Los Angeles has become more than just a city. It has become a symbol. It is the place where musicians with big dreams flock to; it is the town that epitomizes the idea that with intense diligence, raw talent and some old fashioned luck, anyone can turn their shiny dreams into a concrete reality. For some very select few this is the case. The vast majority, however, never see their hopes realized in any tangible way. These two distinct groups of varying success have almost no overlap. There are some, though, that occupy the small muddy middle ground in between these types of musicians. Those dwelling in that space, vacillating between catching breaks and losing traction in their career, at some point have to decide whether or not to continue down that dark and treacherous path to fame and fortune. Graham Colton, who came back to play at Los Angeles’ Hotel Café this week, is one of those musicians.
I first saw Graham play in a dingy local pub called Market Street in Gainesville, Florida almost nine years ago. Then his career was on an upswing. He had been on the road with TheCounting Crows (with whom he did two tours), O.A.R., The Dave Matthews Band and JohnMayer, all very big players in the early 2000’s. That night he had played to a frenzy of crazed and loyal girls all vying for the spot closest to the small stage. “Drive,” the only CD they ever released, made it to #11 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart in mid-2004. Their style was defined by a peppy rock sound infused with unfussy drums, heartfelt lyrics about the trauma of relationships, and Colton’s unique wobbly vocals. Though I hadn’t heard of them before that night, they converted me into a devout fan in just two songs. I immediately bought one of their CDs, and played it constantly. The image on the disc soon became faded and worn from all the times I had shoved it into my stereo.
However, as is the case with most bands, the momentum they had been fostering was hard to maintain, and they broke up before ever recording another album. Colton then forged on as a solo act, once again getting moderate success (his solo effort landed him the #2 spot on the Heatseekers chart) and he began touring with KellyClarkson. Again his career took a sharp turn as he and his label, Universal/Republic Records parted ways and he found himself back in that familiar indie position. Though Colton’s musical career has been colored by both triumphs and disappointments, he never once gave up the love of his craft. He continues to redefine his sound and his style with each new musical venture he embarks on.
In another attempt to keep his creative muscle from atrophying, Colton has teamed up with Lindsey Ray generating yet another totally new sound in the form of their EP, “Sooner The Sunset.” This week’s performance in L.A. was the first time the duo had played together live, but you wouldn’t have known it from the artists’ seasoned sound. Now far from his rougher rock roots, these duets have given rise to a far more twangy and rustic country quality. Still, Colton’s signature warble was as present as ever, giving these new tracks the same kind of perfectly understated emotion that is the foundation of all his work. Unlike his past concerts, this show was less like a true rock concert and more like a local version of VH1’s Storytellers, featuring an intimate atmosphere perfect for revealing interesting anecdotes and details about the songwriting process. To get an even more personal take on his rollercoaster of a career I talked with him after the show.
Though he has certainly reinvented himself musically throughout the years, he told me that he often continues to return to one specific era in his life when he writes his material. “I do find myself always going back to the nostalgic time in my life that was high school, and college and when I was on the road with my buddies. That’s just kind of my window and I love talking about it. It was a really amazing time for me.” Another truly crucial point in both his life and his career was his years spent traveling with other bands, and specifically the Counting Crows and Better Than Ezra whom he considers musical mentors or, “big brother bands,” that he learned from and continues to watch.
He might be looking back when he writes, but for this hard-working musician, you can only move forward. “I don’t want to be the same guy I am now five years from now, a year from now, five weeks from now. It’s scary and it’s uncomfortable to reinvent yourself but it’s really important to do.” Fans of Graham Colton should definitely go see him on tour now, but keep in mind that you’ll have to be comfortable with change too. You can’t expect to see the same thing that you loved about him when he started, or even that you loved about his show the previous night, but what you will find is something new and original and as authentic as ever. As Graham himself reminded me, when it comes to his music and to life, “There are no rules.”
By: Darianne Dobbie