Four small hands are having their way with Wyatt McKenzie. As two young girls apply mascara, lipstick and blush to the 23-year-old’s face, he sits patiently in a deck chair in the backyard of a Las Vegas house amid a pack of friends, many of whom are heckling him.
Strange as it might seem to them, however, the scene is hardly shocking to me. Having known Wyatt since I was 15 and he was 11, very little about the boy prodigy turned local music scene mainstay surprises me anymore. What does feel odd about this night? It could be the last time Wyatt McKenzie shows his face—decorated or otherwise—as a Las Vegas resident.
Because by the time you read this, he’ll have hauled his guitars and amps onto an airplane and flown off, toward the East Coast and a Baltimore scene he hopes will welcome his talents and help him achieve his musical dreams. And this city will be without one of its most unique young performers, a friend to many and a brother, by every standard but birth, to me.
I first met Wyatt in the fall of 1999. I was a high school freshman, and his brother, Ian, was my best friend. Wyatt, a Sig Rogich middle schooler, was already a masterful guitar player for his age and an excellent singer. I remember his father, Kevin, gleaming with pride as his young son played songs in the living room of their Summerlin home.
As he got older, Wyatt made for an excellent addition to any harebrained band Ian and I could cook up, from sloppy punk to noised-out psychedelia. And it was during those years Wyatt began recording his own songs, onto stacks of homemade cassette tapes. His uncertain prepubescent voice might have cracked and wobbled, but the maturity of his lyrics and musicianship shone through even then.
As I finished high school and Wyatt entered his freshman year at Las Vegas Academy (he was enrolled in the guitar program, of course), it became clear that normal life, specifically school, wouldn’t be enough for Wyatt. By age 14 he was outperforming his peers on his instrument, while producing pitiful results in the classroom.
He dropped out of LVA around the middle of his junior year and soon entered the darkest time of his young life, a period that would see him battle several addictions—hard drugs, alcohol, girls—at once. Although the pain helped fuel his already deeply personal songwriting, it became a cause of concern for those of us closest to him. “It was a dark cycle for him,” his father remembers. Simply put, we worried if he’d live to see 20.
Wyatt did, by putting his music and his relationships before his excesses. And as his outlook brightened, so did his musical fortunes. In 2008, as Mother McKenzie, he released Cloudless, a self-recorded album that earned high praise from the Weekly: “Cloudless is the type of low-key, whipped-up-quickly-because-he-can effort that would make many an open-mic grinder openly weep.”
Two years later, Wyatt returned with his first professionally produced record, Bedroom Music, released on Ronald Corso’s National SouthWestern Electronic Recordings. Wyatt’s local legend, which had helped him attract a cult of admirers, grew even longer, particularly among young fans who saw him perform at local houses and coffee shops.
“People are drawn to his originality and his clever lyrics,” says Heidi Guinn, a singer and guitarist in local groups The Petals and Dusty Sunshine. “I don’t know of another person as original as Wyatt.”
Still, Wyatt’s fanbase expanded slowly in a city famous for its unenthusiastic and fickle support of local music. And when Wyatt began touring with Brendon Massei, better known as freak-folk king Viking Moses, he began wondering if better fortunes might await beyond the city that had nurtured his musical growth. Massei’s connections to the Baltimore scene—birthplace to musically adventurous acts such as Animal Collective and Dan Deacon—helped determine Wyatt’s destination.
Still, longtime local collaborator Chris Leland of Dreaming of Lions says Wyatt isn’t heading to Maryland with hopes of taking that specific scene by storm. “He’s just going to use it as a place to tour out of,” Leland explains. “So he’s not really leaving. He’s just dedicating himself to the national scene.”
As the sun sets, Wyatt and his latest Las Vegas band cram into a small room and pick up their instruments. Decked out in a suit, high heels and the makeup, Wyatt rocks his farewell-party crowd of 100-plus with a grungy set, quite the contrast to his usual folky stuff. It’s raw and enthralling, and over way before we want it to be.
Later in the night, the heels and lipstick are gone, and Wyatt is alone in the home’s basement with a guitar in his hands. It’s hot and sticky, but we aren’t complaining as he dives into acoustic favorites like “Beautiful Meth Labs” and “Tattoo Song.”
I close my eyes and listen, and 12 years flood through me—the good, the bad and the strange that I experienced with Wyatt McKenzie. His remarkable talent. His undeniable charisma. His eccentric sense of humor. And when I open them I see that the boy I’ve known is ready, a strong man capable of making it, in Baltimore and beyond. Go get ’em, Wyatt. See ya out there somewhere.