By: Katie Barber
Enter a dystopian timeline à la Rod Serling, and at the exact geographic midpoint between the Chihuahuan Desert and the Pacific Northwest, there is sure to be a dimly-lit bar where Roselit Bone is always the main act. This according to the Portland-based group’s first two albums, which transmit surf-rock rhythms accented by brassy conjunto that seem to transcend notions of time and geography.
While the Pacific Northwest does not seem a likely region to produce sonic epics that could reverberate across red-rock canyons and bounce off mesas, Roselit Bone proved the contrary at Rye Diner & Drinks, where the seven-piece band (normally eight, missing their pedal steel accompaniment) played the second-to-last-stop on their tour during an early evening show. As the sun set, frontwoman Charlotte McCaslin guaranteed that after the attendees finished their meals and it got a little darker, the band would “get weirder.”
Such a claim was hard to believe after band member Jordan Vale, tambourine in hand, had just hopped on top of some furniture in the room to get the crowd riled up during “Laughlin, Nevada.” But time did indeed seem to shift at Rye as the band delivered a deliberate, chaotic twang that echoed off the rafters throughout their set. Each song told fiddle-drenched saddle tramp tales, often leading the charge with resounding trumpets on songs such as “Slow Hot Death” and “Blister Steel.” The small space was also subjected to McCaslin’s quick-draw vocals that serenaded like Roy Orbison and haunted like Slim Whitman. Somehow, these same vocals lived simultaneously among The Hives-like screams and melodic harmonies.
The band was touring their newest release Crisis Actor, out now from Get Loud Recordings. The title alludes to an individual trained in the art of mimicking the trauma and injury of disaster victims, actors who provide in-your-face authenticity in emergency drills to prepare first responders such as police and EMTs. Authenticity is something Roselit Bone verified they supply in no short order, as their profound lyrics and instrumental prowess infringed upon comfort zones, punctuated by high-pitched howls seemingly borrowed from beyond the grave. Their tales spoke softly of sweethearts of a bygone era, but they also bellowed pain and turmoil that was often visceral, inspired by images of cracking bones and blood-stained dirt.
What was truly “weird” was the group’s ability to command the room—though the band was packed into a postage-stamp-sized space, attendees still seemed entranced by the duality of their performance: some visibly flinching, others slow dancing in the middle of the restaurant. The group covered a range of discographic ground, skillfully finger-picking through newer tracks such as “Proving Ground” and older tracks such as “Mojave.” The energy of the set transitioned seamlessly to slower homages—a nod to conjunto with “Volver, Volver” led by guitarist Victor Franco, an appearance of the quintessentially-western “Cowpoke.” McCaslin beautifully considered how “They’re Hanging Me Tonight,” during which the restaurant fell silent; by the end of the song, all of the air seemed to be sucked out of the room.
With their first-ever stop in Salt Lake City, the group demonstrated that to make “apocalyptic cowgirl music” is to tap into the myth of the West, add a little contemporary chaos, and create a sound that is simultaneously fresh and nostalgic, rotten and saccharine. For one night only, Roselit Bone no doubt prompted those present to feel the desert’s grit in their teeth while contemplating their own place within the cosmos.