Cleveland is the rock-and-roll capital of the free world, but for the area's working musicians, I.M. Pei's shimmering pyramid may as well be nestled against a stream in Montana. In recent years bands of all stripes have struggled mightily to break out of Northeast Ohio.
For all its proud music history, Cleveland doesn't provide broad shoulders for today's musician to stand on. Cities with notable music scenes (Athens, Minneapolis, Seattle, Austin--hell, even Columbus) all have major universities with centralized club districts and young, eager crowds. We have two sides of town that might as well be divided by slabs of cement and barbed wire, commercial radio that takes as many chances as the Swiss in wartime, and a blue-collar spirit that is giving way to white-collar malaise.
Still . . .
Our first Scene Music Awards and Showcase have given us a rush of optimism for area bands and solo artists. As we gathered the nominations, planned the showcase, and counted the ballots (more than expected), the pride began creeping back, and we hope it spills over to those who think Cleveland rocks only in the past or on Wednesday nights at 9 (8 Central).
A note about the awards: Bands were nominated by fifty or so area professionals--club owners, producers, promoters, writers, etc. You will decide the winners through ballots that have run in Scene and been distributed around town. The winners will be announced during a break at the Showcase at the Agora Theatre Saturday night.
The show begins at 7 p.m. with Alexis Antes, followed by (in order of appearance and subject to change) Hilo, Carlos Jones and the P.L.U.S. Band, Hostile Omish, Cryptkicker, the Cowslingers, Mr. Tibbs, Colin Dussault's Blues Project, and the TwistOffs. The awards will be presented after Mr. Tibbs's set, probably around 11 p.m.
--David Martin, Scene music editor
Band briefs were written by David Martin, David Powers, Aaron Steinberg, Michael Seese, Steve Byrne, Sarah E. Tascone, and Bill Gibb.
When Bob Pollard, Dayton's singin' schoolteacher-turned-indie rock god, wanted to freshen the sound of his Guided by Voices, he looked to the North, enlisting Cobra Verde. The band--John Petkovic, Doug Gillard, Don Depew, and Dave Swanson--had been described as heavy metal and "literate, eloquent, and petulant." Pollard, needless to say, found this dichotomy appealing.
Cobra Verde's stint as Voices didn't last longer than one album, Mag Earwhig!, though Gillard has stuck with Pollard. The Cobras will finally release their next record, the glammy Night Life, in June. (The artwork will picture two young women in the back of a limousine, one of whom is Mick Ronson's daughter.) Less a band than a collective with Petkovic at the center, Cobra Verde plans to tour when the record comes out. "I've kind of taken to the idea that bands are like softball teams," Petkovic says. "You don't really want to keep a stuck lineup."
It was impossible not to attend Cyde's CD release party at the Odeon last winter and not feel good about homegrown rock music. Before a thick crowd of teenagers and those of legal drinking age, Cyde seemed ready to conquer the world, failed ambitions of other Northeast Ohio bands be damned. The sound is slick, grinding, and timelier than today's headlines. More fun than Korn and less self-conscious than Rage Against the Machine, Cyde offers the Doc Martened chain-choker crowd a welcome feel for pop and Akron white-boy hip-hop.
The Joker to singer/guitarist Shawn Hackel's Batman, Mark Sterle plays sax, jumps around like a gas station attendant who just won the Lotto, sings occasionally, and isn't afraid to whip out the flute. Ian Anderson never looked half this good.
Miami University turns out more than CPAs and forwards named Wally. The three founding members of Rosavelt--singer/guitarists Kevin Grasha and Chris Allen and drummer Miles Loretta--left the leafy college with their rock-and-roll chops intact. No easy feat at a school marinating in National Honor Society geeks and Gap-uniformed Greeks.
Rosavelt's latest, the spankin' new Transistor Blues, doesn't try to mimic the Americana records leaking out of Austin and Nashville like Brylcreem at a truck stop. It's a rewarding rock record willing to show intelligence and tenderness without relying on irony or self-pity. Years ago, the Replacements opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. If that bill was looking for a third band, Rosavelt would have been the one.
The sound is as sweet as the name. Superkreme's guitars are big and bright, the high-hat chirps merrily, the choruses soar, and the background heys, whoos, and handclaps are dispatched like cheerful pawns. Singer/guitarists Matt Sobol (formerly of the Waynes) and Susan Rasch write tasty-sounding pop rock songs, but the insides are filled with lyrics about jerk boyfriends, homely adolescents, and antisocial tendencies. Imagine Matthew Sweet palling around with a refined Chrissie Hynde. Bassist Paul Lewis and drummer Jeff Harmon, who slung hash with the Jehova Waitresses, provide the muscle, and producer Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Pavement) gives Superkreme, the band's debut, all the necessary sheen. The record came out in October on a label, Acme, that was scooped up by the Biggie-sized Universal.
