Since their first show in May, Americana-blues-rock band Ley Lines has skyrocketed in popularity across Northwest Arkansas, and they’re bringing us along for the ride.
WORDS / SOPHIA ORDAZ
PHOTOS / DEEPWOOD MEDIA
As the country tentatively embraces looser pandemic restrictions, we, the (in theory) vaccinated, can all think of that band or artist who welcomed us back to live music. For me, that was Ley Lines, specifically with their set at the Momentary in Bentonville in July. It was a typical Arkansas summer day, which is to say it was so humid the air felt like a wet wool blanket. Sitting 100 or so feet away from the band, I could see sweat trailing down the members’ faces and could count how many drumsticks drummer James Schlecte broke. (At least four.) Around me, clumsy children twirled like they were tipsy while their actually tipsy parents politely bobbed their heads (such restraint!). Containing my urge to get up and move to the music, I tapped my foot, the only thing anchoring me being the overpriced sunset-hued margarita in my left hand and a pesky sense of social decorum, thanks to the plastic chairs provided for crowd control purposes. (Let it be known, I will go to my grave believing that chairs have no place at rock concerts.)
The art critic Walter Benjamin observed that copies of visual art, whether they be photographs or print reproductions, lack the “aura” of the original work, which he defined as “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” To extend his theory to music, my goodness, does live music have a somatic, even spiritual aura that is impossible to capture in a recording. As a concert-goer, the distance between you and the music is at its closest possible, and the knowledge that what you’re experiencing is unique, even unheard of—as is the case with Ley Lines, who have yet to release recordings of their music—gives you the sense that you’re witnessing something historic or holy or both. At that concert at the Momentary, Ley Lines brought listeners close to their aura, grabbing them by their collars and injecting their psyches with heavy, dirty blues rock.
Ley Lines’ explosive live presence explains why word of the four-piece band has been spreading like wildfire in NWA. Though their first live show took place in late May, they’ve been asked to play nearly all of NWA’s top summer venues, including Nomad’s Trailside, Holcomb House, Prairie Street Live!, George’s Majestic Lounge—the last of which they filled to the brim, no small feat for a fledgling band.
The band may have only played shows together for a handful of months, but the five musicians—Joel Robertson (vocals, guitar), Jared Guinn (bass), James Schlecte (drums) and Valdimar Sigurdsson (keyboard)–have decades of combined playing experience, garnered from playing in church, marching and local bands like Drawing Blanks, Fight Dream, Moonsong and Circle of Thirds. From such an eclectic mix—Sigurdsson is schooled in classical music, Guinn in jazz—arises a homespun cocktail of the Southern musical traditions of blues, country and Americana. Enamored by Led Zeppelin, the five-piece send up rowdy blues rock, but in a split second, they can pivot to covering Sturgill Simpson. Nicknamed “Animal” as a kid because of his heavy drumming style, Schlecte is the adrenaline heartbeat of the band, while Robertson serves as the soul. Like with excellent blues singers, when Robertson sings, it’s as if they tap into a collective well of ancient emotion; their voice feels too humongous to be emanating from their slight, lanky frame.
From the first band practice in January, Robertson, Ley Lines’ main songwriter, knew the band was onto something special. After debuting at Prairie Street Live! followed by a performance at Holcomb House that same weekend, interest in the band snowballed organically.
“I remember the first rehearsal we had. It was rough, but I immediately knew we were going to be good,” Robertson says. “I did not expect for word of mouth to spread so quickly … After the Prairie Street and Holcomb House shows, we just really took off. I expected there to be a grind. I expected us to have to play five, 10, 15 shows before people would know who we were … I knew Ley Lines has good songs, but I did not expect us to be this successful this quick.”
As cabin fever thawed and more vaccines entered people’s arms, summer 2021 became an electrifying time to make music in NWA. Ley Lines count themselves as part of a wave of musicians awakening the scene from its hibernation. To name but a few staple bands, there’s Mindless Souls, who deliver lush, transportive psychedelia; Olympics, a trio of shoegaze dreamers; and Witchsister, a three-piece all-female punk/metal/prog band who specialize in irreverent headbangers.
“We’re trying to come up during the pandemic, but I think [the scene in NWA] is flourishing now,” Robertson says. “I feel like it’s kind of a renaissance. A lot of really cool new bands are popping up, and other ones that have been around for a while are being forced to revamp what they’ve been doing, go in new directions, and do new things, which I think is great and good.”
Certainly, valleys of low activity bound every peak in a close-knit, insular music scene like NWA’s, and the pandemic represented the lowest dip quite possibly ever in its history. Robertson remembers glory days of discovering DIY music in NWA through bands like Teenagers and Dead Indian, and Guinn mourns the loss of JR’s Lightbulb Club, the beloved Fayetteville venue that hosted such big names as the White Stripes, The Dismemberment Plan, and Angel Olsen over its 27 years of history. But it’s a symbiotic relationship of sorts; as long as there are passionate music listeners, there will be music supporters creating spaces, and as long as there are platforms for independent musicians (recently, DIY show houses like Holcomb House and Swamp House come to mind), there will be local music to revel in.
“I think peaks and valleys in the [NWA music] scene have to do with supporters,” Guinn says. “Lately, there have been a lot of new people organizing events and getting things together. Like you have Prairie Street Live!, which is a new venue. The music scene in Springdale is new to me, too. New venues and show houses will keep the scene alive.”
With no official recordings out, Ley Lines have been rotating a collection of five songs in their setlists. Standouts include the crowd-favorite opener “Learn to Love It” and the nine-minute-and-a-half psychedelic roots odyssey that is “Lost.” The band has scheduled studio time to record an EP and expects to release it by the end of spring 20221. But, until then, you can only listen to Ley Lines live and in person. Their aura is beckoning..