Every band is a local band somewhere. The members of Creed may be wallpapering their mansions with Benjamin Franklins nowadays, but they're only five years removed from working the dives of their hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, just as Trent Reznor put his time in at the Phantasy and the Euclid Tavern in Cleveland years earlier. The perceived gap between national and local artists is often arbitrary, and we shouldn't wait for a band to achieve a national audience before giving the group its due. With this in mind, let's look at the nominees for the 2002 Scene Music Awards for what they are: an exceptionally talented crop of musicians who may or may not be the next chart-toppers. Either way, it doesn't really matter whether the rest of the country realizes what the Cleveland music community has to offer, just as long as we do.
Artist performances for the 2002 Scene Music Awards Showcase were arranged by Shawn Carson.
Barely legal bombshells and ambitiously coifed boy bands have pop in a headlock at the national level, but on the local front, we're much better off: The bands nominated in this category have all packed some muscle onto pop's willowy frame.
Few groups know more about beefing up than Ether Net. After ratcheting up the guitars on its new album -- the superb More Strange Bruises -- the band has gone from svelte, sinewy, and Britpop-leaning to a much fuller-sounding, meat-eating three-piece that recalls the force of prime Smashing Pumpkins -- without the pretentiousness. Buy the record and watch the chest hair grow.
The music of Prick (a.k.a. Kevin McMahon) is similarly bruising and beatific. After attaining a measure of critical acclaim in the mid-'90s with his overlooked, self-titled debut (which landed Prick tours with David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails), scene vet McMahon returned earlier this year with his long-delayed follow-up, available only on the Internet. A peculiar, bewitching blend of pulsing pop and fractured, menacing soundscapes, the disc is a stark, breathless wonder that signals, in a major way, the return of this uncompromising talent.
Just as entrenched in Cleveland rock as McMahon is Cobra Verde frontman John Petkovic, whose brand of plush, whip-smart rock has made his band Cleveland's most nationally acclaimed outfit. Blending breathy come-ons with serrated guitars and a Bowie-esque flair for the dramatic, Cobra Verde has landed four-star reviews in Rolling Stone and quickened the pulse of rock lovers the country over.
Uptown Sinclair is the relative new kid on the block, issuing its excellent, self-titled debut just last year. But if the band doesn't boast the pedigree of the others in this category, Uptown Sinclair is off to a terrific start, with its hard-charging electric debut landing the band a deal with D-Text Records (which recently reissued the band's first effort) as well as the much-sought-after opening slot for the Strokes' gig here last fall. Tuneful and temperamental, Uptown Sinclair is one of Cleveland's most promising acts.
Even more fresh-faced is Amara, a buoyant six-piece psych-rock/fusion troupe that blends infectious pop hooks with frenzied jazz underpinnings. Winners of the 1999 Mountain Dew High School Rock Off, the ensemble appeals to old-school jam-band aficionados with its fierce, sprawling grooves, as well as to Dave Matthews-obsessed neo-hippies and more adventurous jazzbos. This is thanks to the band's skill at mating improvisation with concise, well-structured songcraft. -- Jason Bracelin
Cleveland is a hard-luck town, and our rock and roll reflects it.
No band better embodies the struggle of living in a factory town in a post-industrial age than Stepsister, five dudes who sweat booze and exhale nicotine. Raw, ill-mannered, and defiantly unhip, the band picks up the gauntlet thrown down by sorely missed legends like the Jesus Lizard, the Laughing Hyenas, and Killdozer -- which is to say, before you approach these dudes, invest in an athletic supporter. They bleed a lot onstage, say "fuck" even more, and sound like an Amtrak derailment.
Speaking of fabulous disasters, when Disengage's former label -- the late, lamented Man's Ruin -- folded last year, the collapse threatened to be a major setback for the band, which had been steadily building momentum with its smothering, clenched-fist rock. But instead of letting up, Disengage appears to have become stronger: The band's live shows are virtually unparalleled in terms of knock-you-on-your-heels intensity. Honest and hardworking, with a barrel-chested sound and a new album already in the can, Disengage is primed for a serious rebound. Expect very big things from this bunch in the coming months.
