Thursday, December 29, 2005

Two For the Price of One...

Greetings and salutations.

The theme of this week’s column? Sometimes it just pays to be in the right place at the right time. The good folks in Drivn had sent me a message about their New Years show, but if all goes as planned, I’ll be passing out in 2005 and waking up in 2006. Such a plan leaves very little opportunity for an honest (or coherent) review, so I did what any polite phantom would do: crash an earlier show uninvited and hope for the best.

Drivn were playing with Cobalt Media in Salem, and given the choice between that and 3 more hours in Valley View’s famous holiday traffic, it seemed like a no-brainer. I’d seen their show flyer, but couldn’t tell if Drivn were opening for Cobalt Media, or vice versa. I wandered if it’d be worth my time, but I’d grown tired of wrapping presents, so I took my chances. Turns out it was a “co-headlining” show.

No, really.

Not that kind of co-headlining where the opening band has too much ego to admit they’re just opening, but an actual division of each band's sets to break up the night.


And thus the tone was set. I found a quiet corner and observed as Drivn plowed through a covers-heavy set of classic 70’s rock, with a few modern favorites tossed in to keep it current. Most bands that play covers like to talk about making a song their own, which usually means remaking something into their genre, or simply screwing it up so it sounds like the same crap that they write. Drivn, however, manage something entirely different. They produce music that's painstakingly faithful to the originals, yet so infused with their own captivating energy that you would easily believe they wrote them. Not discounting group chemistry, their single greatest asset in this undertaking was their lead singer, whose talent seems to come about as easily to him as my sarcasm does to me. I know, I know. I was shocked, too. Equally able to conjure the spirits of Morrison and Plant as he was to find his own voice, I watched him capture the audience’s attention and dance them like puppets on his string. There was sincerity to his blues and confidence to his bravado, and he took the crowd with him through every writhe and twist. Backing this showman was a twin guitar assault that landed somewhere between Page and Slash, and a bass/drums combo that you could feel in your chest. For all this glossy appeal, it was the band’s attention to detail that impressed me most. The music was, of course, dead-on. The vocal harmonies were there. The changes were tight. Everyone knew their place, and shined in it.

Following Drivn’s retro vibe were Cobalt Media, who took us from the 70’s straight into the 80’s. If you’re into local music at all, you probably know Cobalt’s frontman and self promotion extraordinaire, Wes. There’s little I can say about him that he hasn’t already said about himself, but he’s a talented and determined player on and offstage, and I’d been curious to see Cobalt Media since their formation some months back. Vocal duties for the group seemed divided; there was a standalone singer who performed on the first few songs, there was Wes, and they took occasion to let their female guitarist sing a tune or two. At a quick listen, the band’s driving force is their rhythm section; lending considerable weight to their down-tuned mix of metal and just-for-the-hell-of-it pop. Under the hood, the bassist and drummer did a remarkable job of avoiding the cliché and keeping the crunch feeling fresh while Wes wailed on leads and did his best James Hetfield impression. The band’s covers were admirable, especially those performed with their “designated” singer, and their originals showcased a penchant for writing the next great Godsmack riff.

Musically, both bands captured the spirits of their genres and drove their points home - hard. I think the award in performance goes to Drivn, but they’ve also been together longer, and time plays a big part in smoothing any group’s edges. In contrast however, 90% of Drivn’s show was their singer, whereas Cobalt Media spread the show around in a “sum of their parts” kind of way. Drivn’s comfort in their style creates the awe-inspiring illusion that these five gentlemen simply ooze this sort of talent everyday. Still relatively new, Cobalt Media continue searching for their comfort zone, but their contribution is definitely unique and should shine as they settle in to one another.

Of course, if you happened to be at this particular show, you’re familiar with the excitement surrounding the end of the night. Seems it was a room full of “local celebrities” that evening, with members of some of the area’s best bands in the crowd. There’s a rule about musicians that they can’t resist a stage, and by the end of the night, members of Drivn, Cobalt Media, and TK421 were together onstage playing Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. As I saw cameras exploding at the “once-in-a-lifetime” photo opportunities, I took it all in. If that many musicians can be together in one room, for one night, and have that much fun, is peace on Earth such a radical concept? If the stage is really big enough to hold all of them, then perhaps sharing this world isn’t that hard. If two bassists can share one instrument, can not mankind find unity? Maybe it was just magic in the moment. Maybe it was a Christmas miracle.

