Between the two sets that We Are Star Children played at Rapunzel’s Coffee and Books last Saturday night, frontman Gene Osborn gave a shout-out to the band-member moms in attendance, and then announced that if it was O.K. with the rest of us, his band was going to sing a few more songs about sex and death. The hearty applause this drew from fans and Rapunzel’s regulars alike speaks volumes about the appeal of the band’s lush and lighthearted pop anthems. Few other local acts could square being the house band for the Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers with playing the Virginia Discovery Museum’s Discoveroo Family Music Festival, but We Are Star Children’s style is whimsical and technically astute enough to find them appreciation in unlikely places. Last Friday, they opened for Downbeat Project at the Southern, but it was at a small café on a quiet street in Lovingston that they cut their first live album.
We Are Star Children frontman Gene Osborn strummed, versified and contributed the occasional flute solo last weekend at the culmination of the band’s Live at Rapunzel’s show series, which will be mixed into a live album in early 2012. (Photo by Michael Ponzini.)
Though We Are Star Children started playing the occasional show at Rapunzel’s in April of 2010, most of the bands that frequent the venue are blues, folk or roots-oriented. In the early aughts, after Sara Taylor and her father founded the place, players would crowd around a center stage condenser mic, channeling the Grand Ole Opry style of sound reinforcement. That method received a few modern upgrades when Gabriel Taylor moved back to Nelson County in 2006, and started running Packing Shed Records from the upper floor of the former apple-packing shed that houses Rapunzel’s. These days during shows, he tweaks levels on a recording console like a man possessed. Over the past five years, he’s recorded over 500 shows at Rapunzel’s, and describes this labor of love as akin to “catching lightning in a bottle.”
Saturday was the last of three nights in We Are Star Children’s Live at Rapunzel’s series, the final set of rough cuts from which they plan to cull tracks for a live album, mastered by Rapunzel’s Gabe Taylor. The first of two sets they played that evening was downbeat and folk-influenced, full of the kind of songs that caught audience members off guard when the band still went by the name Straight Punch to the Crotch. In a phone interview, Osborn said that he was likewise caught off guard when people started showing up to his shows in growing numbers. “It started off as a kitschy, novel, one-off kind of thing” he recalled. “So initially the name wasn’t too much of an issue.”
When Straight Punch took on a new name, they adopted the title of their first album, We Are Star Children, but whatever the band began as when Osborne started playing music in town, it’s a very different entity now. He and bass player Zach Snider (who got married to band member Aly Buchanan last year) are the only original members still around, and though the danceability and earnest flavor of the outfit’s early work is still intact, the current line-up approaches Osborne’s songwriting ethos with more of the technical skill it warrants. Solos from Coogan Brennan on keys and Buchanan on trumpet were particularly moody and fluid.
“Scissor Song,” from the band’s 2010 EP Love The Wicked, was a highlight from the first set, and Osborne’s vocal hooks and troubadour-ish delivery were enough to motivate a few Nelson County high schoolers to move up front and dance between rows of chairs. By the band’s second set, for which Star Children reserved all of their most upbeat material, half the audience was up and moving. Of the two-set structure, Osborne said that the band was trying to strike a balance between uptempo and downtemp songs for the sake of the forthcoming live album. “Live recording is a bit of a double-edged sword,” he said. “When you’re in your living room and you put on an album, you don’t always want to feel like you’re at a rock show. But I do think that you can be drawn to something in a live song that you would have passed over in a studio recording.”
A few of the sextet’s newer songs, “Danger Seas” and “Die Alone,” had an anthemic quality that bodes well for their next studio album, which they’ve recently begun traveling to Richmond to lay down tracks for. Though there’s something to be said for restraint, We Are Star Children’s “go big or go home” approach to layered instrumentation and group vocals should pay off on a few of the more momentous songs that are set to appear on their next studio effort, three or four of which had their live debut at Rapunzel’s.
Whatever your opinion on white people dancing, it’s hard not to agree with Osborn when he identifies the feeling at Rapunzel’s shows as “dignified”; the sound was crisp, the clamors for an encore were raucous, the used books were there for perusing, and the post-show mingle lasted much longer than usual. As former Feedback editor John Ruscher wrote of the band’s first album, under its former name, “a live show is a necessary part of getting the full impact of Straight Punch to the Crotch.” Which is still true, but We Are Star Children’s upcoming live album might get you close.