The story of Richmond, Va.’s Southern Belles comes off like a cautionary tale, at first — a hard lesson in how to not to break into the music business. “It all started over a bunch of beer and a Halloween party,” laughs singer-guitarist Adrian Ciucci. “We learned a bunch of rock songs, turned them into country tunes, we all wore dresses and we called ourselves the Southern Belles. It was especially fun given that none of us actually knew how to play country music.”
All of that notwithstanding, the schtick went over well enough that the four-piece Belles began playing college bars in and around Richmond, vamping it up as the dudes-in-drag who played honky-tonk renditions of classic rock favorites. After a couple years, however, the novelty seemed to have run its course, as the band members all finished school and trickled away, moving to various and far-flung cities.
Faced with the brutal exigencies of the adult world, however, and the terrible prospect of acquiring meaningful jobs, the Belles in their sundry geographies came down with a collective case of cold feet, and collaborated on yet another series of seemingly ill-advised decisions.
“We all started getting antsy about life after college,” Ciucci says, chuckling. “So we all moved back to Richmond, and made a deal that we’d try to tour and build the band. And we kept the name, because we felt like it gave us a little bit of recognition.”
But something happened on the way to never-growing-up; the Belles matured — inappropriate name notwithstanding — both musically and personally. They ditched the drag and the country music conceit, and began plying their own brand of well-knit, retro-minded rock ‘n ‘roll. The result is a tuneful mashup informed by seventies-era psychedelia, prog, and art-rock, spliced with bits of classic country rock and latter-day Americana and even some spectral hints of white soul.
And while the Belles’ songs occasionally hint at the potential for Phish-style excess, they are also vested with an abiding melodic sensibility and structural cohesion — even during live performance — that keeps the band from straying too far into the tall weeds of jam-band profligacy.
“We had all been writing songs since we were teenagers, so we had plenty of material to draw on when we decided to become an original band,” Ciucci says of the band’s rebirth as an original act. “People tell us there’s a vintage sound that’s sort of hidden in our music, and I like that description. I just hope it doesn’t come off as contrived. But I grew up listening to rock music from the seventies; I still remember my dad bringing home Steely Dan albums. I remember buying my first Led Zeppelin record. That stuff definitely rubbed off.”
Since their inception as an original touring act in 2011, the band has released the 2014 live set “The Broadberry, RVA”, followed by the full-length studio efforts “Close to Sunrise” (2015) and this year’s “In the Middle of the Night.” Though the core of the band’s melodic rural-flavored prog remains steadfast throughout, Ciucci says he and his mates have grown more accomplished as songwriters and musicians.
“Some of our early songs were songs we’d written as teenagers,” he says. “Now, it’s like we’ve developed an identity we’re comfortable with. When we started, we all had our families telling us to get jobs, so we weren’t sure of ourselves; we had one foot in the band and one foot still kind of in ‘real life.’
“And we were coming out of that mode where there was a really joke-y element to some of our songs. We were kind of loud, we did a lot of swearing. We sang song about girls and drinking beer. But we’re all older, and we have a lot more things to write about now. We’re a little more mature, and we’re all a lot better on our instruments.”
The Southern Belles will play Preservation Pub Thursday, Dec. 14 at 10 p.m.