Or maybe it was the beer. Who knows?

Happy Holidays from the Phantom, and keep your eyes peeled. New Year’s Eve is only days away, and I’ll be passed out in a corner booth near you. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Take All My World and Shake It...

Greetings and salutations.

Many of you have been kind enough to pass along encouraging words about this little blog, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. My inbox runneth over, and I am moved by your thoughtfulness. I just wanted to share a few of my favorites and thank them for their sincerity:

  • “…just some talentless hack.”
  • “You’re a pompous ass…”
  • “Great! Another egomaniac in the paper…”
  • “…and just why are YOU qualified?”
  • “Quit whining!”

and my personal favorite:

  • “…a journalistic disgrace to journalists everywhere!!” (with the two exclamation points and everything…awesome)

And while I can’t possibly say “thanks” enough to all of you for your kindness, I wanted you to know how much your honesty means to me. But enough of this mushy stuff…

Let’s talk about success, boys and girls. The first rule of being successful is that you are bound to draw spite from those not as successful. Jealousy being what it is, those who reach the top find it to be a shaky perch at best. Musicians, or any artist for that matter, often find that success carries with it another, more dreaded label: sellout. Which is why it comes as no surprise to me that one of Roanoke’s most successful bands, Burning Bridges, carry a dual reputation. To the mid 20’s – 40’s bar hoppers, they are held in the highest regard as consummate professionals and versatile performers. To venues around town, they are a guaranteed draw, and quality entertainment. In other words, to 90% of Roanoke’s general population, Burning Bridges are among the best you can find.

And what’s that word the other 10% are using? You guessed it. Sellout.

So, having never seen the band before, and hearing that they’d be in town, I took it upon myself to make a secret appearance. I wanted to see for myself what it was all about. And what did I find? Quite a lot.

The house was packed, as I expected it would be, and was a cultural mix of cowboy hats, polo shirts, biker jackets, and beer. Add in a drunken dancing guy in a Santa hat (that I can't actually confirm was drunk...but if he wasn't, he did a good impersonation) and you've got yourself a recipe for a good time. Noting the importance my last column put on sound control, what I heard walking in from outside was neither overpowering nor underwhelming – it stood out, but wasn’t an annoyance. No instant headache. A good start.

Already a few numbers into their set by the time I arrived, the band was warmed up and starting to stretch their entertainment muscles. Onstage, they laughed and joked with the audience (and each other) between songs, and encouraged singing along whenever possible. It’s worth mentioning that they are one of the only bands I’ve seen around town who can pull that trick where the singer stops singing, and holds the mic out to let the crowd finish the line. When he stopped, you could actually hear the crowd respond, and most of them knew the words. Other local acts I’ve seen get mutters from a handful of people who are barely loud (or drunk) enough to shout back at them. The crowd and the band fed off each other for most of the night, and the energy level never subsided.

Let’s talk about the music. Burning Bridges’ set is dominantly covers. In fact, unless they played an original before I got there, this particular set was ALL covers. That simple aspect of their performance is a large reason why they catch as much flack as they do. While artists with a religious devotion to their own original material might scoff at the idea of playing someone else’s music, it certainly didn’t seem to matter to this crowd. Exactly how they go about performing these covers is open for a bit more debate…

The Burning Bridges formula is surprisingly simple, but effective. Take a broad spectrum of proven radio hits from all genres of pop, country, and rock, and run it through the exact same filter of digital drums and mild-yet-gnarly guitar to either bump up or strip out the elements that separate them. You create an equilibrium of punchy dance-floor music that spices up the bland and waters down the harsh, maintaining the familiar elements of each, yet giving every song the same mass appeal. The guitar pyrotechnics were flashy yet nontoxic, and even when the band threatened to “get heavy”, the floor never emptied. Hence the reason I heard Big & Rich, Metallica, Alabama, Drowning Pool, John Denver, No Doubt, Prince, Korn, Van Morrison, and Marilyn Manson all in the same set – and couldn’t have told you the difference.

If you’re a hardcore (read: complete purist) fan of any of these or other songs that Burning Bridges play, you’ll probably be disappointed to some degree. I admit I had a hard time seeing the guest female vocalist bounce around to No Doubt and then sing “Man In a Box," by Alice in Chains. The bass player, singing backup to the aggressive “break your face” parts in Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” or strutting around singing Bon Jovi’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive” was well done, but hard to take considering his white turtleneck sweater (that I think Belk is running a sale on) and Garth Brooks headset microphone. Thank god he’s got that day job as an accountant.

