Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Mad Is the Story I Tell

Greetings and salutations.

So after weeks of complaining about having a hectic schedule, I got 5 straight days of complete monotony – and I loved every minute of it. Getting to bed by 7 on a week night, I found myself energized and awake. I greeted my day with a smile, and headed out into the world with a renewed vigor.

It was the best 20 minutes of my life.

Some jack*** cut me off in the morning commute, the attendants at the gas station have finally started holding me up at gunpoint to pay for my fuel, and my cell phone will NOT stop ringing. There wasn’t one original insult in this week’s hate mail, and some of the most useless news I could hope for - Britney Spears is reportedly pregnant again? Ashlee Simpson is going on tour this summer! Somebody I don’t care about lost on "American Idol"?! Aren’t there other blogs out there for that sort of thing?

So my attitude remains intact. After all, how much fun would be if I turned complimentary and started sucking up to everyone because of how “gifted” they are? That guy in Burning Bridges would still be wearing those sweaters, or breaking out the corresponding Magnum P.I. tank top for the warmer weather. But thanks to me, his friends and family have gotten up the courage and made an intervention. The guitarist in Cobalt Media might still be doing his Dave Mustaine impression on the mic, but now they’re letting their singer sing – rumor has it, he might even know the words this time. Or consider the great advice I gave Madrone – why else would they be one of the most requested bands on WROV’s Homegrown Show? The guys in Venus Transit have invested in equipment that lets you actually hear what they’re playing. Insert your own joke here.

My point is, I’m all about helping people - advice so honest, they’ll wish I lied. For this week’s slice of tough love, I ventured out to see Chinese Fire Drill. Made up of members from some of the area’s most well-known bands (and the Pop Rivets!), CFD are the musical equivalent to an inside joke. Playing a mix of college-radio covers and offbeat originals, the only real defining characteristic of the group is how serious they are about not being serious. Their time as hardworking musicians in other acts has culminated in an almost enlightened understanding about what it means to be in a band. It’s the kind of knowledge most young acts don’t get until late in their career; wisdom coupled together from struggles and failures that ground out your ego and force you to look at where you are in relation to everything else, whether you want to or not. It is at this point, when confronted with such truth, that many become jaded. From there, insight is all that separates the relevant from the useless. The worthwhile from the wastes of time. The people like me, from the people like you.

In the case of Chinese Fire Drill, they’ve chosen the former over the latter, slamming through punk power chords and striking the rock star poses, all while laughing at themselves the entire time. They know what’s going on, and don’t actually care. Instead, their songs are a series of puns and stories strewn together from the funny things you talk about when you’re drunk, delivered with the frat boy pacing of a "Jackass" episode. Taken at that, one might write them off as a group of hacks using humor to compensate for a lack of talent. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d seen a local group go that route, but CFD’s members are actually known to be accomplished players (one of them might be a Berklee graduate). Behind every inane thing they do, you’ll find the punch line – we can make good music. By now, CFD have figured out where the line exists between talent and entertainment.

Consider this. When making music, you reach a point where, no matter how good you are, someone who isn’t as good as you is going to hear you play. When they reach their limits of understanding, they’ll conclude that you’re “really good” and lump you in with everyone else they’ve heard who’s ever exceeded that threshold. To the bottom 50% of that group, it means getting categorized alongside the greats. To the top 50% it means no one short of yourself can possibly appreciate you.

Chinese Fire Drill are aware of the fact that you might not actually be paying close attention to everything they can do, and so they’re going to amuse themselves in the process. They switch instruments frequently throughout the show, and seem to lose nothing in the process. Most of their original sound is a combination of punk’s sing-a-long pop hooks, vintage rock guitar, funky bass, and a groove that alternates between 50’s rock ‘n roll (think “That Thing You Do”) and mid-90’s ska/reggae/rock (think 311). Their covers are usually variants of any of these given elements, and it’s all entertaining.

In the end, there are two types of people in their crowd. There are those who enjoy listening to the upbeat music, and will have fun laughing at how funny these guys are. They’re there because they want to have a good time, but not by picking apart a masterpiece. They just want to listen, shout, and drink. And then are those who get the joke, and enjoy laughing at the people who don’t. It’s only two types of people, but it’s the two types of people – which is one type more than most bands ever get.

So there you have it. Another week, another review. A reminder about the TK interview coming up, plus an announcement about the next band to be interviewed. We’ll also start discussing band vs. band fisticuffs. I want your opinions! Thanks for writing in, and thanks for reading. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Almost Wrecked the Telephone

Greetings and salutations.

There’s nothing like an unexpected detour in your schedule to put you in a fantastic mood. Shipped out of state with so little as a day’s notice, I return to find the unthinkable. It seems you’ve missed me. There was record number of responses regarding my last column, and already enough follow-up questions to do another Q&A section. If this keeps up, the Roanoke Times might have to interview me. Fortunately, I don’t think they’ve lost their minds yet, so we don’t have to worry. Besides, there are still several uninformed people with strong opinions on the “stadium crisis” that we haven’t heard from yet. Priorities.