Like Disengage, riff-rock heavyweight Red Giant has been lying low of late, completing the follow-up to its excellent debut, Ultramagnetic Glowing Sound. Thanks to its heated amphetamine blues and lysergic space-rock embellishments, the band is already a favorite within the stoner-rock community (and scene forebear Monster Magnet is a big fan of the group). Before long, fans will be hearing Red Giant's name in the same breath as favorites Clutch and Orange Goblin.
Switched could very well be the first band of all of Cleveland's recent rock and metal signings to really hit it big. Granted, Mushroomhead is well on its way already, but don't discount this Strongsville quintet, whose superb major label debut, Subject to Change, is teeming with potential hit singles. With a sound that's equally melodic and muscular, this young band has talent far beyond its years and a way with hooks that could rival Jimmy Houston.
Angling for a dark horse? Kent's Party of Helicopters won't fit very neatly into this category -- or any other, for that matter -- which is what makes the group so impressive. A blend of slobbering, old-school metal riffage, post-rock introspection, and gauzy psychedelic underpinnings, the Party of Helicopters truly has no peers. The band is on the verge of signing with respected midlevel label Velocette (home to Jucifer and Beulah, among others), meaning it could soon be flying as high as its namesake. -- Bracelin
With the possible exception of Drew Carey's waistline, few things loom larger in Cleveland than the local metal scene. Every band in this category has landed a national record deal and toured the country of late.
Leading the way is perennial favorite Mushroomhead. After scoring a multimillion-dollar contract with Universal, the band mounted its own headlining club tour, sold well over 100,000 copies of the Universal reissue of its bracing XX disc, and is making the rounds this summer on the hotly anticipated Ozzfest and Locobazooka tours. Mushroomhead has gotten so big, in fact, that the band is on the verge of joining such fellow hometown-boys-made-good as Nine Inch Nails, Filter, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in a class all their own.
The bruisers in Chimaira also landed an impressive deal in the past year or so, signing with Roadrunner Records, long one of metal's most prestigious -- and profitable -- labels. The band dropped its searing debut, Pass Out of Existence, last spring and promptly won over a slew of converts, including Slayer guitarist Kerry King, who invited the band to open Slayer's most recent fall and spring tours. And it's easy to hear why King was so impressed. A jagged, hardcore-steeped roundhouse of a record, Pass Out of Existence is one of Roadrunner's most punishing discs in years.
Also blending hardcore influences into a ferocious metal gut-check is Ringworm. Long one of Cleveland's most remorseless live acts, the band has taken it to the rest of the country in recent months as never before. Ringworm's numbing debut for hardcore prime-mover Victory Records has been an underground hit, landing the band a lengthy feature in the esteemed Metal Maniacs rag. Fronted by popular local tattoo artist the Human Furnace, the band has raised the bar for ugly, no-nonsense crossover metal.
Keelhaul's heady metal isn't too pretty, either, but what it lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in sheer force. When it comes to blending dizzying instrumental virtuosity with meaty, sledgehammer grooves, Keelhaul has few peers. All too often, groups with chops this sharp become consumed by their abilities, turning in overly elaborate technical exercises, with nary a song in sight. Keelhaul makes no such mistake: The band strikes a damn-near-perfect balance between brawn and brains. They just got back from a tour of Europe, and word is that the French really liked 'em. We'll overlook that disheartening fact, 'cause we really dig these guys too.
We also dig Boulder, mainly because its members don't laugh at us, the way everybody else does, for having Accept and Tankard albums in our record collection. The band's latest, Reaped in Half, is total poseur-pounding man-rock. "Everybody are you ready to seed?/ Everybody are you ready to bleed, tonight?" frontman Jamie Walters screams on the opening track, and that pretty much says it all. -- Bracelin
With much-hyped reissues by Rocket From the Tombs, the Styrenes, and the Pink Holes hitting the shelves in the past year, Cleveland punk has been thrust back into the limelight. But in the rush to immortalize the old-timers, let's not forget the dudes who can sleep through the night without having to get up twice to use the john.