The important thing here is to remember the role of the casual music fan. They make up 70-80% of any bar/club crowd, and are more interested in listening to live music that they get excited at by simply recognizing. All throughout the night, I had fun watching as people exclaimed “Oh, I love this song!”, and proceeded to drag their date onto the floor. The men kept two-stepping through the Prince songs, and I saw women with their heads on their date’s shoulders during a Manson song. These are the people Burning Bridges set out to entertain, and if that makes them sellouts in the eyes of some people, I’m not sure they care.

Tune in again next week for another exciting installment. Keep those emails coming, and give me some ideas about where I might find good music this weekend. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

In the Mix..

Greetings and salutations.

Let's clear one thing up early: If you stayed in this weekend because of the ice and snow – you missed some great shows! You could’ve checked out the mellow tones of The Kind at Awful Arthur’s (Salem) or the modern rock moods of TK421 at Shooters and that’s just two of many options from this past Thursday, which quickly leads me to my first point of this week’s post: Thursday is the new Friday. It’s true folks. More and more great bands are starting the weekend a day early, and the smart venues in town are taking notice. You should too.

Friday night was as good as it always is. The Pop Rivets at the Brambleton Deli and Ton at the Coffee Pot topped my list, and I still had two more days until Monday. Of course, with all this music, you’ve got to wonder how on Earth I get around. Easy. You cash in favors to the students you’ve helped this semester and presto changeo! - instant spies. There was no shortage of praise for all these bands, which means everyone either brought their A Game this weekend, or I need to recruit more vicious spies. Regardless, the one constant was the weather, which made getting around about as pleasant as a root canal. That you perform yourself. With a pair of rusty pliers.

But let’s move on to Saturday. You ever wake up with one idea of what you’re going to do that day, and then stand by helplessly as you watch real life change your plans? I’ll spare you the details of how it happened, but I ended up with friends at Awful Arthur’s (Towers) for their idea of a great time: a KISS tribute band. I don’t mind KISS music, having been somewhat of a fan myself, and while it wasn’t my first choice as a way to spend my Saturday night, I was curious how they’d pull off a show like that in Arthur’s. Letting my morbid curiosity run away with me, I agreed to go.

After I got in a few good laughs at the crowd contrast between the die-hard KISS fans (in their faded t-shirts and leather) and the Awful Arthur’s regulars (counted 14 guys with white shirts, all unbuttoned to show that precise amount of chest hair) I settled into my seat and waited patiently. Over an hour past the expected showtime, I was relieved to see that starting late isn’t just a bad habit that’s limited to original acts. Minutes after taking the stage, Hotter than Hell (as the flier called them) had earned themselves a subtitle: louder than hell. I’m guessing their equipment assumes a slightly larger venue, but it bordered on unbearable – and that’s saying something coming from me. Worse still was the piercing feedback and dizzying buzz that punctuated almost every aggressive swell in the music. After the fire-breathing part of the act nearly set the roof ablaze, I took my leave to go out in search of an aspirin for my newly acquired headache.

On the drive home, it got me thinking. If live sound and mixing are an obstacle for a nationally touring (and reasonably well-funded) act like this, how much of a problem is it for the local talents? Not two days earlier, TK421 had gotten high marks from one of my loyal spies specifically for their good sound at the Shooter’s show, so it’s not an insurmountable problem. I understand that most of the younger bands in town rely on the systems of whatever venue they’re playing at simply because of the expense, but as my pounding headache illustrated, a poorly mixed show can leave a lasting negative impact on your audience. Not to mention that if a local act ever manages to induce the same kind of high frequency nausea, I’m going to lash them mercilessly for it.

This issue deserves attention because it contributes to the symptoms I talked about in my introductory post as the Phantom, where people who make music in Roanoke feel like they’re struggling to find an audience. Even if you can’t afford a personal mixing system or a highly skilled sound engineer, that doesn’t mean you should turn a blind eye (or ear, as the case may be) to the dynamics of your live performances. What can you do about it? Approach this as seriously and objectively as you do songwriting, and take what steps are within your control.

