The Villain Vanguard
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The Villain Vanguard

Fort Worth, Texas, United States | SELF

Fort Worth, Texas, United States | SELF
Band Latin Reggae

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The boys in the Villain Vanguard abandoned their plans for fog and trick lighting and jumped straight to the music. Dino Villanueva pulled off an absolutely sick bass solo, and he and the rest of the band -- Justin "Beef" Williams (lead vocals), Justin Barbee (keyboards, trumpet and backing vocals) Ron Geida (guitar) and Lucas White (drums) -- once again proved that they're one of the tightest acts in Funkytown. - Steve Watkins DFW.com


Friday night, I was in the mood for a great burger and great music. Fred's Texas Cafe, right? Well, it can be a pain to get a table there, and if you want the live music, you are going to have to sit on lawn furniture. Besides, everyone knows about Fred's Texas, and I felt like mixing it up. Fortunately, just down the street is Magnolia Motor Lounge, which opened last year. The burgers are fantastic, the atmosphere is car-geek heaven, and the Villain Vanguard was setting up for an epic night.

Villain Vanguard has been around for years but has been going through some changes lately. Dino Villanueva started out on bass, played drums for a while, and now is back on bass, exactly where he should be. Three of the members are the same as always: Justin "Beef" Williams (lead vocals), Justin Barbee (keyboards, trumpet and backing vocals) and Ron Geida (guitar) -- but Lucas White is now playing drums. Personally, I think the lineup is proof that the there is a God, and that he loves us.

The band started off with an interesting groove that may have just been a sound check, but I'd gladly take it as part of the show. The guys then did a nice take on Van Morrison's Moondance and the Motown classic Ain't Too Proud To Beg. Any band that can do that song and make me feel it is a friend of mine.

Continuing with the colloquial contractions theme, the Vanguard absolutely killed on a version of Ain't No Sunshine. It then funked it up hard with the Average White Band's Pick Up the Pieces and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Aeroplane. Here, Villanueva reminded us why it was a mortal sin to stick him behind a drum kit. He is, plainly put, one of the very best bass men playing in Funkytown today, with solos so commanding they nearly make you choke on your burger.

Scattered in among the covers, we got a glimpse of an even more important change in the Villain Vanguard: original music. The band has written a number of tunes and will be heading into Blue Smoke Studios soon to work on a CD. I couldn't tell which songs were just damn good originals, and which ones were classics that had escaped my attention. One of the originals apparently involves simian space travel. (Beef described the song to me as follows: "If you were the only monkey in space and you came back down to Earth, what would you think of everything that has happened since the '60s?")

The band is meticulously tight and soulful. You can't ask for a better drummer than White, Barbee switches between horn and keys multiple times during the songs, and Geida's guitar work is spot-on. And even though he sometimes sounds a little too popish for my taste, Beef is an excellent frontman, with tremendous vocal ability. He shines in songs like Business Time by Flight of the Conchords and Tribute by Tenacious D. (The band's willingness to cover such titles points to yet another of its laudable qualities: These guys don't take themselves too seriously.)

"Basically, what I ended up doing was coming up with a completely separate persona," Beef told me. "Everyone calls me Beef, and that's the guy you get to meet when I'm playing the show. You have to be kind of egomaniacal and self-centered and vain to stand up in front of people and try to control people like that. It doesn't come naturally to me."

The band continued with a few more covers: I Will Survive, the Cure's Lovesong and No Diggity by Blackstreet. For that one, the musicians were joined by Daniel Hardaway of the Boss Level on trumpet. The extended jam made me realize that despite all the excitement down the street at Fred's, I had found my own, alternative piece of hamburger heaven. - Steve Watkins DFW.com


At the end of a recent show, the six guys in the funk-rock outfit Villain Vanguard opted to funnel all of their remaining energy into a group drum jam. With each member adding his musical voice to the larger conversation, the band displayed a unique collective vision. Even though Villain Vanguard is only a couple of years old, its members play as if they’ve been together for years. By staying disciplined and paying close attention to the nuances of one another’s playing, all the while focusing on the big picture of trying to succeed as professional musicians, Villain Vanguard has become something definitely beyond your average “new” band.

Even if you’ve never heard them, you’ve probably heard of them — in preparation for the recent release of their debut full-length, Enter the Age of the Platypus, the guys of Villain Vanguard have been gigging just about every week over the past year. With a heavy dose of originals laced with surprising covers and a sound that seamlessly transitions from bluegrass to funk to reggae to rock to all points in between, a Villain Vanguard show is basically a party and popular music history lesson rolled into one.

Formed two years ago as an extension of their music classes at TCU, the Villains have spent countless hours in a soundproof cube, detailing, carefully crafting, and embellishing the talent and experience that each brings to his respective instrument. Bandmembers chose the group’s name in honor of the famed New York City jazz club, the Village Vanguard. But musically, the band is nearly impossible to categorize.

