As Welles asked the crowd, “You guys like rock n’ roll?” the tone was set for the all-American rock artist’s performance at Cornerstone in Berkeley on March 7. Since 2012, the music created by Welles has proven that some artists haven’t lost their touch on what has kept traditional, grungy rock music around for so long.
Welles, previously performing as Jeh Sea Wells, is fronted by the Ozark, Arkansas, native Jesse Wells. With a Cobain-esque voice and all-humble stage presence, Welles has organic sounds that center on pure old-soul angst and artistry.
Starting the show with the song “Codeine,” off of the 2018 album Red Trees and White Trashes, this performance was full of commanding guitar solos reflective of a ‘70s psych-rock style. A post-Nirvana lullaby, Wells’ calculated rasp directed the tune through powerfully sustained belts.
Maintaining the groovy rock sounds was the song “Seasons,” which Wells said was “about the times of the year.” This tune held dynamic instrumental sections that lent to the band’s ability to mesh sounds together well. The song’s driving force was held in the guitar, the power complemented by the careful strain in Wells’ voice.
Welles continued to flex its ability to chameleon-perform all rock styles in its energy abounding, new wave cover of “Lovesong” by The Cure. This goth-goes-grunge style was a faster-paced version of the original, filled with explosive vocals and heavier drums.
Considering Welles is a smaller band, its repertoire was stretched for the set. “We’re trying some new shit out because when you headline, you have to play more songs,” Wells said.
Although there were very few technical difficulties during the set, the most important lesson of the day was definitely learned: Musicians are human, too. When instruments needed to be tuned and adjusted, Wells filled the quiet space with flannel-shirt comedy and various quips. The story, “When I was a kid, I had a dirt bike — until my dad washed it,” added new meaning to the “dad joke.”
In order to stretch the set, the band previewed some new songs. With the new track “My Kind Of Boy,” Welles played to the easy-listening, rock n’ soul side of the audience. The tender dynamics mixed with the grimy edge made the song the kind that can be called a classic before it’s even released.
“Seventeen” made anyone listening bittersweetly nostalgic for the tributes of their late-teen years. A disco ball set the mood for a dramatic performance, circles of light spinning as Wells’ vocals bounced with a powerful vibrato. Wild cheers expectedly spurred from the crowd as this is one of Welles’ more popular songs.
Wells led into the next song, “Crystals,” with some background: “So I’ve been getting into crystals lately. They might just be see-through rocks. They might be fuckin’ magic. I don’t know.” A deeper focus on the bass lines showed the melody as organic, matching the instrumentalists’ flowy grunge rock hair.
“Life Like Mine,” somewhat of an anthem for the band, was performed at the cusp of a pop Americana harmony. Sounding like it should be played through the speakers of a convertible driving through a bohemian landscape, the song was met with a head-bopping, swayful audience energy.
The crowd was smaller than the usual show at Cornerstone, but the enthusiasm of the audience filled the space just as much as a sold-out concert would have. Welles gave a laid-back, musically solid performance ultimately worthy of a packed venue.
After the band walked off stage, it was met with roaring applause from the intimately sized crowd. The cheering spurred Welles back onstage for a performance of “Poor Born” by the band Dead Moon. The Oregon garage-punk song was given a nice southern-rock twist, a solid energy to end the night with.
Welles is currently finishing up its winter tour and will be ending at the April SandJam festival in Florida and the BottleRock festival in Napa this May. Festivals may be big on highlighting the big-name headliners to draw crowds, but smaller artists such as Welles are what keep the music scene grounded.