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Rodeo Days

Don't call us emo: It's Legends of Rodeo

All Jeff Snow, drummer for West Palm Beach's Legends of Rodeo, will say is, "We'd rather not say."

"We don't want to make a wrong move," cautions singer-guitarist John Ralston.

"We're keeping our cards close to our chests right now," adds Snow, his voice indicating the discussion is over.

A local band gets a nibble from a major label, and suddenly things get quiet... too quiet. Something big is brewing in the Palm Beach County hideout of Legends of Rodeo, but no one -- not Snow, Ralston, bassist Steve Eshelman, or guitarist Nathan Jezek -- will say exactly what it is yet. This much we do know: In August the band canned its manager, Palm Beach Post music writer Dave Thomas, and all indications point to the quartet's making some kind of announcement in the next few weeks. For now no one's talking.

That silence stands in sharp contrast to the band's August 31 bash at Respectable Street, the venerable Clematis Street club Ralston affectionately calls "our home field." For Respectable's 14th anniversary, 15 local bands converged to help celebrate, each performing on rented equipment that remained in place to help the event run smoothly. The by then thoroughly liquidated Legends of Rodeo had been selected to play last.

"Most of us were there for the whole night watching the other bands," recalls Snow, "and when you're in a bar for that long and then you have to play a show, it can get a little rowdy. Actually it was total chaos. By the time we got up there, stuff had been a little worked in. Especially the drum kit. I kinda broke it."

If talent scouts have indeed plucked Legends of Rodeo for a shot at success, they likely did so based on the band's solidly inspiring live shows. The CD South Atlantic Hymns, which the quartet released in 2000, and a ten-song compendium of more-recent demos leave the Earth positively unshattered. The best track from the two discs, Hymns' "Jesus Drank Wine and So Will I," is also included on this summer's local-band sampler platter, Soaking Up the Good Florida Sunshine. But when the Legends are on-stage, Ralston's reedy voice pierces through and penetrates each song with vigor; some rock-star training pants are involved, but Ralston's irrepressible sincerity answers for that.

For instance "The Flags" leads off South Atlantic Hymns with a crisp and chiming guitar salvo, Eshelman's slithering bass, and Snow's delicate cymbal fills, but Ralston is the song's heart, pumping his high, passionate tenor through the cracks. "Get into the car/And shut the door," he sings, "But for now we'll keep driving until the sun goes down/And after that we'll rest at last/But not now."

That is likely an autobiographical passage, as Legends of Rodeo's interstate tours have proved key to its grassroots success. Time on the road has allowed the foursome to cultivate a durable network of clean floors, cold beers, and hot showers and meals -- all provided by friends -- that has proven integral to the band's ability to travel and perform on the smallest of budgets. "Our main thing is just to go out there, have fun, meet people, and crash at their houses," explains Ralston, who figures he and his four mates have completed five regional tours together. "We're really a friendly band to get along with. We make friends wherever we go, and they always invite us back. They cook us breakfast, which happens when you tour as much as we do."

Earlier this summer the group undertook a journey through backwater burgs of the Deep South just for the hell of it.

"That tour didn't have much of a purpose to it other than we just wanted to climb back in the van together and go out and play some shows for people," Snow relates. "When you're booking a tour on your own, you just play wherever they'll let you play, so when anyone sent us back an e-mail or showed any interest whatsoever, we just went there. Sometimes there'd be 200 people, and sometimes there was only 2, but we just did it to play. We weren't pushing a product or anything like that."

This devil-may-care strategy appeared to work as the band wended its way through Florida, imbibing Miller High Life and chicken Alfredo bestowed by buddies. The historic cities of St. Augustine and Savannah provided doses of architectural interest and much-needed showers. Friends in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Virginia came through with more victuals and floor space. Things got strange in the middle of Cajun country (Lafayette, Louisiana), but the Legends emerged unscathed to finish the tour in Homewood, Alabama. After that show -- where front-row fans sang along -- the band was again able to crash at a friend's place.

"We slept in the basement," Jezek wrote in the band's tour diary. "Pitch dark! Grabbed a shower."

Since 1997 Jezek, Ralston, Snow, and Eshelman have been a tight, warriorlike unit. But well before then, they already had a strong connection: Three of the four had been born in the same wing of West Palm Beach's Good Samaritan Hospital. All four were friends, milling about in local bands, before forming the rough-hewn, indie-rock Recess Theory about four years ago. A pair of singles released on a Birmingham, Alabama, label sold decently and constructed a lifeline to the South the foursome still enjoys. But by the end of 1999, the name had to go.

"There's way too many other Theory bands," complains Snow, who claims to have collected "a list about eight miles long." Although his band's membership hasn't changed during the intervening years, Ralston offers, the sound certainly has.

"This isn't even close to the same band," he says. "Musically we've all moved on from that."

However, Legends of Rodeo have gravitated toward the middle of the road in many instances. To wit, Snow and Ralston don't hesitate to acknowledge that the band is trying to emulate a classic-rock stance, mentioning Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Guns n' Roses, and the Rolling Stones as influences.

"We're a rock band," Snow points out. "I don't know how we keep coming up emo."

That three-letter appellation may be the result of Ralston's energetic yelp and the softly sculpted guitar chords that remained after Recess Theory became Legends but are not as evident on the group's new material. The demo version of "What Song" veers from the mainstream directly toward tavern-band territory, and "The Devil Started Rock and Roll" isn't an old Bob Seger tune -- it just sounds like one. In conversation Legends' principals cough up philosophical asides that could well have been culled from the Silver Bullet Band's dog-eared playbook.

"If this is really what you love, you'll keep doing it," says Snow. "You dedicate your whole life to rock 'n' roll or you don't."

To that end Legends of Rodeo's members work or attend school, finding windows of opportunity to record songs at Ralston's place in Jupiter or mount a two-week tour. The other three live in Lake Worth, and save occasional gigs in Fort Lauderdale, the band has focused its energies close to home, performing in Miami just once in four years. West Palm Beach may not be an indie-rock nexus, Ralston admits, but he's not seeking his stardom anywhere else.

"There are bigger and better places," he allows, "but after you move to L.A., you move right back. I know because I did it. It's a matter of being a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond. It just worked better here."


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