The Saturday morning of this year’s Austin City Limits festival found several attendees walking the trails of Zilker Park and talking about the acts they had seen the previous night and those they looked forward to. “Who are these Wheeler Brothers?” one asked his friend. Before his companion could reply, a stranger responded by saying, “I saw them as an opener on a bill. You know, I was thinking, ‘Opening band, right?’ but they were surprisingly good. You should check them out.”
The Wheeler Brothers had the remarkable luck of playing at 1 p.m. that afternoon, a prime time slot for a local act. I arrived in front of the stage to find a fairly sizable crowd waiting for them to play even as the band had begun setting up their own equipment for their set. As we all waited, I listened to the conversations around me and found that Wheeler Brothers fans were educating the curious newcomers who had apparently heard good things about the band. Can this be called luck? Probably not when you’re talking about a band that works as tirelessly as the Wheeler Brothers do.
“We are road warriors. We put 65,000 miles on our van in the first year,” says Danny Matthews, one of guitarists and vocalists in the band. “It’s kind of the old model.”
That model being of the tour-your-ass-off variety.
The Wheeler Brothers coalesced as an Austin band in 2010 with the addition of A.J. Molyneaux on lap steel and Telecaster to the already present Matthews, Nolan Wheeler (vocals, guitar), Patrick Wheeler (bass), and Tyler Wheeler (drums). That first year was spent constantly writing, rehearsing and rewriting material, all while the under the pressure that comes from quitting their jobs in pursuit of their passion for music. Obviously the gamble paid off given the crowd of people that had arrived in time to see them launch into their first song of the day.
For the uninitiated, a Wheeler Brothers’ set is full of energy. Tyler’s thunderous drumming lays the backbeat for the sometimes subtle nuances, sometimes raucousness of the rest of the band. Patrick is constantly in motion, playing barefoot and enjoying every moment on stage despite having injured his ankle. “I jumped off the stage at Blues on the Green,” Patrick said. ”I still gotta work…I numbed it up with a few Budweisers.”
You also have to appreciate the Brothers’ three-part vocal harmonies from Nolan, Danny, and A.J., the latter also employing the restrained tonal tact for leads that show a wisdom far beyond his years. “When we go to a show, we do it 110 percent,” A.J. says.
All of this comprises a patchwork sound of rich, black earth Americana with hints of rock, pop and an underlying sense of Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” album. “We have diverse musical tastes,” Danny says. “When you’re in our van, you’ll hear everything from Slayer to Kanye West to Arcade Fire.”
About halfway through the set, I slip backstage and stand on one of the rises to see the crowd. The area in front of the stage is packed and the audience extends well into the common area where other people are moving between stages. This is no small feat for a band only two years old, with one album under their belt and another nearing its completion. What also strikes me in that moment is the wide age group of the listeners. The Brothers have everyone from college age kids to Baby Boomers completely enthralled with their music. Most of the younger audience members are singing along to the songs from the band’s first album, “Portraits,” but have a quiet, almost reverent attention when Nolan tells them that they will be hearing a new song before anyone else. In fact, he says this several times during their set.
At the time of this writing, the Wheeler Brothers have just finished the recording end of a new, currently unnamed album with several currently unnamed songs. These new songs make up a different, albeit completely familiar, sound for the band stemming from their writing process. “Initially, Nolan and Danny were writing most of the songs and everybody putting in their parts, but now we’ve kind of changed that up,” Patrick says. “If anybody brings something to the table, we work it out.”
“There’s a lot of tension when [the songwriting] is coming from one direction,” Danny says. “Now it’s very much an open table.”
The Brothers expect the new album to be released early next year with a possible single release preceding it.
The set ends and the Wheeler Brothers are met with roars of approval and thunderous applause. Later, when meeting with them for our interview, I’m struck by how friendly and honest they are and, as I watch them go through several interviews with “Rolling Stone,” Fuse and others of the like, I realize that these are the guys you’ve never met before, but make a lasting friendship with over a beer and laughter. This band IS Austin.