"That's me trying to write a song by Flannery O'Connor," Amigo's singer/guitarist and chief songwriter Slade Baird says. He name-checks the late, great Southern author, who once noted, "While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted," as he discusses "Old Testaments and Nail Bombs," a disturbing little ditty off the Charlotte trio's debut album, Might Could. The mournful acoustic ballad shines a light on the schizophrenia of extreme faith, a twisted morality where the sanctity of life can justify killing abortion providers.
That's pretty heavy shit for a raucous, rockin' good time trio like Amigo. The band, which includes Baird's longtime friend Adam Phillips on drums and newest member Thomas Alverson on bass, brings its pop 'n' roll-tinged alt-country to the Visulite Theatre on May 9. (The show kicks off Amigo's first big tour — a two-week trek through the Southeast.)
Yet Baird notes his favorite author's blood-and-thunder ruminations are also wickedly funny. "O'Connor had a great sense of humor," he says. The same could be said for Baird. When he was growing up in Clover, South Carolina, his dad told him that the words to Credence Clearwater's "Bad Moon Rising" were "There's a bathroom on the right."
"I thought that was hilarious," Baird says. "That's when I began my obsession with finding humor in dark lyrics."
Discovering the Ramones and Stooges in high school, Baird tempered punk's strum-and-drang with his dad's beloved classic rock and his mom's enthusiasm for oldies. "The melodies, voices and production of '60s pop music are way better than anything that came later," Baird says. "It's dramatic and emotional. It has a beat you can dance to. You can fall in love to it."
Amigo's effortless blend of rockabilly rumble, 1970s Laurel Canyon sweetness, gospel-tinged country noir, and exhilarating Tex Mex has garnered Might Could considerable praise. American Songwriter lauds the album's "unexpected and serious songwriting rendered by a band capable of vast extremes."
According to Baird, many of the band's songs date back to Amigo's previous incarnation as Old Milwaukee. (The trio dropped the litigation-baiting moniker prior to starting sessions for its album in 2012.) Some like the Jonathan Richman-inspired "This Old Girl" go back to Baird's college days.
Others like "(Miss You) Every Day That You Are Gone" stem from Baird's ill-fated move to Philadelphia, where he struggled with depression, a soul-sucking corporate job and a marriage coming apart at the seams. "I started writing it while I was going through a divorce, but it's not about my ex-wife," Baird recalls. "It started as a slow song. Then I realized if I sped it up, it sounded like '60s pop, similar to 'Quarter to 3' by Gary U.S. Bonds. So I added doo-wop vocals and hand claps to make it a party song."
Baird laughs at the suggestion that Amigo's magic lies in its ability to transmute underlying darkness into affirmation, but he acknowledges that divorce and cubicle servitude led him to insight and self-knowledge. "It made me more compassionate and less superficial," he says. "It gave me more to work with when writing songs."
Those songs, ranging from the country noir and a cappella harmonies of "A Murder of Crows Outside" (written by the band's good friend Matt Cosper) to the rollicking Tejano whirlwind "Oh, Easy Rider" (Baird's tribute to legendary songwriter and Texas Tornado Doug Sahm), lend soul and good-timey grit to Might Could, a record finished in 2013 but not released until this year.
According to Baird, once the LP was mastered and mixed, "I realized I didn't know anything about putting a record out or what to do with it once I did, so I took time to research and make plans." Those plans have reached fruition, with Amigo set to market and publicize the album with its regional tour.
Touring suits Baird and his compadres just fine. He describes playing live as "the best feeling in the world."
"When the band is in the moment, the music carries us," Baird says. "The crowd and the music are floating. Then we land and everybody claps and I say, 'Hell yeah!' And it's because we just created something special together that only existed for one moment in time."
It's in that moment that Amigo lives and breathes, and it points the way forward for Baird, who wants to be a bit like his inspiration Doug Sahm, "not some tortured genius, but a groovy musician that follows my own instincts."
"Amigo makes music that's an inclusive good time, not an exclusive party for a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals who are all going to get corporate jobs and live in the suburbs anyway," he says.
That's why Amigo's name is appropriate. "I like that we're a band, not a project," Baird says, noting that the band members are friends and that longtime fans are like an extended family. "That's what Amigo is all about. Making music with my friends."