It's hard to imagine things going much better for the Chargers Street Gang. The group was invited to Austin to record with punk legend Tim Kerr and came back with an album, Holy the Bop Apocalypse, that somehow managed to capture on wax the breathless, beer-soaked intensity of the band's live shows. Since then, the Chargers have toured the country, caught the ear of modern-day luminaries like Rocket From the Crypt and no doubt helped boost stock in Anheuser-Busch.
Also bursting with indie cred are the Signoffs, a band that impressed punk/ skateboarding icon Duane Peters so much, when the band opened for him a while back, that the U.S. Bombs frontman snapped up the group for his Disaster Records, a division of punk powerhouse Bomp Records. All hot-under-the-collar guitars and attitude aplenty, this ballsy bunch of Young Turks just out of high school has taught many of the scene's old dogs new tricks.
The Cowslingers have been cranking out records since the Signoffs were chawing on their glue sticks in elementary school. Together for almost a decade now, this randy, rambunctious cowpunk favorite is the definition of debauchery: all weary livers, racing hearts, and overactive libidos. The band's latest album, the rollicking, ripped Coast to Coast, is the sound of cirrhosis.
The GC5's garrulous, old-school pub punk also makes for great drinking music, even if the band is more about politics than pilsner. The GC5's hardy, mandolin-and-organ-inflected wallop is blue-collar punk at its finest. The band's recently released sophomore long-player, Never Bet the Devil Your Head, was produced by Ryan Foltz of the Dropkick Murphys and shares many of the same attributes that make the Murphys so great. Both bands value breadth as well as brawn. We'll drink to that.
We'll toast the Vacancies as well, though these young upstarts are barely old enough to join us. Don't mistake the Vacancies for neophytes, however. The band's clamorous, unrestrained street punk is the product of a thousand nights spent in a thousand dives, sneaking beers, bingeing on Marlboros, and dusting knuckles. The resulting sound is a lot like the benders from which, seemingly, it springs: rash, impetuous, and unforgettable. -- Bracelin
With a skyline dotted by LTV Steel's once-belching smokestacks and a south side dominated by huge automotive plants, is it any wonder that industrial music -- along with goth, its dark cousin -- has maintained such a strong presence in Cleveland?
Midnight Syndicate, a rapidly ascending goth duo, specializes in eerie, elaborate soundscapes played in haunted houses nationwide. Already popular in the gaming community and among horror aficionados, Midnight Syndicate has also won over the patriarch of demonic metal, King Diamond -- who's been known to play the band's music at his concerts before he takes the stage. Midnight Syndicate's spooky output comes loaded with chilling strings, creepy organ, and spectral synth. Perhaps the only thing missing is Jamie Lee Curtis.
Critikill merits a mention when talk turns to tough, no-nonsense chicks: Fronted by pugnacious firecracker Timmie Boose, the duo, rounded out by Craig Pearsall, sharpens the fangs of the perpetually somber darkwave set, then sinks them into bawdy electronica, with sheaths of blustering guitar and bass, and lyrical vitriol.
Likewise, Basement Love Underground buries its foot in the backside of dyed-in-the-wool industrial, with lead-dense guitars, skittering jungle beats, and wicked turntable alchemy providing a much-needed breath of fresh air to goth's stuffy catacomb. The six-member assemblage is one of Cleveland's most consistently solid draws and was recently added to a killer tribute to Faith No More on Invisible Records.
Any discussion of Cleveland goth/ industrial has to include State of Being, one of the town's most consistent, longest-running acts of the genre. The troupe's members (four-fifths of them related) have been creating catchy, cultivated industrial since the early '90s, and the band's latest, Implosion, continues State of Being's exploration of melodic, mechanized sound with impassioned vocals, whirring Casio, and refined guitar.
If most goth and industrial bands boast a distinctly digital edge, Cult of the Psychic Fetus departs from the norm. A bare-knuckled, psychobilly-steeped four-piece, these pale, mascara-mad dudes are about as fond of digital gadgetry as they are of sunlight. Primal and pulse-pounding, Cult of the Psychic Fetus serves up unhinged, shrunken-head rock that's a sensation on the underground vampire circuit (the group has performed at the Vampires' Ball in New Orleans and is listed in the Vampire's Almanac). The best part of all that? You can tell this Lestat-lovin' bunch they suck -- and they won't be offended. -- Bracelin
If cerebral, forward-thinking sounds are your idea of nirvana, Cleveland's top experimental bands are as rewarding as heaven is wide.
