Onstage at Tree Bar on a recent Saturday night, Yellow Paper Planes frontman Joshua P. James reminisced about local musician (and Whiles guitarist) Joe Peppercorn prodding him to play his first-ever gig. Fittingly, the Whiles were headlining on an evening where James continued the rollout for Yellow Paper Planes, formerly Joshua P. James and the Paper Planes.
In the past the three backing musicians functioned in more of a supporting role, helping flesh out James’ solo compositions. But over the months it’s become more of a true collaboration — a distinction noticeable from the opening song, where James ceded the microphone to drummer Brandon Woods, who acquitted himself quite nicely on a high-and-lonesome ballad about trying desperately to find some degree of happiness in a life full of disappointment.
The quartet’s sound still drew heavily on roots-rock and Americana, and acoustic guitar and standup bass featured prominently. But a handful of tunes explored shadier byways, taking unexpected sonic detours rather than hewing to the traditional verse-chorus-verse format. The best of these, a winding, seven-plus minute epic built around the idea of escape (“The more I come down/The more I want to get high”), swung between weary passages and more urgent moments, reaching its peak when the music nearly dropped out altogether and James bellowed “I’m still all alone” like a man in desperate need of human connection.
Many of the most memorable moments were also the quietest, and the musicians displayed a knack for crafting drama from the most subtle instrumental flourishes: a hazy wash of cymbal, a prancing keyboard riff, the metallic scrape of James’ acoustic strings. At times the more upbeat numbers lacked the same attention to detail, though there was a thrilling moment early on where the band locked in and the music picked up momentum until things were rumbling along like an out-of-control steam engine.
The 40-minute performance attracted a small but appreciative crowd that was none too eager to send the crew on its way. “We’ve got two more to play,” offered James as the set wore down. “Three!” shouted someone in the audience. “Let’s compromise and call it two,” countered the singer.
Of course, the band ended up playing three more anyway. Yellow Paper Planes might be a new band (in name at least), but they’ve already learned to give an audience what it wants.