Bands to Watch: Nick Tolford and Company

Chris DeVille, Columbus Alive

About a year ago, Nick Tolford made a demo, and people lost their minds.

Tolford, best known at that point for playing bass in prog powerhouse The Slide Machine, had always been a sideman, so nobody knew what to expect when he left that band partway through 2008 to focus on solo material.

Turns out Tolford was a soul man, and a damn good one at that. With a voice seemingly conjured from dusty Sam Cooke LPs and songs sharp enough to stand toe to toe with Holland-Dozier-Holland, Tolford had hunched over his keyboard and concocted the year's freshest sound by reviving one of pop music's oldest traditions.

"It's just happy all the time," Tolford said. "Even when it's sad."

Seemingly everyone who heard Tolford's tracks got on board immediately. The Alive staff rushed to include stomping heartbreaker "Until I Walk Away" on last year's Alive Amplified compilation. The braintrust at Carabar, where Tolford runs sound most nights, had the disc in heavy rotation over the PA. ComFest gift-wrapped him a prime Friday-night timeslot.

Meanwhile, Tolford's pals from the punk and experimental community eagerly volunteered to form a backing band.

Many of the players - drummer Michael O'Shaughnessy, bassist Brian Travis and backup singers Lara Yazvac and Leslie Jankowski - were friends of Tolford's from Carabar. He convinced former Pickerington classmate Ashley Young to join the fold as a backup singer. Guitarist Julian Dassai, who didn't know Tolford prior to joining the band, "conned [his] way in" after Carabar owner Ron Barker played him Tolford's demo.

After playing in boundary-busting bands like El Jesus de Magico, O'Shaughnessy enjoyed working with the familiar vocabulary of rock and soul. Jankowski dug the genre's capacity to convey genuine emotion in a way that doesn't translate in much modern music. All of them were drawn in by Tolford's knockout songwriting and magnetic presence as a performer, an allure that extends even to karaoke.

"I've seen women weep," O'Shaughnessy said.

After finding their footing on Columbus stages throughout 2009, the band is set to record an album later this month and hopes to hit the road this year. Tolford appreciates the passionate response locally, but he's looking forward to seeing how strangers react to his throwback tracks.

"As long as they're dancing," Tolford said, "we're doing our job."