Villain Vanguard, however, reflects the Village Vanguard vibe in one significant way: Justin Barbee, keyboardist, trumpeter, and the band’s emotional glue, wants fans to approach each VV show as an organic experience that differs from night to night.

While each band member gets an opportunity to shine in the spotlight, the focus invariably shifts back to guitarist Bryce Harp and his textured, bluesy tone and fleet fingerwork — he flies all over the fretboard with hot-tempered ease, never coming across as flashy or arrogant.

Each bandmember plays a part in the creation of the music. Here’s how Barbee describes the process: “Someone brings an idea to the band. We work with it, then get six different interpretations.”

At a recent Sunday night show at J&J Texas Roadhouse and Blues Bar, Villain Vanguard’s careful system of checks and balances played itself out onstage during warm-ups: As the musos discussed ways to enhance certain songs, there was a lot of bonhomie and good-natured ribbing. The members reached agreements swiftly, with no one person taking over as bandleader.

Sacrificing the self in deference to the whole is nowhere more ... well, non-apparent ... than in Dino Villanueva’s unobtrusive yet dynamic and driving electric basswork. He describes his desired sound as “one where if you were to listen to a track recorded without the bass, you would wonder what was missing.” His playing is nicely complemented by drummer Bobby Friesen’s peaceful, easy grooves, which are full of open hi-hat accents, flams, and salty double-stroke rolls.

Metal and air infiltrate the band’s sound via the metronomic precision of Jeff Dazey’s saxophone work and the bright pulses of Barbee’s attention-grabbing trumpet and bounciness on the keys — no matter what he’s doing, he always finds a way to encourage listeners and concertgoers to get up and dance.

Singer Justin Williams (a.k.a. Beefcake) has a sugar-sweet and — dare we say — friendly voice that gives you the feeling that he’s singing to you rather than at you. He eschews any preconceived notions you may have about frontmen. Curly-haired, baby-faced, and unpretentiously likable, he relies on an affable smile while singing and hip gyrations while pounding the congas. Williams is one of those singers who considers his voice just another, equally necessary instrument — he may be centerstage, but he never seeks to be the center of attention.

Harp says the band “wants to make music for people who love music.” Villain Vanguard’s goals are to keep working, keep being friends, have fun, and eventually become a constantly touring band. They’d like to spend time on the European summer jazz and blues circuits as well as play music festivals close to home, like Austin City Limits. The Villains view being musicians as “a calling,” not a hobby. - Fort Worth Weekly



When The Villain Vanguard formed in 2004, the then-sextet launched into Fort Worth’s eclectic music scene with brash boogie and high hopes. After 2006’s Enter the Platypus, the guys felt they were on the verge of breaking into a larger market. Their music was energetic and infectiously funky, and drew lots of fans. Over the next few years, though, two members quit while the band cycled through too many drummers to count. The remaining guys kept going and growing as songwriters, but, inexplicably, they fell out of Fort Worth’s prevailing musical consciousness.

When the Villains, on several occasions, failed to garner nominations in the Weekly’s annual music awards, singer Justin “Beef” Williams took it hard, even staying up all night to drink in the dark after one Villain-less ballot had been published. The guys continued to gig, sound good, and do everything right. They just never made a follow-up to their debut album. But finally, on Friday, The Villain Vanguard will release McMontezuma’s Revenge, a live album and a symbol of the band’s return to form.

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The Villain Vanguard is celebrating the release of its long-awaited sophomore effort, McMontezuma’s Revenge, recorded live at The Grotto.
When keyboardist/trumpeter Justin Barbee and bassist Dino Villanueva started the band, they were fresh out of TCU’s jazz studies program. Back then, they were joined by guitarist Bryce Harp and saxophone player Jeff Dazey, who is now part of Josh Weathers & the True+Endeavors and EPIC RUINS. In the original days, much of the Villains’ material was freeform, still structured into songs but conducive to high-energy jams. With Dazey’s punchy sax parts and Barbee’s multitude of keyboard noises, The Villain Vanguard could be a jazz odyssey kind of band. Part of the reason they never blew up was the lack of a consistent drummer. After adapting to four different stickmen over as many years, a new lineup fell into place after Villanueva threw out his back lifting speakers. A fan, Frank Holligan, filled in on bass. When Villanueva returned, he decided to explore his drumming hobby and become the Villains’ steady drummer, giving Holligan the bass gig for good.

Now, four years later, listeners would never guess that Villanueva wasn’t born with a pair of drumsticks in his hands. The son of a professional Filipino musician, Villanueva has a knack for sharp, groovy rhythms. This killer musicianship has been a trademark of The Villain Vanguard from day one, and no amount of lineup changes has subtracted from the overall sound.