  • Know your room – how hard is it to scout a place in Roanoke?
  • Know your sound – listen for what your crowd is going to hear, not what you think they’ll hear.
  • Know your gear – do you need the same 15 wall speakers you used at the outdoor talent show in order to play for 45 minutes at Schooners?

The snow and ice may have been a reason why some good acts saw smaller crowds this weekend, but if you’re in a band who can’t draw whether it’s rain or shine, you might want to ask yourself if live sound is a problem for you. You can send me a Friend Request on MySpace, I can write flattering things about you and your music, and if you don’t have all your bases covered come showtime – you’re going to lose potential fans. Think about that the next time playing to an empty room leaves you uttering that famous phrase:

“The music scene in Roanoke just…"

You get the idea.

That’s all for this edition. Expect another pleasant show review next week – but I can’t write a review until I decide what might be worth seeing. Surely someone out there has some suggestions. I’d love to know what you think, so drop me a line. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

My First Week...

Greetings and salutations.

A week into my life as the Phantom, and I’m already being welcomed with open arms (the dead roses, death threats, and slashed tires were quite flattering) and so let me just start by saying a big “thank you” to everyone who’s already on my case…before I even write a review…

For my first excursion into the land of the loud, I took a much needed drive out to Kessler Mill Road in Salem to a great place called Shooters. Maybe you’ve heard of it. No? Don’t worry. You will. This particular trip was on a Thursday night, so seeing a packed parking lot was almost a welcome shock. Almost, but then I still had to find a place to park. I’d been told by a lot of people that Shooters was booking their Thursday nights to fill the void left by the departure of Roanoke’s former hard rock haven, Factory 324. I’d heard good things about local group The Venus Transit, and so with a cool venue and promising act, it seemed like a good place to start.

As you’ll recall last week, I told you that every show in town isn’t just “21 and up”. True to my word, the Thursday night shows at Shooters are all ages (just 21 to drink), and I was immediately impressed by the draw that The Venus Transit and their opening act, Insane Solitude had managed on weeknight show. I had high hopes.

Admittedly, I had chosen this gig on the strength of the Venus demo that I’d heard, but first impressions are important in the business, and Insane Solitude made a strong showing. You won’t find much screamo/hardcore in my music collection, but it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the form. Underneathe the growls, I could tell there were talented songwriters in the group. Unfortunately, none of them made it out to the show, and in their place was a band armed with good songs in favor of the great ones I suspect they’re capable of writing. And while it could take time for them to develop more standout material, their delivery and performance reminded me of a cross between Sepultura and Black Label Society, and their stage presence was remarkably good for younger guys.

Onto The Venus Transit who, aside from a few technical glitches, didn’t do too badly. Musically, they were different than what I’d expected, even when compared to their demo. The tracks I’d heard were flavored with experimental elements that, when taken away in a live context, left them more punk-pop than progressive. Their sense of melody was refreshing, and they’re definitely on their way to a unique sound among their peers in the region. On the road to that sound, though, I should point out that there isn’t a regular gig in town that requires you to have a wireless system for your instrument. It’s a good idea to remember that, in Roanoke at least, stages are generally built to be about the same size as the restroom or smaller, and so having the freedom to roam about is almost pointless. It’s especially pointless if the unit decides to fail on you two songs into your set.

The overall performance was entertaining, mostly punctuated by the erratic behavior of the guitarist who seemed to be leading the band in a series of musical spasms, and the lanky swagger of the singer. In my experience, the role of the too-cool frontman is always a difficult one to peg – you have to remain distant enough to appear confident and slightly mysterious, yet retain enough charm to avoid appearing utterly uninterested, and thusly uninspired. For the most part, Venus’ singer maintained this balance for the whole of the show, holding my interest with his command of the stage and acting out with enough energetic frustration to make his tantrums believable. Only during the aforementioned technical glitches did he seem uncomfortable, and I consider that to be a simple lack of experience.

These two young groups are both worth your time if you like your crunch with a slice of melody. While Insane Solitude is most definitely for the harder crowd, they have a certain accessible quality to their music that makes their brutality go down smoother than most, and that’s a key to wider success, at least in this area. The Venus Transit are as entertaining as they are talented, and it will be interesting to see where they go with their sound as they bridge that gap between who they are in the safety of the studio and who they become when faced with the obstacles of performing live.

That’s all for this edition. I’ll be out and about this weekend in search of someone, so pay attention – you might just find your name under my pen. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom