Achilles Wheel needs a break to keep rolling
By Mike Roberts
“Kissing builds up your mouth!”
Baby boomers of a certain aesthetic recognize the Woodstock aphorism, famously uttered between stage announcements by counterculture clown Wavy Gravy during the watershed 1969 music festival and captured on the movie soundtrack that might have ultimately shaped the aesthetic more than the event itself.
The ageless hippie issued his famous oral fitness advice again last month during a series of spontaneous monologues from the main stage at the Kate Wolf music festival in Laytonville.
The gentle audience, a mix of dreadlocked 20-something jam-banders, graying Woodstock-era folkies and the vast Woodstock-movie generation in between, were respectful, soaking up the between-set banter like so much sun screen.
The festival’s midday acts leaned toward the singer-songwriter genre, a tacit recognition of the festival’s dearly loved namesake. The appreciative multitude hung on each minor chord.
In an innovative lineup twist, a smaller stage at the back of the main meadow hosted less proven, more adventurous acts between main stage sets in the afternoons. When the final chord echoed from the front of the meadow, the first note from the small stage was struck.
Sun-saturated festivarians wandered back to hear the band if it sounded interesting, but more often than not, sought shade, sustenance, or buried their nose in a Kindle from the comfort of their low back chair.
One such set found Placerville’s own Jonny “Mojo” Flores front and center on the back stage, surrounded by yet-another group of his seemingly endless collaborators, this one called “Achilles Wheel.”
To his left stood Paul Kamm, a long-time fixture at the Kate Wolf Festival in a different capacity. Kamm and his wife Eleanore MacDonald are a “modern folk duo” known for stellar songwriting, intricate harmonies and life-affirming lyrics.
To Flores’ right stood the band’s newest member, bass player Shelby Snow, beneath a pinch-front, rolled-brim cowboy hat which he described as an homage to founding Grateful Dead member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, but might be more familiar to post-Woodstockers atop Kenny Chesney’s cranium.
Kamm recently described Snow’s style as “colorful, aggressive and experimental.”
Belying convention, Snow plays in and around the root notes, said Kamm. “He creates this incredible energy that drives the rhythm section.”
The back of the stage was dominated by two full drum kits, manned by long-time collaborators Mark McCartney and Gary Campus.
Kamm described the tandem as complementary, McCartney, a skilled jazz-fusion rock drummer staying closer to home, “in the pocket,” in percussion parlance, freeing Campus to work the edges as a colorist.
The resulting “massive primal sound,” is “intense, complex and just plain loud, a great foundation to build on,” said Kamm.
Achilles Wheel’s festival performance was the highest profile gig of the band’s brief existence, and Kamm admitted being worried that the big sound might be too grand a divergence from the more delicate work he was known for, or worse still, that the band’s recently restructured harmonies might crumble during this formative and critical stage.
With just a handful of hangers-on lingering at the back stage, the drummers kicked off the opening number on cue with a perfectly syncopated dual solo, the big bass beat echoing off the jalapeño popcorn stand on the opposite side of the meadow, establishing the baseline for an energy management exercise that within three songs would find them surrounded by hundreds of future fans muttering variations of “who ARE these guys?”
But that’s 15 minutes hence. At the 30-second mark the brawny drum duet is only starting to garner attention on the meadow when Kamm explodes into the lead chorus: “Got a tattoo where I ’ain’t gonna’ show you,” with the band in pitch-perfect four-part harmony.
The oddly enticing chorus introduction is quickly repeated twice more, building tension then quickly releasing it in the chorus’ simple closing lyric: “way down deep in my heart.”
Achilles Wheel is now in a comfortable groove. Snow’s Stetson hat bounces around stage-right as he delivers knee-bending bass chops over the pounding drums, a rhythmic foundation to the band’s unique brand of spare, potent rock and roll.
Coming out of the chorus, Flores strikes a punch-in-the-gut opening riff then lets it diminish, leaving the friends and family leaning forward in anticipation. With a flash of the hand he fulfills the promise with a stealthy riff, a progression of body blows that leave the early arrivals satisfied.
Dreadlocks and grey-beards have began to gather at the stage, and nod to each other in a shared moment of recognition.
Kamm returns with the second verse, scream-singing like Bob Weir on “One more Saturday Night.” Kamm’s lyrics expound on the metaphorical tattoo and the girl who inspired it, with an existential observation thrown in for good measure: “you can tell me that you love me, you can tell me that you don’t … how the world’s gonna’ end, or maybe it won’t.”
It’s light-minded fun; clever and catchy as all get out.
“Well the girl I love, she’s sweet and true … got fiery red hair, and eyes of blue … wrote her name in my blood, a long time ago … tattooed in my heart, where it don’t need to show.”
For a guy who has spent his musical life mining the depths of his soul then putting it all on display in a stunning progression of delicate, confessional albums with his wife, it must be oddly gratifying to produce and deliver some straight-up, tub-thumping rock and roll that’s not trying to make too grand a statement.
Paul, tell us you’re having some fun up there.
“It is fun, it’s always fun,” he said. “And I do enjoy that aspect of this band. I’ve been playing fun music with these guys for a while and it’s always been an outlet for me.”
Most of the band members played together in Grateful Dead cover bands which proved to be a springboard to Achilles Wheel.
But Kamm won’t deny his serious side. “I’m just not frivolous,” he said. “I can do straight up love songs, but I also feel compelled to comment on the state of the world, or at least the state of my heart.”
Or the tattoos on it.
The second song in Achilles Wheel’s brief set is also the best example of the band’s freakish ability to build and release energy.
Flores’ “Down in the Mine,” began life as a lively Americana number in an E chord. Performed live, he discovered that dropping into a B minor chord built an anticipatory energy midway through the song.
He now devotes nearly three minutes to a powerful guitar and drum jam in B minor before returning to the “tonic” E chord, releasing that energy and leaving the audience screaming for more.
By the time the band hits that tonic E, the music meadow has realized that something important is going on in the back.
From the stage, Flores witnesses the sea of incoming faces. The old and infirm drag their chairs beneath a pair of giant oaks that offer some shade, the rest dance-shuffle under the sun, unable to remain still under the rhythmic assault.
On stage, the two drummers are clearly enjoying themselves. Snow jumps around the stage in what he described as a primitive method of keeping track of tempo and melody.
“This is the band I’ve wanted all my career,” he said. “We constantly push the envelope, and to me that feels like home.”
Likewise, Flores, who’s onstage around Placerville most nights of the week, is in his element. He bends into the notes, always listening to his band mates, and flashes his trademark smile into the audience like a beacon of positivity.
The moniker “Achilles Wheel” is a reflection of the band’s desire to create something good, a “forward-moving energy,” said Kamm.
“An Achilles heel is a weak point,” he said. “The Achilles Wheel is how we move forward.”
He recalls meeting Flores, who was half his age and eager to play with experienced musicians that could move freely between styles, comfortable in the up-and-coming jam band scene.
“Jonny is quickly becoming my favorite guitar player, ever,” said Kamm, “and I’ve played with a lot of great ones. This guy is the other half of what I do.”
As a player, Kamm describes himself as a texturist, providing a melodic foundation in counterbalance to the powerful rhythm section, creating an atmospheric space where Flores’ lead guitar can sizzle.
“For me, it will never be about the chops,” he said. “But Jon has chops I can’t imagine, and he’s gotten better since I’ve been playing with him.”
One of Kamm’s main contributions to the Achilles Wheel sound is the introduction of polyrhythms, syncopations common in African and Cuban music that work off each other, creating a skipping sense, and make the music immensely danceable.
Kamm insists that his role in Achilles Wheel has been minor, that the band came together haphazardly, the result of talented musicians playing Grateful Dead music together, learning how the legendary jam band created ebbs and flows in their music, the portals where they could launch into improvisation and return safely.
“Everyone in this band loved the chemistry, loved the music and had a willingness to be a part of something greater than himself,” he said. “Without that we wouldn’t’ be doing this.”
Kamm had been playing with Flores for over a year before he learned that the guy with the big chops also had songs, but hadn’t been confident enough to present them sooner.
“What this band does for Jon is give him permission (to write songs),” said Kamm.
The addition of Snow added another song-writer to the band, and Kamm realized that he had a collection of musicians with spectacular chemistry, original material and the willingness to take the steps necessary to pull it all together.
Collectively, they decided to put aside the Grateful Dead covers they loved so dearly, and focus on their own material.
“I’m 52 years old and I’m serious about this,” said Kamm. “This is not just another bar band. It could require an enormous amount of attention, and I’m not going to give that much energy to something I don’t believe can be serious.”
“That said, I also don’t ever want to let the thing get so precious that it doesn’t have it’s own life blood,” he added.
He envisions Achilles Wheel on the stage of the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco one day, playing to a packed house, but concedes that day might be a ways off.
The band’s in a “weird middle ground,” said Kamm, lacking the momentum to attract an agent, but without management, struggling to land higher profile bookings.
“We’re conceding that we don’t have the wherewithal and connections to make this happen on our own,” he said. “We’re asking for help. We’re willing, but we need a leg up.”
Meanwhile, “Getting there is part of the fun,” Kamm observed, perhaps as much to himself and his bandmates as to the universe.
Scott Holbrook of Keep Smilin’ Productions is a huge Achilles Wheel fan, and has a unique perspective on the band and the local music scene. He’d like to see them find a manager and hit the road, as hard as that may seem.
Can they succeed? Holbrook thinks so. “Their sound resonated with me immediately,” he said, but perhaps more important, “The chemistry and commitment of this band, combined with the absence of egos will let their music flourish and mature.”
Achilles Wheel will appear on Friday, July 27 at 9 p.m. at the Brick Oven Pub on Placerville Drive and on Saturday, July 28 at the Auburn Event Center.
For more information visit keepsmilinpromotions.com.