With just the first step I take into the fieldhouse, I feel it. A single chord has rocked its way from the far corner of the facility to the doors, and hundreds of eyes dart toward its source. There stands a group of four guys scrambling to adjust their equipment one last time, a guitarist fiddling with his amp, a bassist adjusting his pedal and a keyboard player with a saxophone draped around his neck. The drummer behind them sits and observes, content with his set-up. A flyer on the ground that’s fallen off the wall reveals that the group in question is “ALEX MERRIT AND HIS BAND”, labeled in bold red letters advertising the events at the 5th quarter on Dec. 20, held annually on the last Friday before winter break after the boys and girls basketball games.
A few steps closer and I realize that I’m not the first to notice. Already assembled in front of the group are two full sets of bleachers, full of students unsure of what to expect. The set-up itself is no measly contraption; the risers lift all the aforementioned equipment, as well as multiple speakers, amps and a rack boasting three shiny guitars, including the one the guitarist himself is holding. He grabs the mic.
“Alright, we’re gonna get started. We’re ‘Chapel Hill Drive’,” he says loosely. There is no evidence in his voice that this is his second performance ever. “This first one’s called ‘I Shot the Sheriff’.”
He grips the guitar and jumps into the number, at which point the stage lights up and the crowd begins to nod their heads to the jumpy beat. They are mostly comprised of 16 and 17-year-olds, and they are unfamiliar with the song. Yet, there’s a comfortable vibe that rises amongst them when the band begins to play. The band’s setlist features covers from rock music, all with a twist of blues.
The guitarist, senior Alex Merret, bounces back and forth, squinting when arriving at high riffs and becoming the very embodiment of energy on the stage. The drummer, senior Phillip Muscarnero, flicks the drums with a softer touch than what you’d expect from a rock band, eyes flowing softly above and around the fieldhouse, getting lost in the melody’s jumpy tune. He and Isaac Wahout, the bassist, take turns holding back smiles, whether it be after a particularly impressive riff from Merret or a run from Muscarnero. On the keyboard, John Sousa remains locked in on his ivory keys, undisturbed by any externalities.
Merret then grabs the mic, and begins to descend into a raspy voice that compliments the melody. I join the crowd in nodding along, and find a seat to enjoy the remaining 90 minutes of music I wasn’t too familiar with, but was excited to experience nonetheless.
Four weeks later, I’m walking down the stairs into Merret’s basement. I’ve been invited to sit in on one of the band’s practices, which after Dec. 20, I was not about to turn down. I sit down on a couch next to a guitar case and a drum set, and pull out my laptop. Today, only Muscarnero and Merret are here, as Sousa and Wahout have scheduling conflicts.
“Yeah, we only practiced once before the performance all together,” Merret says, as he begins to strum away at the guitar. “We make do, though.”
He’s staring straight down at a pedal beneath his feet, and starts to explain to me that he’s looping the bass so they can play as if a bass player were present. He plays a few chords, then nods at Muscarnero. He steps on the pedal. I prepare to hear an unfamiliar tune from my dad’s childhood, but instead I’m met with a gorgeous melody I’ve heard plenty of times.
It’s “Gravity”, a 2000s release from John Mayer. It’s only now I understand the group’s versatility. The rendition is beautiful, as Muscarnero seems to agree, his head rocking up and down. I notice that neither of them are looking at any sheet music, and that Muscarnero has a pair of headphones in.
“I don’t really read music,” Muscarnero says. “I get a rhythm, and just kinda do it my own kind of way. I always try to get different fills in. Trying to get [the sound] right takes a lot of work, so we just play with it until it works.”
He’s then interrupted by Merret, who mentions that “Phil crushes it on ‘All Along the Watchtower’,” one of the group’s favorites to play. They jump into that song, one oldie that I actually recognize, only from the folk version by Bob Dylan. I am then transported back to Dec. 20, when they played this very number to round out the night.
From the way they sounded that night, you would think the band had been together for at least a few years. With a sound that clean and precise, it was shocking to hear that they had only played together once before.
“They did an almost two-hour set, and they just never missed,” athletic director Kip North, who set up the event with Merret, said. “Just a very clean sound, probably the best I’ve heard of students coming through BG.”
North had Merret in P.E. class as a junior, and after becoming a prominent member of the Elevate program that North leads, the idea for a performance at the 5th quarter was introduced.
“I was in a meeting, and he said, ‘Any ideas for the 5th quarter?’ and I said, ‘I’ve got some guys, we can come play.’ He told me to make it happen,” Merret said. “At that point, I didn’t know anyone that could play the drums, and my only bass player couldn’t make the date. Then I was in physics one day talking about Jimi Hendrix, and [Wahout] told me he listened to him too. I said, ‘Do you play any instruments?’ and he said, ‘I play guitar and bass.’ And I asked if he wanted to come over and jam, which he agreed to.”
Wahout played the guitar from a young age on, and made the transition to bass after freshman year.
“The first practice went surprisingly well,” Wahout said. “We were playing songs we all already knew, so we were easily able to jam.”
Merret explained how he purchased his drum kit even prior to knowing a drummer, and only after he set it up in his basement and Muscarnero came over one night did he discover his talent for it. He came back the next morning to “jam” for almost three hours.
“I used to play drums when I was younger for the jazz band,” Muscarnero, who also plays trombone for BG’s band, said. “Then I went to Nashville, and I saw
these guys taking recommendations and just playing songs by ear, and it inspired me to be like that. It was just perfect timing when Merret told me he needed a drummer.”
Perfect timing, however, seems to be few and far between for Chapel Hill Drive, the group’s name taken from the street where their practices take place, as they jump at every venue they can perform at, but struggle to find places that offer open-mics for members under 21. They hope to play some graduation parties this summer.
“I was a little surprised at the retro aspect of the band, and I had a great appreciation for some good old Eric Clapton, Cream and Credence Clearwater,” North said. “I wasn’t aware that that was the kind of music that they were playing, a very ‘blues-y’ take on all those bands.”
Merret tells me he loves the blues while I snap some photos of him and Muscarnero preparing to play. I tell him that I’m about finished, and that I should start heading out. He waves me down for one more song, then nods at his drummer, at which point they jump into where we started, with another number I recognized by Mayer, “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.” I sit back down on the couch and watch in awe as the two churn out a gorgeous rendition of the song. About halfway through, I forget where I am, forget that it’s a Thursday afternoon and I have two assignments due the following morning. I sink a little deeper into the couch. Merret begins a riff that goes to places that are almost completely improvised, and yet I follow it wherever he takes it. Muscarnero can’t hide the smile this time, playing alongside his impromptu chords like they’re simply breathing.
“I used to be sitting in class thinking, ‘I wish I could have a band,’” Merret said. “That first performance was eye-opening. I thought, ‘We really got something here.’”