Growing up in the small town of Cleveland, Tennessee, J Roddy Walston learned the piano by watching his grandmother's hands skip across the keys as she played gospel tunes for the family. But when the future frontman decided to apply those lessons to the scrappy Southern rock he heard in his head, his teacher was confused. "My grandma didn't get what I was doing at first," says Walston, 29. "She was like, 'Why are you playing like that?' 'Why are you singing like that?' 'Why are you doing this to me?'?"
Lately, though, aided by drummer Steve Colmus, 30, guitarist Billy Gordon, 31, and bassist Logan Davis, 22, Walston has had an easier time winning converts, thanks to a riotous live show full of fleet-fingered piano trills, yowled choruses, soul, sweat, and the headbanging Gordon's bluesy solos. "We've had lots of people coming to our gigs who maybe used to go to church but don't anymore," says the singer-pianist, who amicably poached the Business men from a couple of different Baltimore bands. (Walston and his girlfriend relocated there in 2005 so she could study opera.) "I think listeners get an energy from us that they've been missing elsewhere. Our music is like a gospel revival. If you let it, it can take you where you need to go."
The same applies for the band. A triumphant nationwide summer tour, which included a raucous Manhattan gig on a boat that ended with Walston throwing his shattered piano bench into the East River, was the quartet's first as a headliner. (They're back on the road this fall.) And after an exciting but uneven self-released debut, their new self-titled album (Vagrant) features the impressively hirsute rockers capturing their crackling live energy on tape. ("We didn't want to use computers," says Walston proudly.) Album high points "Brave Man's Death" and "Don't Break the Needle" blend rollicking boogie with soulful lyrics about getting along when the good is gone. Or as Walston puts it, "It's party music, but even after everyone's left for the night, it still, hopefully, sounds inspiring." Even to Grandma.WATCH: J Roddy Walston and the Business, "I Don't Want to Hear It," (South by Southwest)