Steve Pierce remembers the days working in Pelham, Alabama, as the maintenance manager at the state’s largest outdoor amphitheater, but one day there in 2008 was very, very special.
“I met Billy Gibbons in the soda line backstage at Oak Mountain Amphitheater, and he was nice,” the singer and banjo player of Banditos recalls about ZZ Top’s great blues-rock guitarist. “He said, “Hey man,” as I watched at him cut his wine with water.
“While the show was happening — it was during ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’ — I ran into Corey [Parsons, Banditos’ singer and guitarist]. I hadn’t seen him in years, and he had a buddy with him that had gotten him the tickets. That guy was Randy [Wade, Banditos’ drummer]. I sat with them for a little bit and slacked off work for a few songs. Those guys [Gibbons and his ZZ Top band mates] may not be beer drinkers and hell raisers to an exact definition anymore, but they still have the same sound that made me want to start playing guitar the first time my dad played ‘La Grange’ for me.
“The last time I had seen Corey,” Pierce continues, “was on a road trip to Mexico. On that trip, we made up a fictional band called Banditos that wouldn’t play any music and would just get drunk on stage for 45 minutes — but that’s another story. At the ZZ Top show, Corey made a joke about getting the fictional band back together and said Randy should join. As funny as it was, we got new phone numbers for each other and started actually writing songs and playing as Banditos shortly after the show. So, anyway, ZZ Top rules.”
The chance meeting of the future Banditos at the show during ZZ Top’s El Camino Ocho tour paid dividends last year for the fledgling band from Birmingham, Alabama. Bloodshot Records released Banditos’ self-titled debut album in May — a powerful mix of genres, including garage rock, blues, country, jazz and gospel — and it received stellar reviews.
“I think we all were surprised to a degree,” Pierce says. “We’re happy with the album we made and the team we have that put it out there with us. But the mind blowing part is that only months later we were getting shows and reviews overseas. I couldn’t have ever guessed that would happen when we were writing some of those songs in our basement in Birmingham.”
Does the acclaim brought by the first album put more pressure on the band to produce a fantastic follow-up?
“It surely does add to the pressure we’re already putting on ourselves,” Pierce says. “We all know the weight of second albums, and we’re enjoying the challenge. Getting to try different things and new ways to write on and off the road has been refreshing us, I think. I’d also be lying if I said the reviews that mentioned curiosity or anticipation for the second album haven’t been motivating me to step it up even more.”
The band is currently recording an EP after finishing a tour with St. Paul and the Broken Bones and plans a full-length album later this year. Banditos hit the road again on Feb. 19 in Richmond, Virginia — the first of at least 14 shows in the USA and Europe.
Besides the ZZ Top concert, Pierce remembers “another show before I could drive that changed my life.” It was a performance by mewithoutYou at the Birmingham Two Way just before the release of the Philadelphia-based band’s 2002 debut album (A—>B) Life.
“It was at a two-way radio repair warehouse,” Pierce says. “The owner let his daughter who lived on my bus route rent out and have festivals and do-it-yourself shows there. I had never heard of mewithoutYou or seen a real show like that before.
“Everything was dark. There was only one work light with a flickering bulb to light the whole warehouse. I had never heard any music like it. It was insane. The guitarist was my main focus for the first half. They were heavy, but I could tell they were going for something more honest and intelligent than the wave of bands playing there at the time. It was raw and imaginative.
“After paying attention for so long, I realized no one knew where the singer was. We were looking around but had lost him. Then we heard shouting from 20 feet above us. The guy had climbed the fucking rafters and was shouting over the music with no mike. He dropped down, and we thought he died. He just got up, and, without a beat, waltzed around the room with a manic smile. That was only the first song. I’m sure they went home with $20 that night, but, after seeing it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I may have found a different musical path since then, but the feeling that I’m chasing is the same.”