Cleveland is a rock 'n' roll town. It's a hip-hop town, a blues town, a folk town. To be clear, it's a music town, and that's why we love it here.
Considering our annual criticisms of the Rock Hall and our regular grumbling over tour schedules that skip our fair city, we're very much the spoiled, angsty teens of the national music circuit. We want our music, and we want it now.
Thankfully, Cleveland is fertile ground for locals interested in picking up an instrument and making music on a stage somewhere. Across all genres, young kids and longtime vets alike are churning out incredible sets at venues all over town. We write about this stuff constantly, and yet we're always encountering local bands and artists that are new to our ears and awesome in every sense of the word.
With that, we turn your attention toward 14 local bands that we think are going to do fantastic things in the year ahead. We tried to capture the essence of several different scenes in Cleveland with this list, bringing together bands that you may have heard already and bands that you've never heard of. There are many more that we aren't highlighting here — and, hopefully, as you peruse this list and do your headphone homework, you'll greet them all in the bars and clubs that make Cleveland spin. It's a wonderful city out there. Go listen to it.
Archie and the Bunkers
A group that consists of teenage brothers Emmett and Cullen O'Connor on drums and keyboards respectively, Archie and the Bunkers has quickly picked up a buzz since forming in 2013. Initially, the duo didn't think it could generate enough sound. But after taking inspiration from the Screamers, an old L.A. punk band that had no guitars or bass guitars, the guys thought they could do it and began recording music in their basement where they cut their first two self-produced EPs. "We bought some mics and an interface and went with it," says Cullen when asked about the basement sessions. "Our computer was so old that it cut out midway through recording a song so we often had to record things over and over." Influences range from jazz organ greats like Jimmy Smith and Richard "Groove" Holmes to punk icons Dead Boys and the Stooges. Before releasing their full-length debut, which came out this year, the brothers sent demos to several labels, but the folks at the U.K.-based Dirty Water Records were the most excited about releasing the album. And so the duo recorded 12 songs at Ghetto Recorders in Detroit. Famed producer/engineer Jim Diamond (the White Stripes) captures their "Hi-Fi Organ Punk" sound that Emmett describes as "rock 'n' roll that's been peeled back to its raw foundation." In February, the band will headline two nights at the Golden Tiki in Las Vegas, and in May it's headed to Europe for a three-week tour that includes a few festival dates. The guys also were just in the studio recording tracks for several projects, including a 7-inch single expected out in late April. While the band played about 20 shows in town in 2015, it plans to play only a handful of local shows in 2016 and will instead focus on developing regionally, nationally and even internationally. (Jeff Niesel) archieandthebunkers.com
Personal struggles aren't anything new to Cleveland's Case Bargè. He's managed to overcome adversities that ranged from homelessness to being robbed to having a hernia in his brain and subsequently learning to walk again. His music is conscious, passionate and determined and has drawn comparisons to contemporaries such as Andre 3000, Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar, among a few others. His previous project, Ghost, was received well, but it is Barge's latest work, Insanity, that's destined to take him over the top and be his most personal project yet. "I titled this project Insanity, mainly because of what I was feeling at the time," he says. "Insane and misunderstood, on top of everything going on in the world." Production on the album is handled by the likes of Phrazes, Blokhead Johnny, Will and Boca. He collaborated with Tezo on the single "Yax" and dropped a short film for "Affliction" prior to the album's release. "Before writing ['Affliction'], I was about to give up on everything," he says. "Just the feeling of neglect, not being appreciated, and being misunderstood can kill a soul. Throughout the process of creating and just my day-to-day, I've grown to learn more about myself and life in general. A lot of low times through the process of Insanity, but I feel like I had to go through it all to be where I am today and I appreciate every moment and soul involved." (Emanuel Wallace)
Cities and Coasts
Back in 2007, singer-guitarist Nathan Hedges was signed to a small Virginia label and released a solo album. As he started to put a backing band together, he recruited Welshly Arms' drummer Michael Gould who, in turn, helped him put a band together. Last year, they started recording as Cities & Coasts; the ever-rotating line-up continues to shift with each recording session, and that's by design. "I wanted it be a revolving cast," says Hedges, who cites old-school punk acts such as Bad Religion and Offspring as well as classic rock acts such as Beatles and the Who as influences. He's particularly happy with the current line-up, which includes many members of other local acts, including Jon Bryant and Bri Bryant, two sharp, soulful locals who have their own damn band, Jabtune. "The whole point is to embrace the scene. We have friends in different bands, and it's great to get out there and support each other. It keeps us on our toes, and people in the crowd can see different influences working their way into the live show. Jon and Bri Bryant are always with us and they add a huge depth and dynamics, and the sax adds another texture. It's a really fun group that we're playing with right now." After releasing its debut last year, the band had a busy summer. "We played a lot of shows and did a good job of promoting ourselves and doing the shameless self-promotion," says Hedges. "We got asked to do a lot of summer festivals and that helped us. We kept getting invited to do more and that exposure helped us grow our fan base. We are a relatively new band, but the amount we played helped us define our sound, which has really expanded." Earlier this year, the band released a new single, "Finer than Gold." With its husky vocals and a jangly guitar riff, the song sounds like vintage Springsteen. "We kept a retro vibe, but I would say it's got more a Motown vibe," explains Hedges. "There are Motown undertones on the first record. All of the influences that we define as our sound on the first record are still there." Hedges says that the forthcoming full-length will sound even more diverse than the music the band's made in the past. (Niesel) citiesandcoasts.com