And so speaking of priorities, let me get to mine. This week, I turn my attention to local blues man Kevin Selfe and his backing band, the Tornadoes. Or, at least, formerly local blues man. Selfe has recently relocated to Richmond, but he still plays in town, and doesn’t seem to mind the traveling. Having honed much of his craft here in town, and considering that I can rationalize practically anything, I tend to consider him a local act anyway. It was in my own traveling that I took occasion to spin his debut disc “Selfe-Contained” in my cd player, using the time in the air to reflect and make some notes. It was a better alternative than strangling the screaming toddler in the row behind me, and people seem to like it when I write my thoughts down.

Despite being a fan of the blues, I’ve always found it difficult to write about the genre’s live aspects at any length, and Kevin’s act is no exception. In various other styles, the debate between “feel” and “skill” is always raging, so you can weigh people’s performances on one scale or the other and usually talk in enough circles to fill an article (a talent I’ve practically elevated to an art form in the last few months). In the case of the blues, however, skill and feel are more closely related because of the direct emphasis on conveying emotion. To that end, no amount of cartwheels or guitar stunts can cover up for a player without soul. You either get it, or you don’t.

Judging how much Kevin does or doesn’t “get it,” required that I pay closer attention to the music, hence the time spent combing the album, letting the notes soak in at 47,000 feet. From a playing perspective, he’s everything you would expect a blues guitarist to be. His attack is well timed, and he’s comfortable behind the beat, ahead of it, or locked in tightly with the groove. I catch the occasional presence of country in his technique, and the Chicago-meets-Texas flavor observation in his biography is spot on. He understands how and when to put the snarl into things, and his string bends are as chewy as they come. What’s more, I find his delivery to be shockingly more subdued than you would expect from someone who’s fronting their own trio. Invalidating the dozen or more really clever “Selfe-Absorbed” jokes that I thought I’d get to use, this approach is simultaneously the disc’s greatest strength and biggest weakness.

Despite his attempt to decry the notion that he’s just another SRV impersonator, the influence and similarities are pretty obvious, sometimes good and sometimes not. Unfortunately, for all the things that “Selfe-Contained” gets right, it is Kevin’s personal battle to avoid that cliché that gets him hung up in places. As I listened, I could almost feel him pulling back, trying to suppress his instinct to play something he thought a listener might inevitably compare to Vaughn. He succeeds in places, sometimes mining gold from the unexpected and managing to second-guess himself into sounding fresh. Other times, the suppression is so obvious that the loudest emotion seems to be his own frustration. Not that frustration, if sincere, isn’t as valid a thing to convey as say, passion or sorrow, but it tends to feel awkward in contrast to what the Tornadoes are laying down on a given tune.

Off course, subdued can also mean subtle, which is hardly detrimental. The disc’s attention to detail is a big plus, rather it’s a unique chord voicing from Selfe, a complimentary harmony, or any number of contributions from the Tornadoes. Too often, backing bands just equal backing noise, existing mostly for the glorification of one pompous soloist, but not here. Or at least, not all the time. The music on “Selfe-Contained” is very much a group vibe, with the Tornadoes doing their fair share of the work while Kevin picks through his miniature identity crisis.

In the end, Kevin and the Tornadoes have assembled a great collection of songs that, if nothing else, made for a very enjoyable flight despite my less-than-desirable circumstances. Hardly as unoriginal as he fears he might be, the songs are honest and real, and Kevin’s reputation as a formidable blues man is at least as secure as it was before I set down to write this. It's normal and necessary for true artists to struggle with how they interpret their influences, and very rarely is there a clear understanding to go by or pass judgement on. The fact that he's actively trying to break new ground keeps Selfe ahead of the curve, especially in the blues, where things move at an entirely different pace than in other genres. He certainly has the mind for innovation, and time will tell how far he and the Tornadoes push it. Maybe they’ll have it worked out by the next time I have to spend a few hours in the air.

That’s all out of me for this week. Thanks to everyone for the feedback (good, bad, and other) and for all the up-to-date info on what’s been happening in the scene lately. There’s plenty of news to talk about, and I intend to get to it all. I’ve got band news, show news, radio news, venue news, and more, and my inbox seems to indicate that people want me to talk about it. Who'd have thought?

Plus I’ve gotten some hilarious feedback on my “Battle of the Bands” idea, and am still encouraging people to nominate their band, or their favorite band, to let everyone decide who would actually win in a street fight. Important topics such as these, and more, all brought to you by the one and only - me. You can thank me later. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tell Me What To Ask You

Greetings and salutations.

And to think I started this week unsure of what I was going to write about. It’s funny how much can change in just a few short days. With my schedule returning to normal, this was going to be another weekend review, chock full of my usual insight and oversights. But recent events demand that I open the mailbag early. It wasn’t planned, but people have been talking. The Phantom was listening…

Oh, and the names have been changed to protect the innocent [me].

“There sure seems to be a pattern to your reviews. You always go in expecting the worst, and then end up finding the best. Why not get a better attitude about this stuff?” - George C.