When Harp decamped to Oklahoma for law school, guitarist Ron Geida, a studio-quality player in several genres, took his place. Likely as a reward for persevering on the several occasions when it might have been easier to give up, The Villain Vanguard now has its most solid, mature sound to date. Williams strengthened his silky voice over hundreds of gigs and even learned to play some guitar. He and Barbee do the majority of the songwriting, and six years of practice have culminated in tightly focused music that retains plenty of the original funky elements.

Recently, thanks in part to Villanueva’s move behind the skins, the group has been experimenting with progressive world rhythms. They want to keep audiences dancing and are finding ways to incorporate Latin-inspired rhythms into the funk and reggae framework. “It became a laboratory,” Barbee said of the Villains’ songwriting process. “We are definitely evolving, and the process is becoming a lot easier.”

Barbee sometimes plays an effect-laden trumpet with one hand while drawing hallucinatory sounds out of a keyboard with the other. While not overly busy, The Villain Vanguard sound is still large. “We got used to being in a big band, so we had to find a way to sound like 12 people playing music,” Williams said.

The nontraditional elements add motion and texture to the Villains’ new material, but they know how to whittle songs down to leave room for Williams’ vocal messages. Villanueva says the band is trying to go “mainstream” by producing shorter songs, but with a likably eccentric singer like “Beef” (he got the nickname because in his younger days he refused to eat anything but meat), The Villain Vanguard will always be on the outside of any mainstream.

Basically, the band wants to attract crowds with music that stands out from the crowd. McMontezuma’s Revenge is a commentary on the often gluttonous consumer society in which the guys feel they live. McMontezuma himself is a fictional character who likes things “fast and cheap,” Barbee said. Much of the inspiration for the songs came from late-night political bitch sessions. “There were nights we’d stay up, upset, and write political stuff, but that’s not our style,” Barbee said.

Complaints aside, “We can’t lose the moments that we do have,” Williams said. “People deserve to take what they want from the music,” so he in particular brings the funk and really gets down on stage.

For The Villain Vanguard’s enduring fans, McMontezuma’s Revenge is an overdue sophomore effort. The disc was recorded, mixed, and mastered by producer Raj Chauhan (Rabbit’s Got the Gun), and it does not sound like they captured it live at The Grotto on University Drive (although they did). The album, Barbee said, is like a “report card.” It contains the material written between the debut album and 2009. A studio effort, with the new Latin-disco/rumba feel, should follow shortly.

In the meantime, the guys will continue to gig regularly. They play monthly at the Flying Saucer downtown and, on occasion, farther afield. It’s a wonder the band manages to keep booking shows even twice a month, considering that the members also work adult jobs and play in a host of other projects, including Dazey Chain, Boss Level, Luke Wade and No Civilians, Sean Russell, Texian, and the Matt Tedder Band. The guys keep coming back to The Villain Vanguard because they remain close friends. This camaraderie helped them push through the rough phases that every band must endure. Now that they’ve made it back with another album, “We have a chip on our shoulder,” Williams said. “We feel like we’ve proven everything, but we still have to take it to the next level.” - Fort Worth Weekly


Discography

Enter the Platypus (2005)
Goodbye (Single - 2007)
McMontezuma's Revenge (2010)
Whatcha Say (Single - 2011)

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Bio

The Villain Vanguard started 5 years ago when 6 ambitious musicians set out to create something new. With influences ranging from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sublime, integrating classic jazz like Chet Baker and Miles Davis, and psychedelic sounds of Carlos Santana and Mars Volta, the Villains created a unique blend of psychedelic jazz, rock, funk, and reggae.
This landscape left the group with a punk rock mentality that comes through the music, and gives the group the drive that has outlasted most of their contemporaries.
In 2005, the Villain Vanguard released their first album "Enter the Platypus," with a sound much like the animal, strange and diverse. "Enter the Platypus" received acclaim, including a full page article in the Fort Worth Weekly and other publications and blogs in the DFW area. The album was noted for the virtuosity of its musicians and the band was known for the intensity of its live performances.
Like many young bands, hubris and time forced the Villain Vanguard to adapt, with the departure of several of the founding members. Using this as motivation, the new members of the Villain Vanguard used many of the original influences and refined the sound to what you hear today. "McMontezumas Revenge" is the bi-product of adapting to the new scene and influences of today's members. It showcases much more of the reggae and latin aspects, without sacrificing any aspect of focus or performance.
Today the Villains play consistently, using their drive and love for music to continue to create new, original music. While the main focus of the group is on original music, the virtuosity of the members allow for many gig formats to be played. The Villains can occupy any gig ranging from the typical club set of 45 minutes, to the all night gigs of three hours utilizing many popular cover songs. No matter when you catch the Villains, you will always have the urge to dance and have a great time!!