WILMINGTON – The concert season has officially arrived with more national acts touring through the area on a frequent basis. But Wilmington’s music scene goes deeper than just headliners. Local musicians add spirit and vivacity, many performing on a weekly basis, sometimes even for free.
Port City Daily is launching a five-part series that will introduce local sounds to concert-goers in support of new artists hitting the scene. “Listen Up” will feature five acts who have just begun playing local clubs and venues, performing a variety of styles from surf rock to soft rock, indie to garage pop, alongside classic and grunge rock.
First up: Free Drinks will play the 2022 NC Azalea Festival Saturday as part of Tunes and Blooms at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater.
“When we first started playing, we did not expect the amount of attention that we received,” vocalist and lead guitarist Hugh Bennett said. “We were kind of just doing it for us because we wanted to make music on a different level. It’s grown exponentially, which has been crazy for us to watch, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s happening.”
A 2022 UNCW Battle of the Bands winner, Free Drinks also comprises Josh Deming on bass, Paul Novak on drums, and Graham Tucker on lead vocals and guitar. The twenty-somethings bring fiery energy to the stage.
It all started when Tucker and Bennett joined forces in 2019 with the goal to start a band. The group originally began playing for fun, as the duo met in their UNCW dorm to jam together. Always on the hunt to expand their music group, the two met Deming, also a floormate, and by the beginning of 2021, he stepped in to play bass. “He exploded with talent,” Tucker said.
The original drummer was Nick Kohut, who departed the band last fall; thereafter, they added Novak.
“Graham and I used to send band names back and forth every day,” Bennett stated.
“Everybody Gets Laid” was in the running — a name Tucker noticed from the 1994 comedy flick, “PCU.” It evolved with the idea of seeing something catchy on a marquee that would draw crowds: Free Drinks seemed a good fit.
The group began performing in January 2021 — first at house parties and living rooms before moving into backyard venues and eventually area bars and breweries.
“In the matter of a year we went from playing Barzarre open mic without a drummer, to the Azalea Festival,” Bennett said. “When we write songs, we do it based on what we love to hear and are enveloped by when having a musical experience. We are trying to instill that into the listener so that their reality, in that moment, becomes the music.”
Now, they hit the stage up to 10 times a month and are traveling across the state — most recently to Boone with local act Dropping Plates. They also have played with Wilmington fan-favorite Blue Footed Boobies, exploring and experimenting with similar rock sounds.
Free Drinks bend its riffs to rock idols — Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Strokes, Grateful Dead. They have officially released three songs on SoundCloud since July 2021, though the group often performs 11 originals live during shows. Songwriters Tucker and Bennett have more planned to unveil at upcoming gigs. The team typically approaches the process methodically.
“After Graham and I write lyrics and create chords, we establish an idea for the song and vibe we have in mind,” Bennett explained. “Then the band puts their own flair into the song.”
Free Drinks has described its sound as “retro-inspired psychedelic rock with a harder new-age rock inspiration.” The group has personalized its style and band presence, fusing modern slowcore with classic grunge-rock sounds. Heavy riffs are accentuated by drawn-out chords and blend with Tucker’s and Bennett’s raspy yet baritone sounds.
A new single titled “Siren Song” is slated for release by the end of the month on the band’s streaming profiles (Spotify, Apple Music, and SoundCloud). The track takes on a more psychedelic spin, kicking off with an experimental softer trickling music effect that quickly turns into a classic punk sound.
Free Drinks worked with producer and musician Blue Karma, whose off-stage name is Jacob Adams, to create “Mood” and other unreleased songs. Adams has worked with local bands, such as NARAH (another local grunge/rock band that will be featured within the “Listen Up” series) who also has performed with Free Drinks.
“‘Mood’ took quite a few takes to get it right, mainly because we tracked the whole group together, and we had to get through the entire song without messing up, but it was such a fun process,” Adams explained. “We are planning on doing a full album together that will most likely drop this summer.”
Adams said the whole band performed and recorded “Mood” in one-take — similar to the way songs were tracked in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
It caused somewhat of a challenge since the song is just over 5 minutes long. They recorded it once in December but decided to re-record.
“Blue Karma’s influence can be heard on the track with the spacey, atmospheric and echo trails of the vocals,” Adams described.
The band’s manager, Malena Ferrell, collaborated on the single’s cover art. She shot a photo of Free Drinks at Carolina Beach State Park. “[They] wanted the picture to be somewhere open, local and in nature,” Ferrell explained.
The cover has a wavy background with symbols and squiggly lines covering the band members’ faces, demonstrating a variety of moods amongst the four. Bennett described the song as “saucy with room to improvise,” reflected in the cover design.
The band dropped its first single in February on all streaming platforms and currently has 800 monthly listeners on Spotify. It has garnered nearly 2,000 followers on Instagram.
Not only has the Free Drinks fanbase grown online, it’s also expanding at its shows. Tucker said in the early days, they played mainly to their college-aged friends; now the crowds are expanding in size and age. They hope to capitalize on the momentum and hit the road up and down the East Coast by next fall.
“We have become more comfortable playing in front of people, more comfortable performing our own art with confidence, and more comfortable performing as a group on stage,” Bennett said.
While performing live is the ultimate pay off, Free Drinks is also working for the greater good. In November 2021 Free Drinks performed at Might As Well Bar and Grill and donated all proceeds to the “JimmerStrong” foundation, created for Jimmer Szatkowski, a Medina native with ALS who resides in New York. A more recent fundraising performance on Jan. 8 at Barzarre donated funds to benefit victims of domestic violence.
The band dreams of becoming career musicians — to allow their craft and sound to support their lifestyle.
“We want to play in front of people for as long as possible,” Bennett said. “We just want to keep riding that wave.”
Free Drinks will take over the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater stage at noon on Saturday. Admission is free for Tunes and Blooms, an Azalea Festival-sponsored concert featuring all local musicians. Follow Free Drinks on Instagram and Facebook.
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