Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pressure is Presently Pushing Down

Greetings and salutations.

What a miserable week. Infected with some notorious cold/flu “thing” that’s been flying around, the most review I did in the last seven days was checking the color of my mucus. Yes, it’s disgusting. Welcome to my weekend. Unable and (flat out unwilling) to go out of the house since last Wednesday, I missed my planned outing to the Vinton War Memorial to check out the Silent Press’ CD release show. Perhaps another time…

Taking the illness into account, it’s probably better that I NOT review anyone this week, since I’d either be so vague that it’d hardly be worth it, or so mean that you’d mistake me for someone vindictive. Instead, I put myself into a heavy trance of nighttime sleeping medicine, and came up with a list of things in local music that I am personally sick of. In no particular order:

“They had a singer?”
There’s been some good space spent in this column talking about the importance of live sound, and I’m too tired to repeat myself. Not having the equipment is one thing. Playing a small place is one thing. But having a band comprised of people so self-centered that they simply pretend their volume isn’t negotiable. Annoying.

Awesome musicians end up in jazz or cover bands
We’ve lost a lot of good men out there. There are a few local original acts in town with pure powerhouse players. But too few if you ask me. Not that I’m blaming them though. It’s hard when the only crowd response to your awe-inspiring, gravity defying solo is “cool…now play Freebird!” Rough.

Tonight Only: The One Man Show
Drummers usually catch most of the flack for this, and sometimes rightfully so. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of picking on the drummer, just because some of the jokes write themselves… But they aren’t the only ones. The only thing more depressing than watching a band with just one good member, is watching the guy who’s convinced it’s him. Yes, it’s awesome when you are the master of your instrument. No, I don’t need you to demonstrate it for me, in every song, all night, at the expense of everything else. If your goal when playing in a band is to ensure that, no matter what, everyone walks away convinced that you’re awesome, do us a favor and form the Egomaniac Experience.

Where’s the street?
No, I’m not particularly urban-cool in the McDonalds commercial sort-of-way, yet I can’t help but be a little bummed that there isn’t more live hip-hop in the area. Yes, there are some guys and girls out there who are doing it, and I certainly respect that. But it is something I would like to see more of, especially in a place like ours where the opportunity for stylistic blends can lead to some amazing live music.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
This song also happens to be one of the first collection of chords any up-and-coming guitarist will slam out on their way to infamy. There are some songs that are a little done, but you can still enjoy playing them. For example, I won’t necessarily kill you for Collective Soul’s “Shine”. And you do have to play what the crowd wants to hear. But no one except Kurt Cobain looks cool playing it, and every time I see someone try, I find myself wishing I had a shotgun handy…

Table by day, stage by night
The bands aren’t always the only ones to blame. Places that move a table or two out of the way and call it a stage – that’s pretty weak. While I’m thankful to all the great owners in town who make live music a part of their establishment, there’s a difference between an acoustic duo and full band…they typically don’t occupy the same space…

45 minute show. 30 minute setup.
I think the title speaks for itself, but in case you aren’t sure, let me spell it out for you. You have a 45 minute set, and 15 minutes of load-in time. You decide that for this small outing, you require 4 full stacks of amp speakers, 4 bass cabinets, 12 mics (just in case), 10 guitars, 28lbs of cables, 7 miles of duct tape, a lighting rig, balloons, backup dancers, neon logo, disco ball, and a partridge in a pear tree. Moron.

Bands who don’t bother to hide their influences
Sometimes it’s cool to pay tribute to a favorite band or song. Sometimes you intentionally put in little things here and there for anyone who gets it. Lifting someone else’s look or sound to have fun as an inside joke can be cool. What’s not cool is being unable to break out of the shadows of the people you studied, and expecting everyone else to treat you as an original. The biggest obstacle in reaching anyone with your music is in understanding the differences between what you hear and what they hear, so pretending like you haven’t noticed that you sing like Eddie Vedder, dress like Slash, or sound like Green Day doesn’t say you’re deep. It says you’re clueless…

Musicians who’ve jumped the shark
Lingo alert! In case you don’t know, jumping the shark is a metaphor used by people to denote the moment when a television series is (in retrospect) deemed to have passed its peak. If you enjoy playing music, it can be a lifetime passion that enrichs you whether you’re playing in front of a thousand people, or just one. On the other hand, I’ve seen my fair share of 45yr old weekend warriors who spend their offtime sitting around, drinking with their other 45yr old bandmates, talking about how groovy life will be when they finally make it. The point at which I hear them revel in the promise of one day “rockin’ it on MTV” and “scoring some chicks,” I turn to leave. You should too.

