SALT LAKE CITY — Jonathan Clay used three words to sum up Jamestown Revival’s first show in Utah: “It wasn’t good.”
“I think we had eight people show up, eight or 12, something like that. It was less than 20,” he recalled. “The venue was cool but we just didn’t sell any tickets. And no matter how cool the city is or the venue is, if nobody shows up to see you play, it’s just not a good show. You don’t tour to play for yourself.”
It’s been about five and a half years since Clay and his fellow Jamestown Revival frontman, Zach Chance, took the stage for a bleak turnout in Salt Lake City. Now, sitting on a tour bus parked outside the legendary Troubadour in West Hollywood, California, other than the fact that the band would soon be heading north, Clay couldn’t remember off the bat where Jamestown Revival was performing next (it was San Francisco).
But he’ll never forget that first Utah show. The lackluster response here was especially surprising to Clay and Chance, who were then touring in support of their debut album that came out of a recording session in the Wasatch Mountains. For two weeks, in a cabin outside of Heber City, the longtime friends watched the mountains, listened to the wind and perfected their tight harmonies. Fittingly, they named their album “Utah.”
Perhaps that’s why the Americana/folk-rock duo never gave up on Utah. Although Clay and Chance are from the small town of Magnolia, Texas (a couple of hours from Austin), Utah’s great outdoors was a literal part of their debut.
So they came back. And as Clay tells it, the band’s Utah fans “came out of nowhere.” Over the past five years, Jamestown Revival has performed two sold-out shows at the State Room, and their upcoming show on June 28, originally billed at the 299-seat State Room, has expanded to the larger Commonwealth Room that is about double the size. Needless to say, they’ve come a long way since their shaky start here.
“We don’t take that for granted,” Clay said.
'The harmonies present themselves'
For Jamestown Revival, music is like a time machine. Many of their songs reference specific places that take them back to formative moments in their lives. As a whole, the band’s debut album “Utah” teleports Clay and Chance to that recording session in the quiet Wasatch Mountains. On that album, a song called “California” laments the move from their home — the small town of Magnolia — to the Golden State.
“California, I don't even know you/And you've taken me away from home/Old Magnolia, I'll never get over you/Feeling's running straight to my bones,” they sing.
Magnolia was a town of about 1,000 when Clay moved there — the kind of town where it’s a really big deal to get a McDonald’s. His parents owned 5 acres that included horses and a barn, and as a member of the 4-H organization, Clay raised a cow and spent most of his time in the woods.
He met Chance when he was 14. By the time the friends were 15, they’d written their first song together. They went on to be roommates at Texas State University where they continued to write songs, both together and separately.
After pursuing their own solo careers for a time, the friends became even closer once they formed Jamestown Revival. Following their debut with "Utah," like a sequel, their second album, “The Education of a Wandering Man,” chronicles the musicians’ return to their Texas roots: “Well I spent some time on the West Coast line/Trying to make my way/Getting tired on money/Behind on the bills to pay … I'm headed back to Austin/ I'm headed back home.”
“We live together on the road and we share bills together as a business. It’s a lot more involved than just a normal friendship that is purely for pleasure and enjoyment,” Clay said. “We deal with a lot of stuff together, we solve a lot of problems together (and) we have different opinions on how things should be done, so in that way, it is more kind of like a family.”
Clay and Chance’s evergrowing closeness is most evident in their musical harmonies. While the musicians sometimes have to go through a song line by line to work out their parts, more often than not, “the harmonies present themselves,” Clay said.
In the musicians’ third, more stripped-down album, “San Isabel”— which the band released June 14 — the songs seem to rest solely on the strength of their vocal compatibility. And that’s something they look forward to sharing with their continually growing fanbase in Utah.
“We wanted to intentionally underproduce it,” Clay said. “We wrote songs that we felt like could stand on their own two feet and didn’t need a lot of production, a lot of arrangement and a lot of instrumentation. We wanted the beauty to be in the few things that were there, and we wanted that to be enough.”
If you go …
What: Jamestown Revival
When: Friday, June 28, 9 p.m.
Where: Commonwealth Room, 195 W. Commonwealth Ave. (2100 South)
How much: $28