When I enrolled at Ohio University in 2002, Southeast Engine was Athens’ preeminent college band. The folk-rockers were still in a primitive form, but they had a look, sound and feeling that equated to catnip in an Appalachian college town. Any undergrad with a taste for Wilco, Bright Eyes, Ryan Adams or even bluegrass gravitated Southeast Engine’s way.
As a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot obsessive, I followed the group religiously. That was a while ago; I graduated and moved back to Columbus in 2006, and I haven’t paid attention as closely since then, though I’m always pleased when I do check in.
The lineup and sound have both evolved several times over in the decade since I first wandered into The Union and basked in signature song “One Caught Fire,” a melancholy anthem that matches disaffected lyrics with an uplifting pulse. Members have come and gone, ideas discarded or refined, yielding a unique breed of folk-rock that’s at once rowdy, thoughtful and deeply in touch with its regional identity.
Speaking of which: The geography has shifted too. The current four-man lineup is spread across four cities. Frontman Adam Remnant still lives in Athens. Drummer Leo DeLuca is in Dayton. Keyboardist Billy Matheny posts up in Morgantown. And bassist Jesse Remnant relocated to Columbus, which happens to qualify Southeast Engine for this Columbus music column.
I stopped by Tree Bar last Thursday for the band’s tour kickoff show. The Remnant brothers greeted the modest but enthusiastic crowd with a blast of harmony that kicked off “Quest for Noah’s Ark,” a slow jam that still manages to get up in your face. Next came “I’m Never Sure,” the trembling, triumphant opener from 2005’s ace Coming to Terms With Gravity.
That portended a career-spanning set, and indeed the band pulled from its entire discography and even tackled a medley from Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand for fun. In keeping with GBV’s spirit, it was a loose, playful set riddled with jokes and digressions.
The band was much tighter on the newer material, but the inclusion of old-school favorites affirmed what a wealth of resonant music Southeast Engine has piled up. Years of polish have paid off in a singular sound, but this band was a gem from the beginning.