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A big bag of SWAG 

Wildly diverse bill makes for interesting night at the Echo Lounge

Echo Lounge, July 27 -- Visitors to the Atlantis Music Conference this week will be bombarded by a load of swag, which is music-industry slang for promotional T-shirts, CDs, stickers, key chains and assorted throwaway items. But unlike the worthless crap offered by desperate bands, the Nashville-based group SWAG recently released Catchall, a wonderfully low-key -- and shamefully overlooked -- record that's a true keeper.

The core members of SWAG are alt-country and rock musicians Robert Reynolds of the Mavericks on guitar and vocals; Jerry Dale McFadden of the Contemporary Christian band Sixpence None the Richer on vocals and keyboards; and drummer Ken Coomer of Wilco. The veteran players treat SWAG purely as a side-project and only perform occasionally, usually just in Nashville. Recently, they found the time to hastily arrange a short tour of the U.S. This was only their third night on the road.

Opening with "Please Don't Tell Her," SWAG kicked into gear-fab, with a coolly propulsive Zombies-esque bass and drum lead-in. Reynolds and McFadden sang in harmonic, breathy tenors, worthy of the best of Rod Argent.

SWAG manages to retain the retro spirit of Rubber Soul-era Beatles, but without the heavy-handed insult of pure imitation. In a day when most pop bands simply raid the tired Replacements vault for inspiration, SWAG sticks to up-tempo songs about girls and love like '60s AM-radio mop-tops. The set alternated between George Harrison- and Roger McGuinn-inspired 12-string jangle and the solid energy and edgy guitar crunch of the Kinks.

Performing anglophile pop music, SWAG thankfully plays well outside the staid Nashville music business machine. But the band aims to please only themselves and a core group of pals, anyway. Guitarist Reynolds welcomed some old friends from the decidedly non-country Florida music scene, including Atlantan Jim Johnson of the Skylarks. Reynolds then introduced the ballad "Near Perfect Smile" by announcing it represents the "softer side of SWAG." The tune, about Reynolds' divorce from Georgia-born country star Trisha Yearwood, was the only slow song of the evening.

As a tribute to the ailing Harrison, Reynolds and company tore through a raw version of the early Beatles tune "I Wanna Be Your Man," aided by guitarist Sean Kelly, McFadden's Sixpence cohort. The hour-long set offered no encores ("because we don't believe in them," McFadden said) and abruptly ended with "Ride," including a bit of the "Sesame Street" theme that evolved into the Who's guitar and keyboard workout "Won't Get Fooled Again." SWAG's infectious joy was wonderfully uplifting.

Earlier in the evening, joy was the last thing on opener slowEarth's minds. After a slow and atmospheric opening number, singer Zach Solem announced, "If you're here to see SWAG, this is probably going to be an interesting juxtaposition." Indeed, the jarring onslaught of industrial pop-techno was, at first glance, an odd choice for SWAG's support. The band's hypnotic rhythms and emotive vocals appeared to please only a small gathering of young female fans, while SWAG's older crowd waited at the bar. The few who bothered to check out slowEarth, however, witnessed a tight and professionally raging blast of icy '90s aggression.

The two bands on the bill, though seemingly polar and generational opposites, both represent basic guitar-and- keyboard dance music. If more clubs and patrons would heed the winningly adventurous booking style of the Echo's Liz Morris, a broader range of music could be showcased and appreciated in a single night. And, with venues routinely offering diverse lineups, then perhaps music conferences -- and the trails of garbage-bound swag that inevitably follow -- might become a thing of the past.

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