Expecting the worst is a character flaw I probably can’t fix without a few years of therapy, assuming I even wanted to do anything about it. It’s all about approaching each band objectively, and letting them “win” me over with whatever strengths they have. Besides, would you really want to see what I’d write if I thought someone did a bad job? I didn’t think so.

“Do you have a favorite venue in town for live music?”
– Martin L.

Not exactly. While I’m flattered by those of you who’ve written in and dubbed me some kind of musical authority, most people who ask me this assume I can point them to the “happening” places. I have no idea what a trend is, and probably wouldn’t recognize one if it ran up to me on the streets and pulled my pants down past my boxers. For the actual seekers of diverse entertainment, I suggest Shooters and/or the Coffee Pot. Both have created reputations for themselves in recent history by seriously broadening their style offerings, even opening their doors on “off” nights to less mainstream acts.

“Every time I read your blog, you’re on somebody’s case about SOMETHING. I wanna know what crawled up in your a** and died?” – Ben S.

In most cases, I wouldn’t actually dignify this with a response, especially since this is an excerpt from an entire letter’s worth of spite. Rather than ignoring this axe-grinder outright, though, I chose instead to print his letter, solely so that I may frame a particular rant. Thanks, guy.

Many of you saw the blog that circulated the local MySpace pages this weekend concerning events at Saturday’s Burning Bridges show. Their guitarist, Kenny Seay, made an exasperated post about a severe act of sabotage that could’ve potentially wrecked their second night. Instruments were messed with, knobs were moved, items seemingly stolen, and less-than-cordial graffiti found its way onto Seay’s stuff. And yet, I have something up my a** because I bust someone’s chops in an attempt to encourage people to step it up. Whoever it was picked on a cover band – because they play covers. It's such a trivial way to make a point that it's quite maddening. That’s not punk. That’s like pushing over a kid in a wheelchair. Good job.

That kind of behavior is a symptom of the self-inflated attitude I take so much pride in letting the air out of, and this will be no exception. In the days since, I’m sure they’ve high-five'd each other constantly in celebration of their ingenuity and become legends among their circle of equally pathetic friends. But unlike their heroes, they’ve no real trouble to see or message to send. The security at Valley View Mall is the only social oppression I think they’ve ever experienced, so their attempt at making a bold statement about their principles has ended up a laughable recital; the difference between Lincoln’s stirring speech to Gettysburg some 140 years ago and the one playing on repeat that comes out of his robot at Disney. I guess what I’m trying to say is, maybe something did crawl up my a** and die, but at least it wasn’t my own head.

“Just what are you trying to imply with the whole musicians unwilling to share the spotlight line? Not everybody in town is like that.” – Chris R.

Another question I see pretty frequently. While not everyone shares the family mentality (as we just discussed), Roanoke’s musicians are a pretty tight-knit group by comparison. It’s not uncommon for me to see bands out on their nights off, joining the party and showing support for other acts around town. No, not everyone literally hordes the spotlight. But what I’m really talking about here is a perception among the public that there are only a handful of talented bands in the area. Shining that spotlight past someone else’s tall shadow is really what I’m aiming for, but it’s just cooler to me to use the Knight Rider parody. Why? Because I can. Deal with it.

"You don’t seem to mind printing the mail from your readers, but I was wondering what kind of feedback you usually get from bands?" – Paris H.

That’s honestly something I’d never thought of until I got this letter, but you make an excellent point. Since I started the Phantom, most of the bands I’ve talked about have been pretty positive. Besides being smart enough to realize how tongue-in-cheek some of this stuff can be, they are able to laugh at themselves a bit and come across as genuinely grateful for the insight and inherent exposure. Several have written in and reported new faces in their crowds a week or two after I talk about them, and a few even repost or republish their “Phantom Review,” wearing it as some sort of badge. While there are a few acts who have said nothing, I tend to assume this is because they haven’t seen it, but it could also be that they didn’t want to acknowledge it. Not that I’d really lose sleep over something like that.

"This probably doesn’t count as a question, but I figure you’d be the guy who’d know. If all the bands in town got in a street fight, who would win?" – Howard C.

Wow. What a great thought. If we pitted 16 of Roanoke’s best in a tournament of death, who would come out on top? For once, I’m speechless. Fortunately, I have a few of those empty March Madness brackets sitting around, so we can solve this diplomatically. I want all my readers, bands and fans alike, to help me find a winner! In the next week, write in to nominate your favorite band, I’ll take the top 16, and then we’ll determine the match ups. Each week, as a small part of the regular column, we’ll size up each fight and let you vote, reality show style. The winner will get something cool. I have no idea what, but I’ve got some time to think about it. So stop what you’re doing right now and vote. Well, I mean, finish reading this and THEN go vote. Good.

What a week. Some great questions, some great answers (if I do say so myself), a new tournament, and I’ve got some cool news. The Phantom’s inaugural band interview will be taking place soon, and TK421 were chosen as my test case. Look for that in an upcoming column, and start thinking about who you’d like me to interview next…assuming I pull this off. What am I talking about? Of course I’ll pull this off. And you will enjoy it. I promise. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom