Aaron Levy finally found a solid band setting in which he can explore his strongest rock tendencies — as a laid-back troubadour ready to serenade, and as the axe-strumming rocker eager to kick out the jams. Over the quick two years fronting White Rhino, the longtime Charleston songwriter and his mates have already reached some substantial goals: two studio sessions in the can (and more music on the way) and a reputation for melody, harmony, and unusual instrumentation.
The band first came together in 2007, after Levy began recruiting like-minded musicians. "Katie Coleman was actually the first person to join up," he says. "About two years ago, I'd put an ad on Craigslist that described sort of a vision for a band with three-part harmony in it ... I wanted it to be kind of a Crosby, Stills, & Nash kind of thing. The ad was strictly for a female backing vocalist. Katie responded to the ad, came over to play, and sang really well. We clicked well, and she had a very good voice for harmony. At the end of the day, she said, 'Oh, by the way, I also play viola.' I thought that was awesome. A month later, she brought her violin along too. Since then, she's been exclusively playing that on the songs."
The current Rhino lineup includes Ben Jacobs on keyboards and mandolin and drummer Daniel Crider (who's stepping away from the band a bit these days). John Kennedy (also of the Hungry Monks) recently signed up to play electric and upright bass, and Charlie Thompson (of the Classic Woodies and formerly of OverStood) regularly fills in on pedal steel.
"John plays both electric and acoustic bass," says Levy. "Playing with an upright bass was a goal of ours for a while. John's fantastic. And Charlie can play anything. He's been hugely complimentary and encouraging."
White Rhino's first official release landed in limited-edition discs and on iTunes in early spring as a three-song EP title Home Soon. Their forthcoming full-length debut In Common Places contains 12 songs recorded at Ocean Industries with engineers Eric Rickert and Jeff Leonard and additional production from Tim Holbrook.
"I call it Americana with a touch of British psychedelic rock ... sort of a Ryan Adams-meets-Pink Floyd," Levy says of the new material. "I like lush instrumentation and orchestration. I love electric guitar solos, too, but on this new record, I tried to hold back a bit. There are only two songs with electric guitar on them. I think you can hear the David Gilmour influence in my playing, and you can hear the R.E.M., Neil Young, and Ryan Adams in my writing, too."
Levy's lower tones on a new song like "January" may contain some of Stipe's raspiness, but the straight-ahead 4/4 groove and mix of jangly major-to-minor key guitar chords certainly resemble the kind of songwriting Peter Buck or Mike Mills loved to work with. A funky strummer like "Miss California" (also on In Common Places) bounces in more contemporary "alt-rock" style. More atmospheric and sentimental, "Cinnamon" lilts in a waltzy rhythm with pedal steel crying in the background.
"I don't want anyone to listen to us and think we're trying to sound exactly like some other band," Levy adds. "For whatever reason, a lot of people compare us to R.E.M. ... and Pink Floyd after that. Maybe my vocals do sound a little more like Michael Stipe now ... but we're doing our own thing for sure."
White Rhino also performs at Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ in West Ashley (1205 Ashley River Rd., 843-225-7427) on Tues. July 28 at 8 p.m.