Good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll is hard to come by in the local music scene sometimes. It’s usually being deluged with a variety of sounds like pop, punk, metal, etc. Nowadays it’s almost impossible to go the straightforward rock route without something extra popping in. Omaha, Alaska get as close to it as possible though; if anything they are enough of an indie-rock band, and therefore get away with the moniker of rock. Think Twin Peaks (the band from Chicago, not the newly-rebirthed Showtime television show) meets Bob Seger. The band labels itself as an “alternative” band on their Bandcamp page. This category has become a kind of catchall for bands who don’t want to pigeonhole themselves into any one bracket. And that’s pretty smart nowadays. With everyone’s Attention Deficit Disorder at an all-time high, a band has to dip their toes in the water of several pools just to be relevant. Fort Wayne is no different. So Omaha, Alaska are alternative, but you can definitely define them other ways, especially since there are ex-members of Fort Wayne heavy-hitting groups like Heaven’s Gateway Drugs, Church Shoes, Looking for Astronauts and The Snarks.
Often O,A’s music is pushed into the alternative country realm which is anchored in the reality of decent music with that “alternative” signifier. The violin in “The Load” off their newest release Visitor Center & Gift Shop is enough to unite fans of both Charlie Daniels and Yellowcard. But neither of these are real influences of the band.
“When I started the band, I was listening to a lot of Magnolia Electric Company. The first [self-titled] record doesn’t really reflect that because a lot of those songs were songs I had lying around that I worked out with bandmates as they joined up. Once we finished that record, I decided to really go for that American rock ‘n roll sound and started going deep on Jackson Browne, The Eagles and Neil Young. Everything still comes out a little more 90s indie-rock than I mean for it to. I think Kenny Taylor put it best after he saw us, “You guys sound like John Prine and Kurt Cobain had a baby.” After that, I started listening to John Prine,” said C. Ray Harvey via email.
The handsome four-piece consists of Harvey, the main songwriter, guitarist, keyboard player and vocalist, Nate Richman who plays bass, Ben Hoepner the drummer and Mitch Frazier the lead guitarist. Frazier’s exemplary string work really helps flesh out the sound of Omaha, Alaska. Where the band started as a folksy singer-songwriter venture, the addition of the varied talent really brought the project alive, along with toeing the line between fun and heart.
“I just want to nail that perfect blend of realism and exhaustion with a tint of hope that I feel the best and most worthy songwriters expose. I don’t want to write “Yeah, let’s party!” music, but I also don’t want to bum people out. I like both Jason Molina and Will Oldham as songwriters and they both occupy a similar musical space, but I think there’s a fundamental difference. Molina has a much harder time remembering that the sun is still shining above the clouds [and] Oldham always keeps that childlike playfulness close at hand,” said Harvey.
The style of the music has been a main focus from the beginning. Mixing classic rock and a more modern tradition, the band was able to churn out the ageless tunes you can hear them play at The Brass Rail, a favorite venue of O,A.
“I always wanted to do something more traditional after the last few bands I was in, something that was about good songwriting and wide-appeal American rock. When we first started, I had a tough time capturing that, but I feel like it’s hit its stride. We’ve been doing this pseudo-country rock-ish thing, which probably comes off more alt-rock than I mean it to. I don’t like anything right now except 70s rock ‘n roll like Sweet, Electric Light Orchestra and Cheap Trick,” said Harvey.
You can check out John Hubner’s review of Omaha, Alaska’s latest release Visitor Center & Gift Shop at whatzup.com/article/1050. He eloquently describes it as “a looser, more rollicking version of the [band’s debut]. There are equal parts beer-soaked jangle and singer/songwriter fare.” Just three songs in and anyone with a beer or two in ‘em will want to dip their queen down mid-dance and kiss them, letting their youth glass over their eyes and light a renewed fire in their hearts.
Overall Omaha, Alaska measures up as a rock band with a lot of mellow artistry on paper and a lot of spunk on stage. Their song “Hope” is rightly named and about three-fourths of the way through you feel like hope is something you can reach out and grab. Harvey’s short falsetto part really brings feelings of joyful expectation to your doorstep and even further inside sitting right next to you on the couch.
Get Bruce Springsteen and Beach Slang in the same room, strip them down to their bare bones instrument-wise, and you might end up with something like Omaha, Alaska. Though it would sound a little more rough-around-the-edges than either of those acts, you would likely feel the same way; you’d want to slow dance with your sweet thing, giving them a peck on the cheek during one of the sweet, smooth guitar solos or perhaps one of the bouncing piano interludes.
Feel-good music doesn’t always come in the same form. Sometimes nostalgia takes over and some really awful mid-2000s emo is the soundtrack. Other times it’s a little more modern, but with an old school feel. Something about Omaha, Alaska gives off a Blues Traveler vibe, though it rocks more and has way less (if any?) harmonica for sure. There’s no 90s cheese present either; the sound is pretty timeless which works for the band in a pretty fantastic way. They’re able to blend familiar and classic elements with a modern, light-hearted way of delivering their own brand of feel-good music through alternative, guitar-driven songwriting. Through, and because of, this, the fellas have a new EP coming out.
“It’s really just classic rock. [We’re] planning to put that out by the end of the year. More than six months between releases, and it just starts getting stale,” said Harvey