Tender Blindspot had just parted with a singer who had to rely on a lyric notebook at live shows when Liz Wittman showed up at a recording session. Someone suggested she could sing, and Wittman was given a tryout. The guys in the band, then students at St. Ignatius, at first were worried about handing the microphone to, well, a girl. "We were afraid we'd turn into the Cranberries, and we couldn't rock," remembers guitarist Adam Prestak, but Wittman demolished those doubts.
Tender Blindspot is back in the studio, cutting tracks for a demo tape the band will take on an upcoming three-week tour. Prestak says the new stuff is "a little more hard-edge, a little more upbeat. I think it's more interesting, more technical." The band may not be able to drink legally while on the road, but other sins are in reach. "I can smoke now," Prestak says. "That's really neat."
Back when Blue Lunch had a regular Sunday night gig at Wilbert's, engineer Jim Horn decided to tape the show. Vocalist/guitarist Bob Frank recorded the same show on a cassette recorder. Frank liked what he heard on his little tape and asked to hear Horn's copy. He sat in the studio thinking, "Jesus, we got a CD here."
That humble gig became Recorded Live at Wilbert's, which Blue Lunch released in 1997. On the disc the band performs smooth renditions of songs written by the likes of Willie Dixon, Eddie Jones, and Freddie King. Frank says that Blue Lunch is trying to capture the sound of the late '40s and early '50s, when "blues, rock and roll, R&B, and swing were the same thing." Next month, Wilbert's will release Blue Lunch's second CD, Eyes Wide Open, which was cut in the studio and features more original material than Live.
Colin Dussault's Blues Project
On the one hand, there's the "blue" blues. You know, the "she done left me and took the dog" blues. And then there's Colin Dussault. The self-proclaimed "hardest working bluesman in Northeast Ohio" always sounds upbeat, even when singing the line "I can't carry on another day" from James Taylor's "Fire & Rain." On his third album, Moving On, the 29-year-old vocalist/harmonica player covers a wide range of styles, including gospel, Eagles-style country rock, and even blues tinged with heavy metal (think Eric Clapton playing "Helter Skelter"). The strong-voiced Dussault can belt out phrases like "I just wanna be your lover man" and compete with the backing brass, or he can tone it down as he trades off with an acoustic guitar and flute in a more pensive moment. Dussault also knows something about restraint, adding tasteful touches on the harp--fills which are neither excessive nor over-the-top à la John Popper. Be prepared to find something you like.
Like Mr. Downchild, Wallace Coleman's career has been intertwined with Robert Lockwood's. But Lockwood was more than a friend and a mentor. The older bluesman asked Coleman to join his band in 1985, making Coleman the first resident harmonica player in Lockwood's group.
Coleman came to Cleveland from rural Tennessee in 1956 seeking work. He continued to teach himself the harmonica and became an accomplished enough harp player to turn professional, teaming up with Guitar Slim at the old Cascade Lounge. It was there that Lockwood found him. Coleman is credited with inventing the harmonica parts for the songs of Lockwood's stepfather, Robert Johnson.
Coleman has been leader of his own Wallace Coleman Band since 1997. The group's debut album is in the Chicago/harmonica blues style of men like Little Walter Jacobs and Sonny Boy Williamson, whom Coleman heard on the radio as a youth. Living Blues magazine called the CD "delightful" and "one of the year's finest offerings."
Mr. Downchild & the Houserockers
Stephen Brazier, alias Mr. Downchild, a London native now living in South Euclid, didn't move to the U.S. because he had gotten so big in Britain that he needed to become a tax exile. Brazier, 48, arrived on the left side of the Atlantic in 1985 seeking the roots of the music that had grabbed him the first time he'd heard Sonny Boy Williamson II, more than twenty years earlier.
Downchild began playing harmonica with Robert Lockwood Jr., a man he would regard as his strongest influence. But Downchild proved he was more than just a sideman. He's as skilled on electric National steel guitars as he is on the harp. He can do Delta blues and Chicago blues with equal verve, conveying an emotional rawness the music was intended to have. Blues purists have hailed his three albums.
Robert Lockwood Jr.
He is--along with John Lee Hooker, Henry Townsend, and Honeyboy Edwards--one of the few first-generation blues guitarists (born before 1920) still alive, let alone still working. Lockwood, 84, was born in rural Arkansas and was already skilled playing piano and guitar when his mother became the common-law wife of the legendary Robert Johnson. Lockwood was taught in the Johnson style--shocking, because Johnson was famous for tightly guarding his fingering.
But Lockwood is more than just an interpreter of Johnson's songs. His life represents the migration of the blues from the country to the city, from the South to the North. Lockwood has been influenced by jazz and R&B as well as Delta and urban blues. He has hung around with Rice Miller (Sonny Boy No. 2) and Doctor (Peter) Clayton. He has recorded with B.B. King and Johnny Shines.
Lockwood has made few concessions to age. He remains one of the more inventive blues guitarists in the world.
Cleveland proved too small for the ebony-and-ivory partnership of Chris Butler and Chris Ackerman. The duo, which started cutting demos when they were in high school, moved to L.A. after a promising show at the Whisky-a-Go-Go. It doesn't appear that life in Cali caused Bloodshot to forget where it came from. The pair's new single, "Whorekneedrunkenhigh," which somehow manages to recall opposites as polar as The The and Musical Youth, references life on Cleveland's East Side.
Bloodshot scored with local radio stations and record buyers with 1997's Vinyl Frontier, selling 7,000 copies. Presently the pair is readying the June release of Nocturnal Emission.
Six years after being discovered by Easy-E, Bone Thugs have gone from the neighborhood of East 99th and St. Clair to winning a Grammy and an American Music Award on the power of the 1997 double album The Art of War, which redefined rap by marrying R&B to hip-hop. Since then, Krayzie Bone and Bizzy Bone have both produced solo records, but word has it that the group is returning to L.A. to cut a new album this year.
Now indelibly stamped on the minds of the MTV nation, it's almost unfair to consider Bone Thugs a Cleveland act, but given the group's own civic pride, we'll let it slide. Every year the Bones provide a massive Thanksgiving spread for their old neighborhood and dress as Santas to pass out toys to the kids, not to mention mine the old stomping grounds for new recruits to its Mo Thugs label.
Cleveland City Crookz
The day after Cleveland City Crookz finished laying down tracks for their album, lead rapper Dayrome Anderson was shot and killed in East Cleveland. Neighbors said that Anderson, who went by the stage name Dead Wrong, was trying to break up a fight when shots were fired into the crowd. He was 21 years old.
The Crookz carried on after his 1997 slaying, albeit slowly. Atlanta-based Front-Line Entertainment will release the record, which is named for the group's fallen leader, on May 25. Given their upbringing on Cleveland's mean streets and violent death of one member, it would be easy to assume the Crookz are just another gangsta act recycling West Coast beats. But they show a flair for pop, R&B, and funk as well as a sensitivity beyond their years.
Poets of Another Breed
When the six guys in this Akron hip-hop group are openers, the compound chemical reaction with headliners' audiences sometimes yields sodium chloride, sometimes the Unabomber's surprise gift recipe. But they didn't expect the aphrodisiac effect when they mixed with Salt-N-Pepa. "Our audience is 60 percent male. We never played for young girls. We felt like a boy band--all of a sudden we were the Backstreet Boys," says drummer Patrick McNulty. "We were thinking that maybe we should go after another market here."
But with their interactive, block-party-style shows, Poets of Another Breed have enough feathers in their caps. They plan to keep making music that doesn't sound as though it fell off an assembly line. "Hip-hop is watered down now. Everybody's doing the same beat, rappin' about the same thing," says McNulty. "We're more original, so they don't feel that they can imitate us and do what we do better."
Why just get around when you can ride in a supercharged outer space pimpship? Why just turn on the radio when you can feast on "jivincosmicfunkalistic groove music"? Why go by Adam when you can be 4NLDTO?
Boodah's Toothbrush continues in the tradition that believes funk is not of this world, but from a remote planet where citizens wear big-ass sunglasses. A funk band first and foremost, Boodah also drops in traces of rap and reggae. The band doesn't blast you with a wall of horns; a single saxophone does most of the work. And not everything is designed to send rumps grinding. On Shipwrecked on Planet Earth, singer Jake Simms's full-bodied voice often tempts a little intergalactic snuggling.
Recent transplant Mr. Tibbs has become a fast fixture in Cleveland. Each funkster brings a furiously varied resume to the band, including variable connections (stints, studies, and the like) with Fishbone, Michael Stanley Band, and Meat Loaf, just to name a few. From the eclectic background comes musicianship both agile and limber--melodic vocals and a dead-on rhythm section replete with tight horns and keys.
Its purpose seems clearly focused: The band wants nothing more or less than simple, down-and-dirty funk. Or perhaps not. Its latest CD, Bring Back the Robot, finds Mr. Tibbs dropping a few tracks before ambition sets in with an eight-song funk opera (the band's term). For the extravaganza, complete with robo-vocals, the band members cast themselves as intergalactic funk heroes who recover Earth's stolen soul. Funk Mozarts, or campsters who've watched one too many episodes of the Superfriends? Even Mr. Tibbs's camp keeps a mean groove.
If you're looking for dull, look somewhere else. But if you want shifting rhythms and interlocking instruments--a veritable aerobics class for your ears--try the TwistOffs. Blending elements of Latin, folk, marching band/big band, and punk into the rock and roll format, the TwistOffs generate a "hard-hitting and upbeat, Chicago-on-nitrous, Clevoholic twang that keeps 'em swingin' from the Lake Erie Islands to the Baja peninsula." At least so claims their website. The seven-piece band, which grew out of the Kent music scene, has been a party favorite throughout the '90s, logging more than 2,000 shows over the past eight years. Though the focus on Big Sounds From the Township is primarily ska, the album also touches on salsa and Athens rock at times reminiscent of early R.E.M. Think They Might Be Giants meets the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and you have the TwistOffs.
