Sitting at the bar counter of Miller’s on a Friday evening, Daniel Womack looks forward and glances at himself in the large mirror behind the register.
An iconic spot in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, the establishment has two claims to fame: It’s where Dave Matthews Band formed and is annually ranked in the Top 10 each year for nationwide draft sales of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“You know, this album is the culmination of 10 years — of being on the road, playing shows, making records and trying to find stability in the music industry,” Womack tells Rolling Stone. “Everything has been building up to this album. It’s this new spark within the band.”
Singer-guitarist for the Futurebirds, one of the rapidly rising indie darlings in the rock and Americana scenes, Womack is speaking of the band’s latest release, Teamwork (VL/4L Records), the Athens, Georgia, group’s fourth album since 2010. But the newest offering feels different this time around.
“Right now, we’ve gotten to this point where we’re finally starting to see the fruits of our labor,” Womack says. “In the last couple of years, we’ve crossed that line where we aren’t kids anymore. We’re all now in our thirties and this is an actual job — we’ve got this new energy that we’re ready to take through the ceiling.”
Just around the corner from Miller’s is the Southern Café & Music Hall, right where the ‘Birds will play a raucous sold-out show that night.
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But for now, Womack and the rest of his bandmates lining the counter at Miller’s are taking it all in — the noise, the people, the impending gig, the glances at the mirror behind the register just to make sure what’s happening to them is, well, really happening.
“This is hard work showing up day after day in another town or city, making all of these sacrifices to keep everything going. And I feel like we’re right at the beginning of this new push of momentum,” Womack says.
Coming together in 2009, the Futurebirds have retained a resilient melting-pot attitude toward rock music. The songs and albums run the gamut of human emotion and styles, where elements of psychedelic, alt-country, folk, punk, and pop sensibilities permeate every melody. With three very distinct and different singers — Womack, Carter King, and Thomas Johnson — at the helm, there is a round robin approach in both creation and method.
Lyrically, Futurebirds are brutally honest and purposely vulnerable, where the rambling stories, flawed characters, and haphazard situations they sing about are reminiscent of another Athens rock juggernaut, Drive-By Truckers. It’s about being real and transparent, where — for good or ill — nothing is off-topic to pull from one’s own life experience for the sake of a song.
Listen to the Teamwork track “Waiting on a Call,” a slow and percolating number about deep loss and feeling alone in the grand scheme of things. “Everyone’s got a time, yea, sometimes life’s just sad, gotta keep love in your heart, and keep those eyes ahead,” goes a vulnerable lyric, with a melody built to remind that everything will be OK in the end, just so long as you keep moving along, head up. (The band premieres a video for the track today, starring Ozark‘s Marc Menchaca and directed/produced by Alex Beaver with cinematography/editing by Bo McKenzie.)
Onstage and in the studio, the tone shifts wildly within the ‘Birds— from sheer sorrow to manic happiness, upbeat power ballads to tear-in-your-beer heartbreakers. The selections are undeniably catchy and poignant, each varying greatly from one tune to the next, something immediately comparable to the melodic swagger and genius of the Band some 50 years earlier.
Womack sips his drink and takes in the noisy atmosphere of Miller’s. Mostly filled with students from the nearby University of Virginia, many of the young faces approach the band to tell them how much they’re looking forward to the show that night.
Formed when most of the Futurebirds were students themselves at the University of Georgia, the ensemble started out as a party band, running aimlessly around Athens and surrounding cities in the South.
But somewhere down the line, just after graduation, came a moment when all involved in the band’s camp didn’t want to stop or stifle what was blossoming in front of them.
“In any band, you’re always looking at — or for — these benchmarks to see if what you’re doing is right or if you’re on the right path. But most of those benchmarks are set by the industry itself,” Womack says. “We just decided to ‘let go’ of being so concerned about ‘making it.’ We just need to ask ourselves, ‘Are the songs evolving? Are the shows fun? Do we still love doing this?’ And the answer is ‘yes’ to all of those questions.”
That process of “letting go” emerged when the ‘Birds started recording at the Portico, an old Baptist church (now event space for rent) in the small town of North High Shoals, Georgia (population: 652). The group came across the quaint and serene property by chance several years ago and it’s where they gather to record between tours.
“When we first came to the Portico to make an album, it was a liberating moment,” Womack says. “At that time, we were focusing on all the wrong things — how we operated the band and how we measured success. We realized we can do whatever we want, that we have what it takes to succeed on our own art, and on our own terms.”
Leaving Miller’s, Womack & co. head for the Southern Café & Music Hall. Even though the Futurebirds aren’t due onstage for at least another hour, there’s a line around the block.
Womack approaches the buzzing “Bird Fam” and riles up the crowd, yelling the band’s battle cry, “Flock up!” This two-way street of appreciation has paved the way for the numerous sell-out rooms on the Teamwork release tour.
“We’re really focusing on the relationships that we have with our amazing fan base,” Womack says. “And we believe that alone — those people who listen to and love our music — is what can take us to whatever level we want to go to. It’s all starting to come full circle, this magic we feel every night onstage.”
Strapping on his guitar, Womack huddles the band together right before they’re about to take the stage. The crowd just outside the green room is restless and chanting the group’s name. In a short pep talk, Womack encourages his bandmates to give it their all — this is their moment.
“We’re going to make sure that what we want to do is share and spread all of this fuckin’ positive energy that we feel we have to anyone and everyone who needs it,” Womack says. “This is the type of thing that you envision as a young, aspiring musician. We take all of this seriously, and we don’t any of it for granted — this is the dream, man.”
Futurebirds tour dates:
February 28 — Greensboro, NC @ Blind Tiger
February 29 — Greenville, SC @ Radio Room
March 12 — Telluride, CO @ The Moon
March 13 — Telluride, CO @ The Moon
March 14 — Grand Junction, CO @ Mesa Theatre
March 18 — Salt Lake City, UT @ State Room
March 19 — Boise, ID @ The Olympic
March 20 — Hailey, ID @ The Mint
March 21 — Jackson, WY @ Pink Garter Theatre
March 25 — Ft. Collins, CO @ Surfside7
March 26 — Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theatre
March 27 — Buena Vista, CO @ The Lariat
March 28 — Avon, CO @ Agave
April 11 — Nashville, TN @ Brooklyn Bowl
April 24 – 26 — Atlanta, GA @ Sweetwater 420 Fest
September 5-6 — Pisgah Forest, NC @ Teamwork Retreat @ Pilot Cove