There are forty people in the audience at the Middle East Upstairs Wednesday night, and almost all of them still qualify as “kids.” There is but one real grown-up, and she is feeling it. She looks like my seventh-grade English teacher, broken down somewhere on the deserted highway between 40 and 50, but she moves with the energy of someone half her age, whirling like a yuppie dervish four feet from the stage. She is high, or drunk, or both, but also just crazy enough to be neither, and she’s dancing to the band Three like its 1969 and Hendrix just kicked off his set with “Fire.”
Three is from Woodstock, NY, so maybe the tap water prepared them for this kind of reaction. In the off chance it didn’t, they’ll get used to it fast ― Three play a kind of quirky, hyperkinetic rock that seems to suffuse the limbs, coupled with an enthusiasm that can’t fail to get said limbs moving, and fast. The six-count six-shooter riffs of singer and songwriter Joey Eppard combine with his soulful, soaring vocals to create prog-rock symphonies. The music is equally adept at provoking headbangs, lighter flicks, or slightly arthritic hippie wiggles.
I reached Eppard by phone last week, and he acknowledged the contradictory catchiness of his compositions: “We’ve always done things in an interesting way…it comes with challenges, but it can also make our music a surprise to people, and I think that works to our advantage.” He hastened to add, however, that Three’s genre-bending surprises are not written in for their own sake: “When you see us live, you see that it’s not just a hodgepodge, it’s who we are, we mean it, and it’s real. I think people can appreciate that.”
Three is signed to Metal Blade Records, a slightly odd pairing, considering the label is also the home of bands such as brutal goremongers Cannibal Corpse. Eppard is sanguine about the mis-match, casually explaining how Metal Blade CEO Brian Slagel had the band pegged for signing after hearing their CD, later popping the question as he helped Three pack up their gear after a ramshackle Long Island gig. This served as a personable and happy contrast to Three’s disastrous mid-nineties tenure at Universal, where the fledging band was dropped after a merger with PolyGram, for the sin of not having sold more than 150,000 records.
The band’s stint at Metal Blade has led to some unlikely tour pairings, which Eppard isn’t fazed by: “We feel like we can go out there and pretty much play with anybody. I never really get scared on that level… I like a good challenge, and I’m not afraid.” This open-mindedness has led to even more bizarre match-ups, as promoters realized that Three could win over almost any audience. While the band has since toured with a roster that runs a gamut between the Bad Brains and Atreyu, a recent U.S. jaunt with prog doyens Porcupine Tree found them playing to a more receptive crowd. After they conclude their current club tour, which Eppard describes as a “battle-test” for the material off their new CD The End Is Begun, the band might head to Europe with prog-metal titans Dream Theater — turns out that Dream Theater drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy is a big fan.