shortly before recording their 2012 debut Our Mother Electricity.

A swampy, fuzzed-out trip into blues-drenched psychedelia, the album was picked up by German imprint Elektrohasch Schallplatten and quickly earned the band rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Exhibiting a nuanced songwriting touch that embraced hazy atmospherics and epic, slow-building tension, All Them Witches echoed '70s greats (Zeppelin, the Doors, iconic southern rockers the Allman Brothers and the delta hoodoo of Dr. John's debut Gris Gris) and modern stoner rock (Queens of the Stone Age, Dead Meadow) while crafting a wholly original style.

All Them Witches -- Death of Coyote Woman (Bing Lounge) by 101.9 KINK.FM on YouTube

Extensive touring and the band's stunning sophomore self-released effort Lightning at the Door further spread word of the quartet's unique musical alchemy. Onstage, All Them Witches showed they could dismantle and reassemble their songs dramatically with fearless improvisational excursion that frequently veered into cover tunes and entirely new, spontaneously created compositions.

For the band's 2015 effort and first for Nashville-based label New West, the foursome decamped to an isolated mountain cabin near the Eastern Tennessee town of Pigeon Forge (home of Dolly Parton's Appalachian amusement park Dollywood) and set up a remote studio with engineer Mikey Allred for five days of intensive recording. The resulting songs on Dying Surfer Meets His Maker earned the group another round of ecstatic reviews.

SPIN Sessions: All Them Witches — "Dirt Preachers" (Live At Voodoo Experience 2016) by SPIN on YouTube

For it's fourth album, the quartet enlisted the services of noted Nashville producer Dave Cobb (who has helmed recordings by Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Shooter Jennings) to track Sleeping Through the War at the vintage Creative Workshop recording studio. The sessions produced some of the band's most immediate material yet on the anthemic "Don't Bring Me Coffee" and "Bruce Lee" while still allowing them room for extended improvisation as on the transporting epic "Internet," a nearly ten-minute-long jam featuring wailing harp from Willie Nelson harmonica wizard Mickey Raphael.

All Them Witches - "Bruce Lee" [Official Video] by New West Records on YouTube

The band has stayed busy in 2018, issuing the free downloadable Lost and Found EP in February before announcing it's first major line-up change with the departure of Van Cleave. New keyboard player Jonathan Draper came on board and made contributions to the band's follow-up effort, ATW. Produced by guitarist McLeod, the album takes a distinctly stripped-down approach on tunes like the freewheeling opener "Fishbelly 86 Onions" and the propulsive "1st vs. 2nd." Shortly after the album came out, the band made the surprise announcement that Draper had also left the band, leaving All Them Witches as a trio.

All Them Witches - "1st vs. 2nd" [Audio Only] by New West Records on YouTube

The following year, the band would release it's first recording as a trio -- the dark and pulverizing anthem "1x1" -- before deciding to reunite with engineer Allred for sessions at Abbey Road Studio in London in March of 2020, just before the pandemic largely shut down the live music industry for the better part of the year.

All Them Witches - "The Children of Coyote Woman" [Official Video] by All Them Witches on YouTube

Released that fall, Nothing as the Ideal brought the band another round of positive reviews for the batch of songs that ranged from the pensive acoustic blues ballad "The Children of Coyote Woman" and the dreamy, slow-burn build-up of "Rats in Ruin" to the propulsive energy of "Enemy of My Enemy."

While COVID kept the band from touring to promote the effort, they did perform an epic 16 song live-in-studio set in December of 2020 that was livestreamed to fans and issued as a triple vinyl set by New West as a Record Store Day Black Friday release last November. More importantly, the band announced the return of Van Cleave to the group in April of last year, restoring All Them Witches to their original four-piece line-up with the keyboard player also adding the electric violin to his arsenal of instruments.

For this return visit to San Francisco Saturday night, the band plays its biggest Bay Area show yet, headlining the Fillmore with another outstanding band that is pushing the boundaries of heavy music, celebrated Portland, OR-based quartet Blackwater Holylight.

Blackwater Holylight - Babies (Live Music Video) by WE COLOR LIVE on YouTube

Formed in 2016 by Allison "Sunny" Faris after the bassist/vocalist teamed with guitarist Laura Hopkins and original drummer Catherine Hoch (keyboardist Sarah McKenna was also brought into the fold), the band explored a sound that touched equally on psychedelic atmospherics and stoner/doom heaviness. Blackwater Holylight quickly built a local following and were signed to Riding Easy Records, which put out their self-titled debut in 2018.

The band has only grown in popularity since then, releasing its acclaimed 2019 follow-up Veil of Winter (which featured new drummer Eliese Dorsay and second guitarist Mikayla Mayhew) and earning invitations to play such noted festivals as Desertfest in Berlin, Levitation in Austin, TX, as well as Psycho Smokeout and Desert Daze in Southern California.

Blackwater Holylight LIVE -- Pt 1 of 2 by Light Rail Station on YouTube

While the band was forced to shut down its tour in early 2020 due to the pandemic, Blackwater Holylight channeled the chaos and uncertainty of COVID times into the songs featured on their third Riding Easy release, the stunning Silence/Motion which came out last fall. Working as a four piece after the departure of Hopkins in 2020, the effort paired the band with an outside producer for the first time -- Liam Neighbors aka A.L.N., the man behind Portland experimental black-metal solo act Mizmor.

Blackwater Holylight - Silence/Motion | Official Music Video | RidingEasy Records by RidingEasy Records on YouTube

The album embraces an even broader dynamic scope, playing ethereal vocals against black-metal howls on album bookends "Delusional" and "Every Corner," while building from delicate acoustic instrumentation to towering riff architecture on the title track and "MDIII." Fans of heavy music who haven't experienced Blackwater Holylight live are advised to arrive in plenty of time to catch their set.

All Them Witches with Blackwater Holylight
Saturday, Jan. 29, 9 p.m.  $26.50
The Fillmore

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