With its vintage sound, 1960s sensibilities and three-part harmonies, The Beat Down is keeping the spirit of rock ’n’ roll alive.
Trying to describe a band’s music today can be more complicated than it seems. A question as simple as “What kind of music do you play?” can easily result in an endless stream of hyphenated genres — and sub-genres — that can make even the most enthusiastic of music-lovers’ eyes glaze over.
And then there’s The Beat Down.
In a world of musical taxonomy, the Sarasota-based trio’s sound is refreshingly simple to describe.
It’s rock ’n’ roll. And, to borrow from Mick Jagger — I like it.
The Beat Down is Garrett Von Räd on guitar, Ryan O’Neill on drums and Justin Kaiser on bass and lead vocals — all three members sing. All prolific members of Sarasota original-music scene, Kaiser and O’Neill have played in various projects together since as long ago as the late 1990s.
Von Räd, who also plays in the Southern rock band Hail Dale, was a longtime fan of Kaiser and O’Neill’s music, and he hoped to combine their shared tastes in a project of their own.
But it wouldn’t happen until December 2016, when Kaiser, recently returned from a stint in Los Angeles, decided to organize a jam.
“We love that ’60s garage-rock sound. The original idea was that we would play covers of those bands — the Beatles, Small Faces, The Animals,” says Von Räd.
All three members are guitarists and songwriters in their own right, and after meeting up, it was apparent they would have no shortage of original material.
“We learned about six covers, and we decided to work on a few songs Ryan had written,” he says. “We had a handful of originals come together almost right away.”
The members say there are no hard and fast rules in their writing, but they operate under one guiding principle: They want to play rock ’n’ roll, pure and simple.
“Five years ago, there were probably 15 or more bands playing original rock,” says Kaiser. “The rock ’n’ roll and psychedelic scene was a lot more active. We want to keep that alive and show people it’s still happening here in Sarasota. It’s kind of a good barometer of any local music scene — you check out the local original rock bands.”
Often, the writing process starts with O’Neill.
“I’ll play something on acoustic guitar,” he says. “And I’ll usually record it with some humming or mumblings over the top to give an idea of the vocal melody. Then we flesh it out in practice with lyrics and other instruments.”
The result is a melody-driven, rhythmic, high-energy blend of ’60s garage rock in the vein of The Yardbirds and early Rolling Stones, as well as the pioneers of the ’50s who inspired them — Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers.
Fittingly, the lyrics are generally light, fun and relatable, with a catchy melody and beat that defies audiences not to dance.
Their first home-recorded single, “She Wanna Dance,” encapsulates the sound well.
The track, which clocks in at just two-and-a-half minutes, opens with a fuzzy bassline, which is quickly joined by a pounding drumbeat and all three members singing together in harmonized, airy falsetto: “I want your love.”
The chorus, punctuated with a tremolo-heavy psychedelic organ line, is an instant sing-along, and the guitar solo that follows — a cutting, fuzz-drenched run that pans left and right — is equal parts trippy and swagger.
The Beat Down wears its influences on its sleeve.
“I like knowing where stuff began,” says Kaiser. “Every riff has been ripped off from something — and those were ripped off from somebody who came before them. It’s like carrying the torch. Nobody around here was doing anything like that, and I think it’s important to keep those roots alive.”
This outlook is also evident in the band’s equipment. O’Neill’s minimal drum kit is set up true to the way it would’ve been in the ’60s, and his driving, danceable backbeats are straight out of the playbooks of the founding fathers of rock drumming.
Von Räd is an outspoken vintage analog-gear enthusiast, playing through decades-old vacuum-tube-powered amplifiers, outfitting his guitars with vintage electronics and preferring to record to tape, instead of digitally.
Kaiser’s bass guitar and tone similarly embody the aesthetic, and he says playing as a trio is also a good fit for the music.
“It’s minimalist,” he says. “I love to get the most sound out of the least amount of instruments.”
Perhaps the best way to experience the band is at a live performance. It’s loud, high-energy — and there’s plenty of people on the dance floor. It’s a throwback that doesn’t feel forced.
“I think we’re all so influenced by that music,” says O’Neill. “It’s what we all grew up listening to and gravitated toward, so it’s not necessarily a sound we’re consciously trying to create — it just happens organically.”
The band plans to record a five-track EP —analog, of course — to be released before the end of the year. But mostly, the band just hopes to keep rock music thriving in Sarasota.
“The spirit of rock ’n’ roll is still alive,” says Von Räd. “It’s cemented its place in American culture, and even around the world. The best way to keep it alive? Just keep playing it.”
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