Hired Gun to Headliner

Former Dwight Yoakam sideman Brian Whelan headlines his own show at T. Boyle’s Saturday night

By Bliss 02/19/2015

Some people spend years charting their life’s direction; others shift course midway — or multiple times — through their careers. Not Brian Whelan. From the time he was in kindergarten, when he fashioned a guitar out of cardboard and asked his teacher if he could perform for class, he was intent on making music.

That’s what he’s done since arriving in LA at age 18 to study music. Four years at USC; four years with pop band the Broken West (aka the Brokedown); four years as multi-instrumental sideman with Dwight Yoakam (“the gold standard” of gigs). Now, finally, the genial Highland Park resident’s focusing on what he’s wanted to make priority one all along: his own music. He’s “juggling monkeys” in hectic preparation for a solo tour that includes a set with drummer Mitch Marine and bassist Brett Simons Saturday at T. Boyle’s Tavern. 

Whelan’s shows generally include material from his 2012 solo debut “Decider,” a sturdily crafted, rhythmically diverse showcase for his fretboard brio and observant wit, and “covers that surprise people.” (By way of example, his interpretation of “O Holy Night” is the most slamming Christmas carol you’re likely to hear.) He’ll also play songs from his yet-to-be-titled new album, which includes spirited co-writes with Broken West bandmate Ross Flournoy and Phoebe Bridgers.

“On ‘Decider’ there were some songs that were roots/Americana and some that were power pop,” he explains. “This record created more of a fusion, where the songs were not so much one or the other but both simultaneously.”

He wonders what early hero Buddy Holly might be doing if alive.

“I think he would have been like Dion,” he suggests, “but cooler — like Dion meets David Byrne. Listen to Buddy and you get a sense of how into music and how weird he was. The same guy who wrote pop ditties could be really into outer space sounds. You’ve gotta get weird sometimes.

And unpredictable. Peers and fans respect Whelan as a hotshot guitarist who swivels heads whether tossing off country chicken-pickin’ or bluesy slide. When asked if he considers himself a musician or songwriter first, his initial answer surprises.

“I’m a singer. I connect to vocals and melody and lyrics. So, closer to being a songwriter. As I get older these things all start to run together. 

“Performing and singing and playing an instrument and running a business — all that shit is easier than writing a good song. That’s the thing that impresses me most when I see an act or hear a record, is if I can remember one hook or one line. … It’s not for me to decide who’s good and who isn’t. But that’s what I care about: a really great song, a timeless song, a song that can be done in any arrangement or style. Songwriting is the hardest thing for sure.”

California Roots Union presents Brian Whelan at T. Boyle’s Tavern, 37 N. Catalina Ave., Pasadena, 9 p.m. Saturday. $5. Yours Truly, Michele opens. Info: (626) 578-0957. Twitter.com/WhelanMusic