Ray Flanagan and the Authorities
By now, Ray Flanagan seems ubiquitous on the local rock circuit. And he is. It's telling, however, that he and his band got together as recently as 2012 when they were living in Medina. Though he's overseen a handful of line-up changes since then, the original incarnation came together via a number of different high school bands. With Flanagan at the helm, they united and began to rock. Earlier this year, he released A Hard Shell to Break, a sophomore album that shows no signs of slump. "There just isn't any bullshit on it. I mean, we recorded it live, so what you hear is what we did," Flanagan says. He grew up playing Metallica and Pantera — heavy stuff — and later veered toward Springsteen and the Americana scene. And the blend of those influences certainly comes across clearly on this latest album: It's a fairly intense piece of rock 'n' roll, anchored by Flanagan's inventive riffs and his band's well-informed sense of dynamics. It's one of our favorite local albums from this past year. "I think if you want to hear a real, true rock 'n' roll album — guys sweatin' it out in a room together — that's that record," Flanagan says. Keep an eye out for various new forms of the band in 2016; Flanagan tells us he's considering dropping the "Authorities" moniker. There's always been an element of uncertainty in the line-up (i.e., people move away, coming and going) and, well, it's always tough to keep a band together. Beyond that, Flanagan is often playing shows as the Ray Flanagan Trio or solo outings with other musicians. He's also planning on hitting the road sometime next year, bringing his Cleveland vibe to more exotic locales. And, heads up: Flanagan's got another album on his mind as we flip the calendar to the next year. (Sandy) rayflanagan.net
It was Christmas night in 2014 when DJ Red-I (Brittany Benton) and Playne Jayne (Samantha Flowers) joined forces to form the hip-hop duo, FreshProduce. What originally began as a few impromptu ciphers soon became the full-length album, We Are FreshProduce. The album is a blend of thought-provoking lyrics paired with lush, soulful beats. In 2015, they released their first single, "More Like You," and they soon thereafter released a video for "The Stroll." Playne Jayne cites Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill as two of her earliest influences on her decision to become an emcee. "At 11 years old, I went to the Lauryn Hill Miseducation concert and it felt like Lauryn spoke directly to me," she says. "What she talked about made so much sense, she looked like me and was so talented. After the concert, I got a T-shirt and a notebook and that's where I started as an emcee." DJ Red-I attributes her sound to the diverse genres of music she effortlessly spins on a regular basis. "Most of my experience comes from years of DJing and collecting different styles of music," she says. "I grew up listening to reggae, soul, jazz and hip-hop. The base of my production style comes from constantly blending these styles for the dance floor and making people move to the music." This year, the ladies rocked stages at Grog Shop, Mahall's and the Bop Stop. In 2016, FreshProduce has plans to embark upon a 20-date European tour and release their second project — tentatively titled Duce. (Wallace) wearefreshproduce.com
After gigging in bands around Columbus for a decade or so, singer-guitarist Chad Hoffman found himself wanting to strike out on his own and pursue work as a solo musician. Since then, he's spent time in Michigan and Cleveland, where he resides now and works full-time as a professional musician. "I quit the day job," he told us. "It's been a blessing." Nowadays, you can find Hoffman playing sets all over town, most nights of the week. We ran into him a while back at Rush Inn in Lakewood, strumming a fine blend of reinvented covers and enticing originals. The crowd, always actively engaging with Hoffman's music and wit, was completely into it. On top of his guitar, Hoffman has crafted some kit drums — little percussion instruments for his feet, which keep the music grounded and lively. He says that, as a solo musician, he's got complete creative control over his domain. That's the part he loves. But he's also putting his neck on the line every time his writes and performs alone. "I always try to squeeze in as many originals as I can get away with," he says, adding that, at the end of the day, a good deal of the audience base in Cleveland clamors for tunes they know and can dance to. "Even though it's not in my wheelhouse of musical inspiration, it's so much fun. Those songs really force me to be creative." With a song list of more than 300 covers, Hoffman finds himself able to stretch his legs on a lot of tunes. He'll dip into hip-hop — and pop singers like Lady Gaga and her hits — to put a twist on the Americana guitarist's vibe. As 2016 opens up, Hoffman is working on building a studio in his home, so do expect more material from him — both on the Internet and, of course, at a lovely little bar near you. (Sandy) chadsolo.com