Alexis Antes co-founded local folk favorite Odd Girl Out when she was eighteen years old. Between 1990 and 1995, the quintet--whose signature sound was built upon the sweet vocal interaction between Antes, Anne E. DeChant, and Victoria Fliegel--developed an extensive following in Northeast Ohio. Now flying solo, Antes handles most of the songwriting chores on her debut, Stronger. Antes's music fits in the same basic mold as Odd Girl Out, so fans should not be disappointed. Gone, however, are the soaring harmonies; instead, listeners are treated to a lone voice in the wilderness singing introspective, soul-searching ballads about disillusionment, heartache, and growth--songs which would not be out of place on a disc by Paula Cole. The scaled-back vocals also allow Antes's impressive acoustic guitar work to shine through, whether working in concert with a simple piano or trading licks with a funky bass.
Alex Bevan hasn't been around as long as salt--it just seems that way. The East Cleveland native has been haunting clubs, coffeehouses, and the lakeshore ever since he picked up a six-string in 1965. He's still going strong, last year releasing a live CD, Rules of the Road, recorded at the Grand River Wine Company. Bevan mixes party songs with melancholic pieces to the delight of his loyal audience.
His rules of the road are pretty simple: 1) Show up to play, and 2) Get your own self home. A photo in the CD booklet may sum up Bevan better than any two-chord motto: Looking cheerful and determined, he's pictured carrying an amp across a boat dock.
If you've washed down a pint of Guinness at Fado or Sheehan's Pub, you've probably done so with Brigid's Cross playing in the background. Three or four nights a week the trio shaves off a slice of Ireland, just like the guy in the old soap commercial. Brigid's Cross plays traditional and contemporary Irish music as well as its own originals and the occasional folk or soft-rock cover.
The group--Peggy Goonan-Baker (vocals, keyboards), Wally Franz (vocals, guitar), and Paul Baker (fiddle)--formed three years ago and has performed at destinations as remote as Key West and Las Vegas. "Cross Dressers," as the trio's fans are known, will have plenty of opportunities to check out Brigid's this summer when the festival season gets under way.
Anne E. DeChant
Like Alexis Antes, Anne E. DeChant made a name for herself after Odd Girl Out disbanded. Her voice, emotive lyrics, and pop songwriting abilities have won her a small pile of readers' poll awards and charmed critics. (When Plain Dealer icon Jane Scott praises your vocal cords and your fashion sense, that's a good day.)
Two years ago DeChant released Effort of the Spin, which featured the talented Frank Romano on guitar. Her music is often compared to that of pop priestesses Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow, but lately DeChant and a new band have wandered into edgier territory. She says that the authentic Anne E. resides somewhere between Odd Girl Out and the recent darker rumblings.
It's far more poetic to write a song about a horse with no name at all than a horse named Oscar, but that's not going to stop Barking Spider house troubadour Jeff Varga from honoring his kindred spirit. "I'm in the midst of writing a play called Conversations With My Horse. It's an amazing thing to bond with an animal that's 1,000 pounds," says Varga.
Bonding with creatures and audiences large and small is the key to his longevity in the Cleveland contemporary folk scene. Varga is known as much for his humanitarianism as for his classically trained tenor, unscathed by a bout with a cancerous tumor five years ago. Every year since he turned, ah, the age he turned a couple of years ago, Varga has been holding a birthday party benefit for the Make-a-Wish Foundation for terminally ill children. He also founded a nonprofit organization of his own, Musicians United Strongly in Community (M.U.S.I.C.).
Late last year Biastfear placed an ad in Scene for a new vocalist who could sing "in the Living Colour vein." The first to answer the call was Del Mario Watts, who got the job. Bringing Watts aboard was not like switching the Darrens on Bewitched--the change was much more radical. The ponderous death-metal grunts and groans heard on the band's CD, The Ties That Bind, were replaced with the hip-hop/R&B flava that Watts brought. "We're not all thousand-miles-an-hour," says bass player Rob Schultz. "We still groove, but it's more laid-back." Biastfear thinks that the new sound will separate the band from others in the crowded Cleveland metal market--a real possibility, given the enthusiastic crowd response the band enjoyed at a show opening for Vanilla Ice.
Taking its name from a Scooby-Doo villain, Coinmonster is a mystery machine tuned by metal, prog rock, and weirdos like Frank Zappa and Les Claypool. Together eight years, the trio has released four full-length records, including last year's Universal Solvent, which blipped onto the College Music Journal's Loud Rock charts. Like a lot of metal bands, Coinmonster has yet to put the bad name Alice in Chains behind it, but the band's skills and fondness for covers like "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and Rush's "La Villa Strangiato" show it doesn't borrow all its moves from the emaciated frame of Layne Staley. On "The Kid Across the Street," singer/guitarist Jon Jon Reider even affects a soothing, Michael McDonald-esque falsetto.
Where's the love? Not on the records or the live shows. Cryptkicker rips open the earth and emits a belch from hell. The music is as heavy as a grand piano dropped from a crane, and the message has "hate" tattooed on both sets of knuckles. The workmanlike band does not, however, aim the blowtorch at its sizable fan base. Cryptkicker keeps the prices of tickets, CDs, and merchandise low. The strategy has paid off: Welcome to the Church of Hate and Unusually High Level of Hate have sold 5,000 copies combined. The band does have a lighter side. On Blessed Be Thy Shame, the song "Sanford and Son . . . and Satan" features demonic noises over the peppy theme song from the beloved Redd Foxx sitcom. Here comes the big one, Elizabeth.
It's a common rock-and-roll story: Members of various bands form a side project. Side project is more fun and more effective than other bands. Other bands kissed off.
Such was the formula that produced Disengage in Kent in 1994. (Now the band calls Cleveland home.) Citing the Blacks--Sabbath and Flag--as influences, Disengage says that it wants to "save the music world from the lack of having a straightforward and crushing hard rock group." There are worse things a band can aspire to than world domination. The band's last CD, Teeth, Heart and Tail, released in late 1997 by Cambodia, shovels heavy, intricate riffs and nihilistic lyrics into the coal burner. Stand back: The smoke is thick.
Ah, what to say about the band that nearly turned the normally quiet town of Streetsboro into the 1968 Democratic National Convention? When the student radio station wanted to put on a show headlined by the 'Shrooms at Streetsboro High, local religious leaders and the mayor got twitchy.What's the fuss? Heavy metal, theatrical costumes, the occasional live sex act. Wandering the aisles of the same horror shops as Kiss, GWAR, and the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, and cribbing musical tricks from bombastic acts like Faith No More, Mushroomhead didn't become the city's biggest draw by worrying about offending anyone. A universe unto itself.
A drummer vested in jazz but not at all unwilling to entertain, Greg Bandy has only one recording as a leader: 1997's Lighting! in a Bottle, an album that features his singing on tunes like "Good Booty and Barbecue" alongside jazzier fare. But Bandy has certainly made a sizable impact on the greater jazz discography. After growing up in Cleveland and migrating to New York, Bandy has lent his able backbeat to the recordings and performances of jazz luminaries such as Pharaoh Sanders, "Groove" Holmes, and Betty Carter, and local tough guys like pianist Eric Gould. Only Bandy knows why he gave up New York for quieter Cleveland, but the city's a jazzier place for it. Now a professor at Oberlin College and Tri-C, the drummer has not only been raising the general jazz consciousness of the city through education; he also occasionally demonstrates the pleasant habit of bringing out-of-town friends in for performances.
Joe Deninzon gave up the guitar when he departed for Indiana University on a jazz scholarship, but couldn't give up on the sound. Joe still loves that chugging, chthonic '70s fusion, and when he makes a grab for his violin, he never lets you forget it. Playing straight on his main instrument, the six-string electric violin, Deninzon can sound somewhat folky, like a space-age Stephane Grappelli. But when he's surrounded by a throng of keyboards, basslines, and backbeats, Deninzon stacks up the amps and wah-wah pedals and works his ax over like an ungrateful stepchild. Miles-style '70s fusion has gone from unfashionable to music-of-the-moment overnight, and Deninzon's debut album, Electric Blue, fits right in. A set of originals plus one Monk, this sometimes bombastic, sometimes moody CD, with heavy doses of funk and even a hint of country, should satisfy the local fusion fanatic until Deninzon finishes up his master's degree and returns from New York.
Forecast is perhaps the only group nominated for a music award that you need a private invitation to see. Once a fixture in the Cleveland clubs for nearly two decades, the band of late has been performing more lucrative gigs at private parties while marshaling time and money into the completion of a long-promised debut CD. A two-song preview should be available by the end of May. While the Forecast style traditionally has been jazz/urban contemporary, the band's CD will weave in reggae, rock, and even classical elements, as a danceable groove remains the common denominator.
Brothers Robert and Rodney Hubbard grew up in a musical family and graduated from the Cleveland School of Arts. For the last three and a half years, they've played together in Moment's Notice, a contemporary smooth jazz band. "We have a different feel," says Rodney, the keyboard player. "We have a hump to our music. In other words, you feel the backbeat." Robert is the drummer and bandleader, Dave Hemann plays guitar, Walter Barnes plays bass, and sax duties are shared by Eddie Baccus Jr. and Jermaine Lockhart.
Moment's Notice is taking time out from club appearances at 6th Street Under and the Diamondback Brewery to record a new CD. The band emerged last Sunday to back up Walter Hawkins at the Tri-C JazzFest's gospel program at the Ohio Theatre.
