Tulsa Voice – Brian Whelan goes solo with a unique brand of pop Americana

Brian Whelan has spent the past four or five years as guitarist and multi-instrumentalist for Dwight Yoakam, whose extensive touring schedule has brought Whelan through Tulsa on multiple occasions. Prior to that, he was a member of the California power-pop band The Broken West for about five years. Whelan will perform solo for the first time at a special show on Feb. 28 at the Woody Guthrie Center.

Touring with Yoakam’s band allowed Whelan a certain level of comfort and accommodated the recording of his solo debut, Decider, which was released in November of 2012. So what prompted him to set out on his own as a full-time solo artist?

“I just thought it was time,” Whelan said. “I had been in Dwight’s band for two years when the record came out. I had planned on playing more shows to support it, but my priority was with Dwight, so I didn’t get as much time to do that. This has allowed me to make a little bit more of a full-time commitment to pursuing my own thing.”

Those who expected a country album from Whelan were in for a surprise. Although it contains some distinct country tinges, Decider crosses boundaries into pop and rock territory, drawing from the ’70s California vibe and melodic space of The Eagles, Gram Parsons and Linda Ronstadt while remaining grounded in the classic rock of Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.

I called it “garage-based Americana,” a term Whelan said he hadn’t heard before but thought was pretty accurate.

“My foundation is really in ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and artists like Buddy Holly, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis,” he said. “I’ve always considered what I do to be power-pop.

“The Beatles were really the originators of power-pop. That label has other connotations that some people shy away from now, but what it really means is music that’s influenced by the Beatles more than The Rolling Stones. The Beatles were more cerebral, where The Stones were more from the loins.”

Even though Whelan is currently touring behind Decider, he’s completed a follow-up album planned for release this summer.

“On the first record there were Americana songs and power-pop songs, and they were one or the other,” he said. “I think the fusion is more complete on the new record. It’s maybe more representative of my music and a little less fragmented.”

A sneak preview of what’s to come revealed a record that certainly fuses the elements more completely. Even tracks like “Americana” hit with a sharper snap and punch from the snare drum, pulling the rock elements forward, along with the melodies that define Whelan’s take on Beatles-influenced power-pop. It’s fitting that his first solo performance is at the Woody Guthrie Center, which is currently home to the “Ladies and Gentlemen… The Beatles!” exhibit, curated by the Grammy Museum.

“I’ve been coming to Tulsa for a long time with Dwight, and I really enjoy the city,” Whelan said. “My girlfriend’s whole family is in Norman, so it’s kind of like coming home, but Texas and Oklahoma have always been the most open-armed to me and my music.”

When Whelan started setting up the current tour, he looked to the cities where he felt most welcome. This current run of shows features acoustic performances in listening rooms and more intimate venues in order to lay a foundation to return later in the year with a new record and more rock-oriented show.

If you love power-pop, roots-rock and great songwriting, you won’t want to miss Brian Whelan’s show at the Woody Guthrie Theater on Saturday, Feb. 28, at 2 p.m. Whelan’s concert is free with admission to the center, which includes entry to the Woody Guthrie archives and the Beatles exhibit.