Celestial beauty is but one component of the Six Parts Seven's intricate, kaleidoscopic post-rock, which incorporates viola and e-bow into subtle yet stimulating instrumentals that are sure to broaden the palate of your average indie rock aficionado. The Kent band's latest, Silence Magnifies Sound, is warm and shapeshifting, like clouds on a summer day.
Something of a psych-rock super group, Speaker/Cranker has featured in its ranks members of such groups as Cobra Verde, Guided by Voices, New Salem Witch Hunters, and Pere Ubu, and its sound reflects those disparate talents. Ambient, adventurous, and drunk on rocket fuel, Speaker/Cranker's abstruse output is a road map of rock's outer limits.
Equally unbounded is the music of Twine, a progressive electronic-music duo that's spent the last several years reconfiguring IDM and imploding glitch. Highly esteemed in Europe as well as the States, Twine has released discs on such noteworthy labels as Chicago's Hefty, France's Bip-Hop, and Sweden's Komplott. Twine has also turned in a pair of success-loop CDs for software heavyweight Sonic Foundry, and the duo's amorphous, prismatic sound has won acclaim worldwide.
Like Twine's music, Hanna's beguiling, jazz-peppered drum 'n' bass has garnered attention overseas, thanks to the Cleveland producer's (a.k.a. Warren Harris) work for such eclectic labels as Japan's Sublime, Switzerland's Metamorphic, Belgium's R&S, and Chicago's Afterhours. Blending the wayward spirit of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans with a barbarous deluge of beats, Hanna adds a heartbeat to the hardware. -- Bracelin
When the Beatles broke up, John Lennon and Paul McCartney went on to do exactly the same thing: They both cut raw, earnest, and intimate solo albums. Who could blame them? It was 1970, and after the turbulence of the '60s, musicians everywhere were retreating to their rooms to transform private pain into public art, thus inventing a wildly popular new kind of celebrity -- the singer-songwriter.
Since those days, singer-songwriters have moved in so many directions that the genre has become multifaceted and enigmatic. That complexity can be seen in the diversity of this year's nominees -- and even within some of the nominees' individual albums. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Tracy Marie's 2000 solo debut, Sheik European Assassin Woman. In one ambitious flamenco-like number, the Euclid native presents herself as a shameless "Whore," then turns around in a winsome country ballad, claiming she's an idyllic "Woman in Love." Between these extremes, she also tackles an Enya-like hymn, some classic-rock rave-ups, and plenty of acoustic reflections straight from the singer-songwriter scrapbook.
Fifteen years ago, that scrapbook was also well thumbed by accomplished performer Bob Gatewood, who began his career plucking an unaccompanied acoustic guitar. But if ardent romanticism remains at the core of the bluesy-to-Beatlesy numbers on his most recent album, Finally Home, the Put-in-Bay regular has moved his music decidedly into straight rock and roll territory. His full band even lets loose on delicate midtempo ruminations like "Blade on the Water" (it seems that the more gently pianist Mark Jordan caresses the ivories, the harder drummer Joe Vitale hits the skins).
Michael Jantz's story, moving in the opposite direction from Gatewood's, arrives at a similar destination. As he notes in his bio, he abandoned "frustrating" bands and became a solo street troubadour as a way to "figure out how I could say what I wanted through music." After 10 years of honing his skills here and abroad, he discovered that "the songs wanted to be bigger," so he recorded this year's eponymous solo debut with musicians backing him on everything from accordion to African instruments. Combined with his unique high tenor, this rich texture helps distinguish his typical moody themes, such as "Sorry I Get Sad."
Brian Straw also focuses on typical singer-songwriter themes on 2000's Once You're Lost You're Encouraged to Stay Lost, but his focus is so telescopically intense, he takes the stark tradition of Lennon's Plastic Ono Band into the avant-garde. Whereas Lennon slyly underscored his naked emotions with state-of-the-art production tricks, Straw emphasizes his alienation by contrasting static and doleful tone poems with blasts of electric-guitar meltdown and pure white noise -- an effect that allies him with heady post-rock experimentalists from Papa M to Songs: Ohia.