Cecil Rucker & the Good Vibe
Cecil Rucker began his musical career behind the drums. In the mid-'70s, when he was a student at Tri-C, Roy Ayers introduced him to the vibraphone. "It was difficult," Rucker says of the change in instruments. "I was a drummer. We didn't have to deal with notes." Rucker's first professional break was playing in the Sam Blackshaw Trio. In 1987, he put together his own band, the Good Vibe. The outfit (vibes, organ, drums, and horns) plays traditional be-bop à la Miles and Coltrane.
Rucker has had to brave the deaths of two band members (one in a car accident, one lost to cancer). His secret to being a good bandleader and keeping it all together? "Practice . . . and being humble to the music."
B.E. Mann, also known as "the Energy Man" for his dance-powered live shows, could be one of Cleveland's best-kept secrets. A versatile reggae artist who sings as well as plays the bass, keyboards, guitar, and trumpet, Mann is somewhat a sensation in cities where reggae is seen as it should be seen--through a kaleidoscope rather than a microscope. Influenced more by Motown than Marley, Mann's music is smooth and soulful, not angry or political.
For twelve years Mann has been a king of almost all media, using radio (WAPS-FM/91.3 in Akron), stage (North by Northeast, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert Series), television (Study Jam on WVIZ-TV/Channel 25), and print (writer for Cleveland Tab). Because there was only one track off his latest CD, The Energy Mann, that sounded remotely like First Light, Mann has had a hard time convincing the industry that he's reggae. "They want to market me as 'pop' or 'light music,'" he says.
Ras T. Dubflex
Ras T. Dubflex played jazz fusion and rock and roll before digging his toes into the sandy beaches of reggae. He responded to the music, of course, and also to the strict attention reggae crowds normally pay. "It's like they wait until the band takes a break to get their drinks," he says.
Born in Ohio to parents of Jamaican and Southern descent, Dubflex has a flexible style--incorporating jazz, hip-hop, and rock--and his message emphasizes unity and spiritual consciousness. "I'm not just biasing myself on roots reggae and dancehall reggae," he says. Dubflex frequently plays out of town, even hitting the noted music metropolis of Boise, Idaho. "They love reggae there," he says, "but it's not a huge party town."
Carlos Jones & the P.L.U.S. Band
Citing a drought of inspiration, singer/guitarist Carlos Jones last year walked away from one of the region's most successful bands, First Light, after a fifteen-year run. Jones had a place to go--the P.L.U.S. Band, a side project he formed with keyboardist Peter Platten. Where First Light had scooped liberally from the rock and funk trough, the P.L.U.S. (Peace, Love, and Unity Syndicate) Band felt native pangs, relying more on percussion and less on electric instruments. At a show, you may see everyone in the seven-piece band but the keyboard player rapping on a percussive doohickey.
Jones didn't grow up in the Caribbean. He's a Clevelander who fell hard for Marley. Fans of his First Light days take note: There may be a CD of unreleased First Light material in the works.
With a robust, punchy melody in the horns set against Scott Peters's joshing huckster vocal delivery, Sax-O-Tromba has managed to claw its way to the top of Cleveland's, umm, burgeoning ska scene. But never mind that. Sax-O-Tromba is frequently on top of its game, belting out bouncy, horn-driven tunes underpinned with healthy doses of Midwest punk and metal. For some time, the band has served as Cleveland's skambassadors, opening for every visiting ska whosit and his brother. But in the meantime, with its tight stage show and recently released album The Sponge Phylum, the band has been catching local ears and claiming a hegemony all its own. These (mostly) collegiate types shouldn't be trading diplomas for cross-country tours anytime soon, but lately they've been playing to sizable crowds as openers, then watching them thin before the headliners take stage. Who's your daddy?
Cows in the Graveyard
"What does Cleveland have to do with South America? Cows in the Graveyard."
No, that's not some arcane riddle that isn't supposed to make any sense; it happens to be frontman Alx Alvarez's straight-faced reply. Since the mid-'90s, Cows in the Graveyard have been producing "rock music for the thinking audience," which is based, in some part, on Alvarez's art, which in turn is based on his Peruvian Inca ancestry and spirituality. A lively group of musicians, they have evolved over their three-tape, one-CD career, absorbing influences from hippie rock to Rush-like art rock to their present heavy-metal-inspired sound, which is a grooving, bass-popping twist on various rock genres.
The enigmatic DuValby Bros. entered the stage in the early '90s under the direction of the Boron Bros., Beatle and Buzz. In 1996, they released their debut, The Sleepytime Medicine Band, on Cambodia Recordings, but from there the story gets a little murky. Their website hasn't been updated since prior to the release of Sleepytime, and the Internet's Ultimate Band List (ubl.com) has only this choice phrase to describe them: "Underground noisy/melodic musings that make you [sic] hair stand on end from Cleveland."
Grammar mistakes and contradictions aside, what the UBL is trying to say is that the DuValby Bros. are a bit mysterious. The music is evocative and dark, rumbling along in the background only to suddenly burst into the foreground with a defining beat and tower of guitars. A hailstorm of images descend, leaving you no closer to the truth. It feels epic, in the way early Black Sabbath had the guise of something much bigger lurking below the surface. And who doesn't like a little mystery?