Really badly written band bios
The rest of these are generic, but this last one is purely personal. I am constantly out on the internet, checking new local music from bands, their fans, and all sorts of weird places. And every 3rd or 4th band I happen upon, there it is: the impossible to describe so-and-so band are a genre-defying group of people with instruments who paint their emotions on sound walls with little brushes of stuff so vague you’ll have to like it because you aren’t sure what it is. Either that, or I get the bio with a list of bands they sound "just like" that is so long and twisting I think I’m reading the inventory list for FYE. Stick to writing songs…

Long rant this week. That’s ok because it’s been a long week. And you know, I have a feeling this next one is going to be even longer. Thanks for understanding, and thanks for reading. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Work All Day To Make It Right

Greetings and salutations.

Forgive me if I seem distracted. It’s been a few weeks since Motley Crue tickets went on sale, and I continue to get emails every day from people asking me to vocalize their outrage for them. Sure, each letter is different, but the idea is pretty much the same: “A ticket costs 75 freakin’ dollars?! You’re #$@#$ kidding me!“ I’m afraid so. For an act that once epitomized the rebellion and depravity of rock, it sure looks as though they’re cashing in on one last nostalgia trip. At least the Stones don’t expect anyone to believe they’re the same men they were a few decades ago. It’s not that I don’t love the Crue. I think it’s a great tour, and find it considerate of them to stop off and help the civic center finish paying off all that renovation they’ve been going through. But to sell me on the idea that these are the same four wild men they were in the 80’s? The last risky thing Tommy Lee did was sleep with Pam. Outside of writing this column, I live one of the most boring lives imaginable, and yet I still manage more dangerous behavior every morning than Vince Neil does all week.

So consider your frustration vented. Let’s move on.

Far be it for me to let that take precedence over what’s going in the local scene. After all, I have an obligation to the hardworking men and women of Roanoke music, and this week, I made a call on one of the more meticulous: Dave Porter. Playing with his band (Bad Dog) at Cheers in Salem, their version of Aerosmith’s “Same Old Song and Dance” called to me while I was eating dinner at the neighboring Western Sizzlin, and thus they became my review for the week…after I finished my steak, of course.

For the most part, Dave’s focus is on his original music. He’s released an album entitled “Desire” on which he performs the majority of the instrumentation himself. Usually artists who do this say something about how playing everything is a more personal reflection of the music inside themselves. While this is true to a certain degree, it can also mean simply freeing yourself to do whatever you feel like without having to get someone else’s consent, as in a band setting. Solo offerings like this always fascinate me because of the potential to paint a fuller picture of the artist’s musical understanding across instruments. Done right, it can become the ultimate expression of genius – the difference between being a composer and being a bassist, or guitarist, or drummer, or singer, etc. It is also not without it’s risks. If you’re supremely talented in one area, the rest of the record can end up sounding like generic filler while you explode on your specialty. Or, similarly, you may concoct an album so devoid of ability, so lacking in inspiration, that it simply demonstrates your overwhelming ineptitude.

A bassist by trade, Porter’s greatest asset throughout “Desire” is his attention to groove. While quite talented, this isn’t the record of a bass virtuoso and that’s probably for the better. He tastefully limits the times in which he shows off for the sake of showing off, and instead puts his focus on making everything memorable. It’s not Mozart, but then Dave would probably be the first person to say that wasn’t his intention anyway. Each song is built around a catchy drum rhythm that he accentuates with [mostly] funk bass. The guitars create the hooks along with the vocals, and the keys fill up the spaces in between. Hardly the self-indulgent sludge I would’ve expected from someone who makes liberal use of the word “eclectic” in describing their work.

The songs themselves feel purposefully dated to conjure up memories for anybody who went through adolescence with 90’s alt rock as their soundtrack, blending together lighter rock mood and funk melodies in an “STP meets Extreme” kind of way. While this is definitely commercial music, there is enough indie quirkiness in the songs and the production to mask a bit of the glossy pop sheen and keep it from sinking under it’s own pretentiousness.

Dave’s live set with Bad Dog was unfortunately just a list of covers this weekend, but it did provide an insight to his own relaxed performance style. The entire experience was refreshingly laid back, since what onstage hype the band did generate was done with tongue-in-cheek. I don’t know if these guys also help him perform his solo stuff, but if they do, I’m going to make a point to check it out.

I think the essence of Porter as a musician is about enjoying what you’re doing. Contrary to groups who practice chemistry like they practice songs, these guys seemed as though they’d pick up and play for free if you gave them the opportunity. That could all be part of the show but if they’re faking, then congratulations on fooling me. With a few current tunes here and there, this was mostly a hearty chunk of 70’s rock (AC/DC, Eagles, Zeppelin) and a few classic gems (Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “Imaginary Lover”, and “Blue Collar Man” from Styx) served up by a band who seemed to simply enjoy playing them. That kind of genuine enthusiasm set the tone for the crowd who spent the night drinking, laughing, and dancing away.

Judging from the tracks on “Desire” as well as what he’s put together in Bad Dog, Porter is someone who knows what he wants, thinks he has a good ear on what will sell, and is focused enough to keep pushing. That he clearly believes in what he’s doing is evidence of some considerable talent, or at least the kind of intolerable ego that lets him isolate himself from the opinions of others. In any case, the result is still the same, and I don’t have to worry about whether or not he’s likable offstage.

More wit, wisdom, and a show review in my next installment. That’s all for this week. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Song(s) Remain the Same

Greetings and salutations.

At times, even I am at a loss for words. The year is two weeks gone, and already I’m banging my head against my keyboard as I try to gather my thoughts. Somewhere inside this mind are pieces that put together my review of the Worx (another of Roanoke's most successful cover bands), and now all I have to do is make sense of it all. After heading out to see the band this weekend, I've plenty to talk about, and yet I feel so underwhelmed by the whole experience that it’s almost as if I don’t care. Odd.

Fortunately for me, no one reads this column for sugary enthusiasm, so I might as well put my conflicted psyche on display. Since the band's name is a fairly well-known one, I can save space by skipping most of the introductions. You don’t earn the kind of reputation these guys have by being amateur musicians, nor do you pack the house by ignoring the needs of your audience. While I would be willing to bet that they can vary from setting to setting, the Worx is at home in the early-mid 30’s scene, since the majority of their set is a dirty blend of modern country (Rascall Flatts, Jason Aldean), 90’s pop/rock (Prince, Nirvana,…and Crazytown?), a few heavy-but-not-really bits (Disturbed, Drowning Pool) and the obligatory hip-hop (50 Cent, Snoop Dogg). It’s music for people who want to drink and dance but are too lazy to buy one of those Now That’s What I Call Music compilations. You get the idea.

The Worx know how to market themselves by appealing to the right people – club/bar owners. This kind of understanding is something that probably 90% of all bands lack. For various reasons, musicians rarely put themselves in the shoes of an owner or booking rep, and if you don’t think it’s costing you, answer this: where is your band playing every weekend between now and the end of March, and tell me what you’re going to get paid. Don’t know? Well, the Worx do. What do they know that you don't? At the risk of stripping every ounce of creative integrity from them, these are businessmen who get that their music plays a role in helping owners turn a profit. The consequence of this is the removal of the volume, speed, and dangerous unpredictability that regular bands label as “energy, intensity, and excitement.” And there you have it. The great divide which exists between artistry and commerce, and I condense it into a paragraph. Sometimes I think I should get paid for this stuff.

How'd they do? Not too badly. As with any all-purpose cover band, the guitar was thinned in the mix to keep the snarl digestible, and the keys and bass existed mostly to keep a groove or pepper the sounds. It was the drums that really made all the difference here. Instead of feeling like I was listening to a DJ remix these songs, I got a heavy punch with the aggressive recklessness that saved them from sounding like a jukebox, and that really impressed me. The band’s ability to remain faithful to the originals went a long way towards satisfying a stickler like myself, since not hearing someone butcher a favorite song is a welcome delight. From an entertainment point of view, their singer was the focal point. The rest of the group appeared reserved, only occasionally engaging in some onstage banter with one another, and performing on their instruments without too much exaggerated action. Whereas the singer appears to have skipped his morning Ritalin dosage; bouncing around, singing, drinking, and occasionally picking up a guitar. He’s fun to watch, has an infectious energy, and isn’t a bad vocalist. With the exception of the Guns N’ Roses covers that seemed to stretch his limits, he was dead-on in most of what he did, and his charisma made up for the rest.

Conclusions? When it comes to playing other people’s music, the Worx have it down. They’re a sure bet if you’re out looking for a good time and they strive to make the party, meaning that you’ll get more out of their show if you’re on the dance floor. Of course, not everyone wants to wade through a sea of drunk #$!% with no sense of personal space just to have a good time, but even so, they’re not bad to sit and listen to. You’ll laugh, you’ll drink, you’ll have fun, you’ll drink some more, and you’ll hear something you’re bound to recognize – who can’t do with another version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit?”

Leaving little not to like, you may wonder why I sound so indifferent, and the explanation for my deflated mood is a simple one. I’ve listened to Worx fans and Burning Bridges fans argue back and forth for God-knows-how-long about which band was the best, and I had expected that when I finally got to see them both, that I’d find some kind of sharp contrast to explain the split, or at least a different set of material. Instead I discovered a remarkable similarity that turns out to be a bit depressing. Maybe it was just more fun imagining that they were trying to outdo each other…

Whether or not one or both bands are ignorant of this similarity is a mystery to me, but I have two possible theories. My first and favorite choice is that they are spying on one another. Not only is this hilarious to imagine in a Spy vs. Spy sort of way, but it at least restores the idea of competition. The other equally funny, but ultimately disappointing conclusion is that they’ve formed some secret pact in which they agree to share the crown of Most Popular Regional Cover Band between them. We may never know.

Another review next week. Keep those emails coming, and thanks for reading. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Big Question Mark Above My Head

Greetings and salutations.

Welcome to the first edition of the Phantom, circa 2006! In honor of the new year, and in conjunction with my 4-day-old hangover, we’re going to do something special for this installment. While most of the mail I get includes helpful directions on where I can go with my opinions, some of my loyal readers have been asking me questions, and up until now I have had little opportunity to respond to them. I thought this would be a perfect time to open the mailbag, and print a few of the actual letters I've gotten (with the praise/profanity removed to conserve space). Of course, names have been changed to protect the innocent...

Dear Phantom, will you come check out my band? - Billie A.

Absolutely. Drop me a line and tell me when and where you’re playing; that’s what the MySpace is for: I make no promises on how soon I’ll get out, but I do keep a list and will make every effort to attend a show.

Dear Phantom, what band(s) have impressed you most thus far? - Tom C.

Define impressed. If you mean bands that appear capable of taking things to the next level, then I’d say Insane Solitude and Drivn. Solitude impressed me because of their grasp of songwriting at this stage in their career, which I believe will help them evolve into a strong original act. Drivn impresses me because of the completeness of the package they are selling; the look, the music, and the sense to steer it are all present. All that remains is the opportunity…

Dear Phantom, why don’t you post photos with your blog? - George M.

This question has been asked every week since I’ve started, and the answer is simpler than you think – carrying a camera, setting up a shot, and blinding everyone with random flashes of light are not the tactics of a stealth critic. But since my lack of pictures seems to bother people, I've posted one.

Dear Phantom, who are you going to review next? - Cindy C.

No idea. But I can tell you that there are several acts on my list that I expect to be dropping in on in the next few weeks. I want to see Madrone, Illbotz, the Lobsters, Bebop Hoedown, Kevin Selfe & the Tornadoes, Wading Girl, the Pop Rivets, and TK421. I also have this jazz itch that’s yet to be scratched…

Dear Phantom, what do you like most about the Roanoke scene? – Donald T.

The best thing about Roanoke’s scene is the variety. Larger cities have that whole problem with something popular being imitated dozens of times until creativity erodes away. There may be 500+ [professional] bands in a city like Boston, but I’d be willing to bet at least 350 of them are indistinguishable from each other. In all my years of listening to and playing in bands in this area, I’ve yet to run across two groups that don’t stand out from one another. That’s good news for music fans, and it’s good news for musicians who want to make their mark with originality.

Dear Phantom, what was it like working with Mr. T? – Brendan F.

Ah, fond memories. I was working as a stunt double in ’81 when I got the call to take a few punches for Stallone in Rocky III. I’d see Mr. T from time to time during filming, but they were using Jimmie Walker as his double for most of that movie, so I didn’t get formally introduced until Harold Ramis and I were pitching “A-Team” to the networks. We were fast friends though. Used to sit around on our days off, and just draw or arm wrestle. A great guy, really.

Dear Phantom, why do you feel the need to bust on everybody? - Ronald M.

Because I’m mean-spirited and jealous at heart? Whatever you need to tell yourself. The truth is, I do it because anyone expecting to make it in the world on the basis of their art should understand that not everyone will like them as much as their friends and family do. I offer the perspective of someone discovering your music for the first time, and give feedback that can help you shape what kind of impression you make. Do you have to listen to me? Not at all. Does ignoring that kind of advice make you stupid? Probably.

Dear Phantom, who are you? – Michael J.

Remember that kid who started everyone pointing and laughing at you in your 3rd grade nightmare, when you were in front of the class and realized you were naked? That’s me.

Thanks for the questions, and keep those emails coming. We’ll have another show review in the next installment, so somebody is getting a visit this weekend. It could be you. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom