Turn off KISS FM. It is not making you any happier. The cookie-cutter pop music infiltrating your eardrums is a kitschy by-product of the Man, and the Man is trapping you in a vortex of auto-tune hell. But there’s an escape exit, and it’s labeled “Nelo”.
The first time I saw Nelo, I was mildly intoxicated. It was my sophomore year of college, and I spent most of my Saturdays at Homebar (known to everyone aside from SMU students as “The Green Elephant”) on a bribe from my Nelo-obsessed friend who somehow had a hold of their first album before it reached iTunes during the pre-2008 era. I remember standing in the front row, Miller Light in my right hand, staring up at Reid and Matt thinking how they were a) insanely talented and b) really, really cute.
Nelo is an Austin-based band with Highland Park roots with two albums and one EP that are worthy of perpetually pressing the ‘repeat’ button. I could get around life much easier with a portable Nelo IV to cart around on the off chance that my iPod dies. The band could be described as “Diet Dave Matthews” with lead singer Reid Umstattd’s addictive aspartame vocals rounding out their sound. If there were a 12-step program with hopes of achieving Matthews actualization, they’d be step 9.
If someone had told the underclassman version of me that I’d be hanging out with these talented guys in the green room at House of Blues Dallas a few years into the future, I would have laughed at them really hard and subsequently spilled my beer out of disbelief, and eventual excitement, once I realized they were telling the truth.
So I’m here at HOB on this chilly November 6th evening, with my all-access pass and sound equipment. Justin Jones, Nelo’s tour-de-force, is guiding me from the lobby where music mortals await their favorite acts, and we ascend to a room labeled “Very Important People”. My first question is why the boys are playing in the Cambridge Room instead of on the main stage where they belong, and I find my answer as soon as I peer out the window overlooking said stage – there’s a massive mosh pit for metalcore ‘band’ August Burns Red, and people are crowd surfing to the front of the stage to be caught be security guards and sent around to the back of the crowd like they’re riding the Titan at Six Flags for the fifth time in a row. An interesting juxtaposition to Nelo’s docile fans. I think I’ll stay up here where I can breathe.
“Do you want to go down there?” Phill Aelony, the lead guitarist, asks me. “Pass. Do you want to crowd surf?” I ask, referring to the insane sea of people floating below us. “Yeah. I just want to eat first. We just put our orders in,” he jokes. The boys are waiting for their dinner of rosemary chicken and veggies to arrive in the green room. Most of them are drinking Shiners, and lead singer Reid engages me in a game of Akinator on the iPhone 4 before his ritual double-dose of Emergen-C.
Songwriter Matt Ragland keeps checking the status of ticket sales, drummer Steve Pruitt is making fun of my shoes, and bassist Sean Jacobi and I are discussing his day job. The guitarists are relaxing in their glasses, and Reid periodically busts out vocal scales from across the small room. This is not the glamour band you see on E! THS. Their lifestyle is more similar to mine than Pearl Jam – these boys work hard to play as many gigs as they can to pay the bills and stay on the road. Phill tells me of the jazz band he plays with at Uptown’s Avanti Restaurant, and needing to wake up in 8 hours to play a church gig after driving back to Denton tonight. Dedication.
Guitarist Phill Aelony
“Half the band is in Austin, half the band is in Dallas when we’re not touring. We’re basically touring every weekend though, you know,“ Matt confesses. “We have definitely developed a fun little family. We have such a loyal, sort of strong, fan base throughout the south.”
I’m curious about the process from hanging out here in the green room to being on stage – what sort of mental preparation does Nelo go through? “Do you guys get nervous, or is it just second nature now?” I ask Phill. “No,” he starts, “I mean, we’ve been doing this for so long. I don’t know. It’s pretty fun. We had a five-hour van ride today and [there] was bonding time.” In this relaxed atmosphere, I’m interested to find out from where they derive their on-stage energy. “It’s 7:30pm now, you’re going to be on stage at 10-ish. What’s the process between getting your vocals ready and your fingers warmed up, to being on stage?”
Phill: We don’t do that.
