In terms of rising to rock stardom, Stop Light Observations technically should still be in its infancy. The group of 20- to 21-year-olds has been playing together for a little over a year, and they’ve played only a handful of gigs around town.
But factor in the groundswell of local support that keeps snowballing behind them, and the fact that they were chosen from about 1,000 bands around the country to play a set at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival this summer, and you’ve got a band poised for greatness.
Stop Light Observations, often referred to as simply SLO, comprises John Keith Culbreth (songwriter, synth, keys, guitar), Will Blackburn (vocals), Louis Duffie (guitar, synth), Wyatt Garey (guitar), Coleman Sawyer (bass, fiddle, banjo) and Luke Withers (drums).
You can see them in action Saturday at the Charleston Tea Plantation for the First Flush Festeaval, where they’ll share the stage with headliner Old Crow Medicine Show and others.
Put on by 105.5 The Bridge and the Charleston Tea Plantation, the First Flush Festeaval is all about celebrating the commencement of the 2013 crop harvest. The festival name, First Flush, is defined on the plantation’s website as “the growth of new leaves on the tea plants in the spring time after a winter of rest. The ‘first flush’ of new growth is harvested to produce what avid tea drinkers deem to be the most unique, fresh and amazing cup of tea.”
While tea may be at the center of the festival held at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, billed as “America’s only tea garden,” the event includes music, entertainment, art and local cuisine for the whole family.
In its seventh year, the event will begin at 2 p.m. and will include a kids area, food trucks, vendors and more. Musical performances in addition to SLO and Old Crow Medicine Show include The Luke Cunningham Band, Tyler Boone, Quincy Mumford, Sun Dried Vibes, Gas Light Street, The Executives, South Street, Annalise Morelli, Samantha Kirshtein and Southwood.
SLO’s performance at First Flush will be the latest in a string of events that has the band reeling from excitement.
“It definitely feels like this is all kind of blurring together,” Blackburn said.
The band released its debut album, “Radiation,” in March and sold out the Music Farm for its album release party April 20. That show was the group’s first headlining performance.
Less than a week later, SLO was nominated for the Road to Roo contest held by Bonnaroo, one of America’s biggest music festivals, held each June in Manchester, Tenn.
About 1,000 bands from around the country were nominated for the contest, and people voted for their favorite bands online. The 10 bands with the most votes were listened to by a panel of music industry professionals, and they selected two to perform at Bonnaroo.
SLO was in the No. 1 slot by the end of the voting period, and was announced as the winner a few days later. The band will perform June 15 at the “New Music on Tap” tent.
“This is a huge deal,” said Culbreth. “Of course, we’re not the biggest band there. But there’s networking upon networking to take advantage of. Talent scouts, record labels, publicists — they’re all going to be there.”
If scouts at Bonnaroo hear what Charleston hears, SLO may soon find itself on the map of the American music scene.
SLO often is marketed as a Southern rock group, but to pin a single genre on it would be too limiting. Like many bands its age, SLO is the product of a generation insistent on fusing styles and eras to create unique identities.
“When you listen to our album, it starts out kind of swampy and a little bit grungy with acoustic melodies,” Blackburn said. “Then the further you go into it, it turns into synthesizers and big, heavy, dirty guitar solos.”
On paper, it’s everything but the kitchen sink. But it’s a sound that has captivated Charleston’s younger audience with an unforeseen velocity.
“I don’t think we write songs. We try to write experiences,” Culbreth said. “It’s our music being a form of self-discovery, and then the crowd finding who they are, and then sharing that all together. ... That’s what makes it so special.”
Blackburn said they accumulated a fan base when some of the members played together in high school at parties. Once they started recording as SLO, they were able to spread their music through social networking.Now, the band has close to 19,000 followers on Facebook.
“It’s endless the amount of ways it can spread. The friend showing friends type of networking has really worked for us. Social media is probably how we did it so fast,” he said.
It also helps to have friends in the right places. SLO has everyone from social media gurus to filmmakers in its corner, ready to help however needed.
“People who are not even asking for money are just doing these things out of love for us, just to make sure that we’re being heard and that we have a chance to make it,” Culbreth said.
That kind of community support makes Culbreth and Blackburn cherish their hometown even more.
“Charleston is probably the best place we could have ever been a band,” he said. “In cities like Boston or New York or Charleston, if you’re from there and you make them proud, they’ll pay you back with a loyalty. And I think Charleston is one of the few places like that.”