In many ways, the story of Hilo sounds like a modern-rock cliche: Emerging from the blue-collar rubber plants of Akron in 1996, founders Wamis Singhatat and Johnathan Swafford set out to create an "artfully inspired" band. Where other bands are all talk and no action, Hilo managed to translate the rough draft from paper to performance. Hampered at first because it lacked a drummer who could keep up, the group still wrote and performed songs with an ethereal, melodic punk quality and a complex rhythm all its own. Merging the intensity of garage punk with the intelligence and vision of an artistic scientist, Hilo truly has been able to create something new. And as soon as they found a drummer, they cut their portentous debut, This Is the Destroyer. Singhatat has since left the group to study human biology in California, but was replaced by longtime friend Brian Ulrich, a man who shares the original vision and has been able to help carry it to the present.
Rip Van Tinkle
Justin Johnson, "spokesman" for Rip Van Tinkle (rumor has it that he is Rip Van Tinkle), was told by a marketing contact at Sony Records (his mom) that the band could never hope to be signed. It has never played out, produced only CD-R copies of 1998's The Cycle, and then only sold them at live performances of Johnson's "real" band--Mojo Risin, a Doors tribute act. Besides that, the music is eclectic at best, artfully skirting the edges of various mainstream genres, even as it thumbs its nose at the "alternative" avenues. The Cycle fits nowhere and everywhere: Is it punk rock, art rock, folk rock, or hard rock? RVT only professes to offer "an alternative to good music," assuming, of course, that current radio favorites can be called "good." The moniker "Rip Van Tinkle" was adopted by Johnson in 1993 after he listened to his first album (only a few cassette copies were produced) and realized "I'd rather not be personally associated with it."
Speaker/Cranker could just as well bill itself as the Cleveland All-Star Band. Created in late 1997 as a "refuge of free experimentation" by members of bands such as Cobra Verde, Downside Special, Guided by Voices, the New Salem Witch Hunters, and the seminal Pere Ubu, Speaker/Cranker at first only provided spontaneous live music to accompany a traveling silent art-film festival. When the festival ended, it looked as if S/C would vanish as well. Instead, the group took on two new musicians and continued touring without the films. Obvious allusions describe them as "soundtrack rock," but no more incorrect are the epithets "space rock," "psychedelic rock" or "free-jazz rock."
Normally that would add up to a collection of wannabes all playing in different keys and calling it a jam, but fortunately S/C has a good sense of humor, and the band knew that if it wanted to be taken seriously, it had to be able to first dodge self-mockery.
Al's Fast Freight
Howard Micenmacher, singer/songwriter of Al's Fast Freight, admits that he's something of a blank canvas. "I try not to listen to too much music, because I'm so easily influenced," he says. "I just bought Mermaid Avenue [the Wilco-Billy Bragg treatment of lyrics written by Woody Guthrie], and I'm fighting letting that seep in."
When it formed three years ago, Al's Fast Freight had more of a Springsteen/Southside Johnny R&B influence. Now, as evidenced by the band's new CD, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Al's Fast is in touch with its rootsier side. Janice Fields's fiddle and Bill Lestock's mandolin handsomely couch Micenmacher's nasally twang. He sounds like a man crushed by love, bravely fighting back the tears.
Blonde Boy Grunt & the Groans
Mike "Blonde Boy Grunt" Good describes his music as "freight-train-folkabilly-bad-luck blues," which is to say grass-roots hillbilly rock at its finest. Originally a Canal Fulton solo act who embarked on an ambitious tour in 1996 as a street musician, Good took on the Groans when he returned and realized he couldn't do it all himself. In 1997 the full band recorded its first album, All Folked Up, and followed it this year with another selection of Rolling Stones/Woody Guthrie/Johnny Cash/Dylan-inspired tunes, Bar Fronts and Tombstones.
Blonde Boy takes inspiration from the places he's played (mostly on street corners): Key West, Nashville, Memphis, Tucson, Venice Beach, and, of course, Akron/Canton. And like the storytelling minstrels of old, Blonde Boy proves that America's grass roots haven't really changed that much over the decades; nor has the musical medium used to describe them.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans never sounded like this. The Cowslingers are a band looking for a genre. Cowpunk? Twangcore? Y'allternative? Picture the Clash covering "Achy Breaky Heart," and you have an idea of this foursome's frenetic sound. "We've taken the stuff we like from country, rockabilly, and punk rock, and left out the crap," according to vocalist and co-songwriter Greg Miller. Propelled by rapid-fire sliding guitar and Miller's mile-a-minute hiccuping vocals, the Cowslingers come at you like a Texas twister, turning out tunes faster than anything that side of Garth Brooks. The band also throws in covers ranging from Hank Williams to Aerosmith. If you like your salsa with a hit of speed, check out the Cowslingers.
