Surfer Blood return with battle scars, Eugene Snowden and Circa show the different faces of Orlando soul

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Surfer Blood
Surfer Blood Photo by Sierra Reese

I'm so drained from writing RIPs this goddamned year, but the Orlando music community just lost another notable figure: Big Makk. All sympathy to his fam, loved ones and fans.


Though they're from West Palm Beach, there's always been a kind of hometown pride for Surfer Blood (Sept. 1, the Social). Their early seeds were here and the record label that launched their name-making debut album (2010's Astro Coast), Kanine Records, is founded by an Orlando native, Lio Cerezo. So there's some 407 in their DNA.

The work they were emerging with then inspired faith right away, and the buzz ahead of them was real. Astro Coast was something special, a salvo of fuzz-rock perfection. It topped my 2010 best albums list. And they've gone on to prove that they're no flash in the pan, even rising high enough to enter the major-label market, for whatever that's worth these days.

But that white-hot flash has dimmed somewhat since. Now they return with a little wear from the biz and life in general, enough mileage probably for a VH1 Behind the Music special. There's the recent cancer death of original guitarist Thomas Fekete. And back in 2012, frontman John Paul Pitts got roasted in the court of online opinion for a domestic abuse controversy.

Between these unfortunate personal blows and music that's gotten increasingly subdued, Surfer Blood have been adrift in that purgatory between indie sensation and mainstream tenure, with diminishing artistic and critical returns since that first triumphant record. Despite all that, though, it was nice to see them back on an Orlando stage. They're homegrown kids who've not only gone national, but beamed out some of this decade's best songs. They sounded good, though not great like they've been before. Hopefully, that's just a band that's recovering, recalibrating and reloading, and not one that's already running out of steam.

There was a recent joint birthday show for Eugene Snowden and Circa (Aug. 29, Will's Pub), two soul singers with different points of view.

Snowden, the veteran, is as established as they come. The joint chief of the Legendary JC's didn't originate soul in this city, but he's been sitting on the throne for a very long time with extraordinarily loyal subjects and no credible coups in sight. And to his further credit, the boss keeps it fresh with lots of shapeshifting experiments cooking at any given time involving a revolving cast of bright collaborators, including his rousing weekly Wednesday-night residency at Lil Indies (Ten Pints of Truth) and a galaxy of different projects that he can call to active duty on a whim. But much has been written about him.

A much less known quantity is the young Circa (né Kyle Lemaire). Judging from his output, the 27-year-old represents a more contemporary and pop-oriented angle. Next to Snowden's raw, molten soul, Circa's sensibility can sound light, studied and, well, a little bit American Idol. But hell if the guy's voice isn't the real deal. It's got force and fireworks. In fact, it's got so much natural shine that you can't help but think what could be if he just borrowed Snowden's record collection. Well, Circa's full-band performance at this birthday show gave a nice taste of that dream with lots of renditions of classic soul standards from gods like Otis Redding and James Brown.

Due to that self-intoxicating combination of youth and natural ability, however, Circa is sometimes prone to vocal acrobatics that dazzle and hog spotlight more than really penetrate. When you're taking on the grown-ass-man shit of the soul kings, you can't just go all Adam Levine on it.

It's probably that uncontained zeal of youth that also emboldened him to veer off the soul script into some enterprising covers like the Pixies and Zeppelin. But it also took some unfortunate detours down the ass crack between pop and rap.

No doubt, Circa's got the goods like few do. What he does with it, however, is just as crucial a factor. With more cooking and focus, his possibilities could be extraordinary.

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