Well-traveled Florence Dore carries on the singer-songwriter tradition more as Lennon and McCartney would have recognized it. In her string of releases (the latest is Perfect City), this Kent State English professor has worked with everyone from ex-Smithereen Dennis Diken to Yay-Hoos member Eric Ambel, toughening her folksy romantic pop with the bite of country-rock as handed down from Gram Parsons. (Come to think of it, Parsons made his solo break from the Flying Burrito Brothers around 1970, too.) -- Franklin Soults
Cleveland, with its multicultural population, has managed to sprout a good share of reggae and world-music talent.
Drumplay, led by percussionist extraordinaire James Onysko, has played on the Cleveland scene for 10 years. The percussion ensemble blends Latin, Cuban, and jazz elements with folk and world music. Congos, bongos, drum kits, shakers, talking drums, marimba, and claves lay the rhythmic foundation for improvised sax solos or the ramblings of Cleveland's poet laureate Daniel Thompson. The results range from eerie to intense. Drumplay has released four CDs, but the band is best live. Guest musicians, usually percussionists or horn players, are often featured, making each performance unique.
Harmonia is a select group of American and Eastern European musicians who blend Hungarian, Ukrainian, Romanian, and Croatian influences. The seven-piece ensemble uses instruments as varied as accordion, upright bass, violin, cimbalom, taragot, and pan flute. Its rhythms move in a heartbeat from mellow and dissonant to loud and frenzied. Imagine the energy of the Pogues, only with a female singer and no drummer. Beata Begeniova Salak, from eastern Slovakia, has a voice as beautiful as her smile. A joy by any standard.
Carlos Jones has been on Cleveland's reggae scene for more than two decades, most notably as frontman for First Light, the legendary reggae band. He now helms the Peace, Love and Unity Syndicate (PLUS), which is perhaps the most old-school of the reggae nominees. There have been no proper PLUS Band releases yet, but Jones has released a solo record, titled Full Circle, on Cleveland's Little Fish label. A group album is forthcoming, Jones says, but he declines to speculate on a release date. In the meantime, the PLUS Band keeps an active live schedule, playing regionally and around town.
Reggae singer Ras T. Dubflex recently dropped Breathe, the long-awaited follow-up to 1998's Union, and the new release finds the singer/keyboardist in top form. It's a promising mix of roots, dancehall, and contemporary urban sounds, enlivened with great harmonies and a positive vibe. When not performing with his own band, Dubflex has toured as keyboardist with Jamaica's legendary vocal trio the Meditations, as well as with Rising Lion from Brooklyn, New York. Dubflex's "Millionman Remix" has seen action in MP3.com's dancehall charts.
Upon arriving in Cleveland from his native Jamaica five years ago, Istan Black made an impression simply on the strength of his international reputation. His career dates to 1973, and he's recorded with legendary producers like Lee "Scratch" Perry, Sir Lord Comic, and Earl "Chinna" Smith. Here, he linked up with backup singers Stacey Eutazia and Ceco Selinas to form Istan Black & the Sweets. Only months after arriving in Cleveland, Black headed back to Jamaica to record with Squidley Cole, son of reggae pioneer Stranger Cole and drummer for Ziggy Marley. The master tapes were then brought to town, so that backing vocal tracks by the Sweets could be added. The result, 1998's Fatal Struggle, is one of the best reggae releases Cleveland has seen. -- Tommy Fox
With Eminem and Nelly gripping the Billboard charts by the short hairs, the Midwest is today's hip-hop hotspot. Though the region has struggled to develop the kind of identity found in the bass-infatuated South and the Parliament-steeped West Coast, perhaps this isn't such a bad thing -- it's allowed a broad range of disparate artists to make a name for themselves in Cleveland and elsewhere.
The Chop Shop Renegades cover nearly all of rap's bases with the combined talents of a single crew. From steely East Coast-style battle rhymes to conscience-baring, thought-provoking ghetto hymnals to booming, bass-heavy club shakers, Chop Shop demonstrates a refreshing breadth, all of which is captured on the group's solid 2001 debut, Bumpivity. The group hosts its own open-mic night, "The Blue Pill Experience," at Club XO, where it's become a freestyle favorite.
