Gathered in the cozy ambience of the Southern Café & Music Hall, University students joined Charlottesville locals Saturday for a night of live music. While the Charleston-based headliner Easy Honey showed off their polished sound and unique energy, both opening acts — Jack Stepanian and Celler Dwellers — stole the show and captivated the audience.
Kicking off the night was third-year College student Jack Stepanian, who has been making a name for himself in the Charlottesville music scene — notably opening for Futurebirds at the Jefferson Theater this past September. With a home field advantage, Stepanian drew a large crowd, seemingly full of classmates and friends eager to see him perform. While at first this just looked like an impressive crowd for an opening act, it later proved to be the largest crowd of the night.
Leading both vocals and guitar, Stepanian is clearly a very talented solo artist, backed Saturday by a local bassist and drummer. In a 40 minute set of covers and originals, Stepanian showed off his unexpectedly powerful voice while maintaining dynamic guitar riffs and nailing satisfying solos.
In a high point of his performance, Stepanian debuted his first single “Brighter Side.” Despite being released just three days before the show, some audience members, presumably friends, were already singing the words back to him. The set ended strongly with a rocking rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain't No Sunshine” which revealed the high potential for Stepanian’s unique vocals.
Taking the stage next was Celler Dwellers, an eccentric group from Richmond who opened for Easy Honey twice before on this tour. From the co-frontmens’ unmissable mustaches to the bassist’s long locks, the group’s rag-tag appearance of unlikely friends matched the rugged vibe that their band name implies.
The crowd seemed unsure of what to think of the band at first. With beers in hand and shoes off, both the group’s dynamic and sound were unapologetically lackadaisical in a way that only indie rock can pull off.
But as the band warmed up, their energy grew alongside the audience’s attention. Refusing to shy away from the crowd, the lead vocalist continuously cracked jokes, once poking fun at the University’s football’s embarrassing defeat a few hours prior, which elicited some stifled, if not angered, chuckles.
Catchy originals “Hearts on Fire” and “Who Are You?” exhibited the band’s ability to build momentum by the second half of the show. While their sound was certainly engaging, the group’s personality is what the audience seemed to latch onto the most. This was demonstrated when the band finished up the show with an almost theatrical performance of funky unreleased original “Spaghetti Western” that left the audience both dancing and laughing.
With the openers wrapped up, Easy Honey graced the stage, replacing the Celler Dwellers’ flannel shirts and bushy mustaches with cut off jean shorts and dress shoes. Originally from Tennessee but currently based in Charleston, the band injects their folk roots and tones of modern beach rock into both their sound and look, with the band looking like they were traveling between a surf shop and a honky tonk.
This multidimensional sound was flaunted through a setlist of great variety, featuring both intense rock jam sessions and indie pop sing-alongs. During the energetic peak of the performance, “Gotta Get Back” — one of the most popular songs off their 2021 album “Peach Fuzz” — the crowd was excitedly singing the chorus and enthusiastically participating in call and response of the first verse’s “oh yes,” “oh no” lyrical pairing. Clearly recognizable to the crowd, this number evoked emotion from the audience that seemed to lack throughout the rest of the set.
While Easy Honey is made up of undeniably talented musicians who together create a more polished and refined sound than their openers, the two preceding acts made a lasting impression. Whether it was the time of night, the home field advantage or the acts themselves, both openers were able to capture the audience in a way that Easy Honey seemed to struggle with.
Despite these minor setbacks, Easy Honey will continue to deliver authentic and high quality indie rock as they move south on their East Coast tour. Meanwhile, students can catch Jack Stepanian at Delta Kappa Epsilon’s Will Barrow fundraiser on Nov. 11 and Celler Dwellers on Nov. 18 at The Broadberry in Richmond.