Now that the recent wave of pop country (read: bland rock with lap guitars) has finally subsided, and more than a few of its foremost purveyors have defected to pure pop, a little plot of grass has cleared for bands with twangier ambitions. Hillbilly Idol may have come out of the cold, industrial North, but its unapologetically drawled, back-porch stompers and bluegrass laments warm like a shot of fine Southern whiskey. The band packs its live shows, and the debut record, the aptly titled Town and Country, boasts tight fingerpicking, carpets of guitar sound, vocal harmonies, up-tempos, and shuffle time--all the raw elements of rural American music that high-profile country typically eschews. Hillbilly Idol made a fine showing on the Americana charts recently and also snagged a feature where the competition for country band profiles is a little stiffer: Nashville's main rag, The Tennessean.
It's understandable that guitarist Marky Ray, who has toured with acts like Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Jim Rose, would find comfort in the roots-rock songs of Michael Purkhiser. After that chaos, Purkhiser (Walking Clampetts, the Action) must have looked to Ray like an older brother waiting on the porch, fishing pole in hand.
John Fogerty, Tom Petty, Webb Wilder (and is that ELO we hear?) echo on 3D's EP, Universal Conquest. The band has a timeless sound, one that would go over at an alternative rock club or a roadhouse with chicken wire draping the stage. Purkhiser's voice may have limited range, but it's self-assured, like a Robert Mitchum cameo.
3D amicably opted out a deal with Cleveland-based Fishhead Records, delaying the release of the band's full-length disc, Stere-O-View.
One of the words seldom seen in the Beatnik Termites' discography is "CD." These boys have a shine for vinyl and have released a bundle of singles and full-length projects on wax. The digital age is for suckers.
The Termites also love the Ramones. Drummer Reggie looks like a glue-free Joey, and at Thanksgiving last year the band provided Marky and his band, who were traveling through the area, turkey and trimmings. "They ate like hogs," Reggie said after the meal. A punk band, yes, but the Termites aren't afraid to describe their sound with phrases like "super sugary pop," "bubblegum melodies," and "barbershop harmonies." Next month L.A.-based Recess Records will issue the band's full-length Bubblecore! on CD, cassette, and, of course, vinyl.
The name Up With People! was already taken, so this Cleveland punk band found the next best thing. Kidding. Only the suits and tightly cropped hair suggest this foursome cherish the legacy of Barry Goldwater. They play punk rock that snarls, grabs, prods, and flies a defiant middle finger. Singer Jack Shit (got a problem with that?) wields his voice like a pickax, as guitarist Stefan Diego Ravello lays down licks that could peel paint. The Conservatives' song structures are more complex (a downshift here, a left turn there) than most punk tunes and therefore more rewarding.
The Conservatives' politics? Lefty. Feelings about women? Barely necessary evil. Drugs? Tried 'em. Suicide? Always an option. Professional ambition? Putting the boss's head in a vise. Jaywalking? Sport of kings.
When he stepped away from the Stompin' Pompadours, Ted Laskowski wanted to get in touch with Elvis Presley's darker side. No Priscilla, no karate, no scarves. Laskowski wanted to live the life Elvis could have lived if he wasn't such a mama's boy: boozing with Johnny Cash, cruising for chicks with Carl Perkins, inviting the lads from Black Sabbath over to Graceland to shoot TVs.
Laskowski emerged as Hellvis, a sneering, pompadoured tough with a voice that would make the river Styx change direction. On Dixie Fried Hellbilly, Laskowski sings about knife fights, hot roddin', and his liquored-up daddy. He's rockabilly's Grim Reaper, Aleister Crowley to the Rev. Horton Heat.
In less stringent Amish communities, the young men experiment with the vices of the outside world, like booze and drugs, before making an orderly return to the buttonless fold. They run in gangs classified as "slow" or "fast," depending on the level of rebellion. The Hostile Omish would be the barn band for the fast gang.
The least politically correct band in Northeast Ohio, the Omish sing songs about lesbians, epilepsy, beer, cannibalism, poop, and terrorizing women ("Some people call it stalking, but I call it love" goes a line from "Don't Keep Waiting"). The band's latest, the surprisingly tuneful One Horse Power, makes Howard Stern sound like Brian Lamb. Scythes, butter churners, big black hats, punk rock--what more could teenage Jedidiahs ask for?
If you define punk rock by spiked hair, safety-pinned nipples, and monster stagedives, Viva Caramel is probably not for you. But if the idea of big guys with guitars, button-down shirts, and dorky glasses trading turns on the lead mic appeals to you, may we recommend Viva Caramel. Guitarists/vocalists Brian Noga and Brian Strazek, formerly of Grain, team up with bassist Eddie Sotelo (also of the nominated Conservatives) and drummer Eric Vogt to say, "Viva la rock!" The Caramels' sound is best described as garage rock--but what kind of garage: one with muscle cars on blocks or Grandma's old furniture? We'd guess one that's been renovated for the prodigal son who returns home with his philosophy degree.