Matt: We don’t do any of that stuff.
Phill: We drink some beer.
Matt: Reid does a vocal warm up. Reid, show her what you do.
Reid: [Lets out a scale on the ‘O’ sound.]
Matt: Yeah. That’s the extent of that. Reid does vocal warm ups, and I don’t sing very much. I play sometimes in the van and after that I like to not do anything. I like to just relax and have fun. I don’t want to do anything too musical before because I want to save it. That’s me though, you know. I have written songs with sound checks, so I’m kind of contradicting myself.
Songwriter and Guitarist Matt Ragland
Matt is the songwriter behind Nelo’s beautiful, relatable lyrics. It must be a unique, vulnerable experience for him to share his raw emotion and personal truths with his band. “The songwriting process. I have no process at all,” he tells me. Weirdly enough, this makes sense. “So if you get an idea, does it come out easily?” I ask. “Yeah I think that’s what songwriting is. I don’t have any training, so for me, I have to be open to the music kind of falling out of me. Songwriting is all about just being open to things just happening, you know?” “I think it’s better that way,” I say, and Matt agrees. “It sounds so much better that way! Music is such an intuitive, emotional thing for me, and for everyone, I think.”
So I mentioned they’re cute. Do fans come up to the boys in public and totally freak out? “Yeah, it happens,” Matt says, “it’s a little weird. It’s also really nice. It means they really love the music.” Justin comes to pay his two cents in the Nelo fan basin. “All I can think of is girls crying. Like, reaching for you guys and crying. I thought I was watching a Michael Jackson concert from the 80s.” Sounds like my growing up with ‘Nsync. Minus the tears. Well, maybe.
10pm hits and Reid takes us down a haphazard route to the artist loading area, but we finally get there. We’re backstage on the border of behind-the-scenes and show time where saxophonist Brian Donohoe is warming up his embouchure, and Reid is carrying two 24oz Coors Lights and running a few vocal scales. Justin announces, “it’s go time,” and the band rushes out to greet cheering fans.
They open with “Intro” from Ordinary Scene. There’s merit in seeing these guys perform live, namely for Phill’s badassery on the guitar, and Brian’s sax skills. They bring an element to the stage that you have to experience with your entire being – even my Nelo IV won’t cut it. The band is at home on stage. They love, feel, and exude their music.
Self-described as “verbose”, gifted songwriter Matt quietly relinquishes his experience-packed lyrics to Reid’s distinguishable vocals. He wears a simple smile throughout his performance that screams contentedness for the band he has created. “House of Blues here in Dallas is one of our favorite places to play, so thank y’all so much for coming to see us again tonight, this is our official record release show,” he says to the crowd.
Singer Reid Umstattd
“Everybody having a good time?” Reid toasts his smiling audience. The Cambridge Room hosts more of a beer crowd than a vodka crowd, and everyone is enjoying Nelo’s feel-good music. The band plays with the same fervor they did when I saw them years ago at Homebar. Reid conveys his passion through closed eyes when he sings, and the entire band is so in the moment. “So this is another song off of the new record that’s for sale back there, it’s called Ordinary Scene, and this song is called ‘Do You Love Me’.”
Their set is roughly equal parts self-titled debut Nelo and Ordinary Sceneincluding “Goodbye”, “Footsteps”, “Little Things”, and “Does He Look”. Matt introduces crowd favorite “Jumping Bean”, the audience sings along, and Matt and Reid jump in tandem. They talk to each other on stage via facial expressions easily translated from their long standing friendship.
The crowd cheers for an encore, and Reid returns to the microphone. “Thank y’all so much, cheers guys,” he says, and holds up a Coors. “We’re going to do a couple more, then we’re going to come hang out with you guys,” says Matt. “We’ll be back to Dallas soon, please have a safe, beautiful night,” Reid wraps the show and the band leaves the stage to sell CDs and take pictures with fans at the merch table.
The best thing you can do for these guys is buy their music, share it with your friends, and most importantly, go see them perform live. So turn off your radio and exit the Man’s glittery pop vortex. Let Nelo be your escape route.