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The rock 'n' roll road trip to end all road trips

Atlanta buzz band Balkans attempt the impossible on a 48-hour sprint to New York



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GROWING UP BALKANS: Brett Miller (left to right), Frankie Broyles, Stanley Vergilis, and Woody Shortridge get scholastic after a recent field trip to the Big Apple. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • GROWING UP BALKANS: Brett Miller (left to right), Frankie Broyles, Stanley Vergilis, and Woody Shortridge get scholastic after a recent field trip to the Big Apple.

Outside of Shea Stadium, the only landmark is a banged-up Dumpster that's been pushed against the building to catch bags of trash being heaved off of the balcony. Most cab drivers can't even find the place. One of the club's disarmingly hospitable managers/tenants, Zach Staggers, who also plays drums for the night's headliners, So So Glos, greets each member of the group with a can of Miller High Life. "Take one, they're cold," he offers with a thick New York accent. "Does anyone have a cigarette from the South that I can smoke?"

When most bands arrive here, they're tired, crusty and weathered by weeks of touring. But all four Balkans members are glowing with excitement and youthful energy. As the place fills up with about 250 people, the scene starts to resemble their hometown shows, only slightly more fashionable. Being that the club is in the hipster hub of Williamsburg — a college town without a college — tight ankle pants own the dance floor. The members of Balkans are similarly outfitted, but their downplayed attempts at indie rock fashion look like workaday threads in comparison. They fit in, but they don't stand out.

The gruff surroundings test their boyish demeanor, but they all remain tight-lipped when a persistent stranger outside the venue offers them some urban hospitality: "If you guys want some blow, just lemme know. I got a guy comin' ovah."

Not until the next morning does Vergilis' innocence reveal itself when he asks, "Does 'blow' mean heroin or cocaine?"

With his outgoing personality, Vergilis has naturally assumed the band's leadership role. The frontman, Broyles, is the shy guy of the group; he doesn't speak unless spoken to. Guitarist Miller is the hardiest of the bunch. During a recent show at Star Bar, he leapt off the stage midsong to clock a heckler — an incident he's been embarrassed about ever since. Bassist Shortridge, another quiet one, does the legwork, booking shows and lining up interviews for the group.

Despite their youth (at 19, Vergilis is the youngest, Shortridge and Miller are both 20, and the oldest, Broyles, turned 21 in April) and their commitments to school (Vergilis and Shortridge attend Georgia Tech; Broyles and Miller attend Georgia State), this is the third time Balkans have played New York City. But unlike previous visits, there's a sense that people are paying attention this time.

Before flying out of Atlanta, the band began chatting up three concert booking agents — reps from Panache (behind such bands as Jeff the Brotherhood, Health and Quintron), ICM (Strokes, Neil Young, Beyoncé), and the Windish Agency (Deerhunter, Peter Bjorn and John, Diplo). Signing with one of them could mean the difference between being momentary blog darlings and kicking off a career that could justify dropping out of college.

To go about it this way could be construed as taking the path of least resistance. "Touring can be a real drag," Vergilis says. "In retrospect you remember the good times, but when you're doing it, it can be horrible. After every show all you can think about is how you want to be in your bed, but instead you have to sweep cigarette butts aside and make room on a hardwood floor and deal with people partying around you for hours while you're trying to sleep. Nobody wants to do that."

The bill at Shea is rounded out by the Flesh Lights from Austin, Texas, and New York bands Night Collectors and Grand Rapids. With standard sets of garage, '60s rock and pop fare, each band underscores just how different and fresh and effortless the new band from Atlanta sounds. So So Glos closes out the night with a bold proto-punk swagger that's equal parts the Clash and MC5 served up with an unmistakable Brooklyn style.

In the midst of it all, Balkans play for the biggest crowd of the night as they peel through a frenzied set. By the end of the show both Vergilis and Miller appear to be bleeding: Brett's squishing blood out of a gash on his thumb, and Stanley has a dark red splotch smeared across his cheek but he can't seem to find where it came from. "Maybe it's Brett's blood," he laughs.

Walking down the street after the show in search of a 24-hour deli, Miller makes trumpet noises with his mouth while Vergilis asks absurd questions: "What was it that Bugs Bunny used to say? 'How's it going, doctor?'"

Like kids at recess, they shout, chase each other and jump over fire hydrants and stoops before Miller hits the ground with a splat. Without missing a beat he's back on his feet admiring the new raspberry on his elbow while laughing it off.

This comedy routine is in stark contrast to the profound change that comes over them when they step on stage. Their heads are completely in the music, as guitarists Broyles and Miller churn out chiming tones, chords and melodies. Bassist Shortridge and drummer Vergilis lock into precise rhythms with mathematical precision. But such complexities barely contain the energy bursting from such songs as "I Can't Compete" and "Let You Have It."

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