Like Chop Shop, ribald rapper Not also possesses as much range as rhyme. Not's 2001 debut, It Burns When I Spit, was a dark and sinister head trip with scarifying production and sour, spiteful lyrics. Its follow-up, the forthcoming Twisted Answers to Crooked Questions, is a bent, wayward take on a party record, with Not's wired, off-the-wall wordplay crashing into crazed, drunken beats, making this disc feel like an after-hours bash on a Tilt-a-Whirl.
Fifteen-year-old rapper Len Bone throws a party of his own on Lyrically Overdosed, his solo debut. With young rhymers like Bow Wow and Lil' Romeo dropping hit after hit, the timing couldn't be better for the disc, a surprisingly raw affair demonstrating that this young MC has much more grit than most of his counterparts. Len Bone's caustic, clever flow has landed him opening slots with such hardcore heavyweights as Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, and Bizzy Bone, and if he's this rugged now, we fear his venom once he becomes acquainted with such unpleasantness as mortgage payments and the BMV.
No new jack, Jahi has been rhyming longer than Len Bone has been alive. An AIDS activist as well as a battle-tested wordsmith, Jahi, who splits his time between Cleveland and Washington, D.C., is out to educate as much as entertain. It's only fitting, then, that he's hooked up with high-minded hip-hop provocateur Chuck D, whose Slam Jamz label put out Jahi's latest, Furious Styles. A disc that certainly lives up to its name, Furious Styles is a heated display of Jahi's rugged, robust rhymes and willingness to tackle serious social issues with unflinching candor.
Slender songbird Conya Doss shares Jahi's frank approach on her blithe, touching debut, A Poem About Ms. Doss. An in-demand neo-soul ingenue who doubles as a special-needs teacher in the Cleveland public schools, Doss saw her career take off when she was discovered by Cleveland producer Edwin "Tony" Nicholas. He's responsible for more than a dozen No. 1 hits, having worked with such big names as Gerald Levert, the Backstreet Boys, and Joe. Nicholas's studio expertise, combined with Doss's honeysuckle harmonies, has made her a hot property. She's landed a spot on the Dark Angel soundtrack, and her debut single, "Coffee," is getting steady airplay nationwide. -- Bracelin
Some great jazz musicians have come from Cleveland, but they're too often undervalued here and must leave the area to gain recognition and play with people who can challenge them.
Still, jazzers continue to perform here -- or at least keep a foot in the Cleveland camp. That's the case with Birth, the Joshua Smith-led trio that released two exceptional independent albums in the past three years. A saxophonist with energy and ideas to burn, Smith lives in New York, but also maintains a Lakewood residence. Although he, drummer Joe Tomino, and bassist Jeremy Bleich work the East Coast, they are still largely identified with Cleveland. Smith also works in other groups such as the Living Sound Ensemble, with Bleich, trumpeter Nathan Haskell, and drummer Scott Davis.
Dominick Farinacci is Cleveland's Great White Trumpet Hope. The Solon man, a Wynton Marsalis protégé, has just finished his first year at Juilliard and completed his first CD, Manhattan Dreams. Recorded for an independent Japanese label, it's due to come out in Japan in January. Farinacci, one of only 18 students accepted into Juilliard's inaugural Jazz Studies program, has been in town this summer, working at Night Town and Club Isabella.
Catch Cliff Habian at Night Town, too, or at Nordstrom in Beachwood, where he's one of a rotating group of entertaining jazz pianists. Familiar to patrons of Johnny's Bistro in downtown Cleveland and Raintree in Chagrin Falls, the Richmond Heights native has recorded a passel of stylish modern jazz albums, featuring his muscular melodicism and wryly romantic sensibility.
Howie Smith, arguably the best saxophonist in Cleveland, is best known for his annual winter Concert in Progress at Cleveland State University, where he's coordinator of jazz studies. Smith's musical conception is bold and liberating, his technique astonishing, and his willingness to experiment extraordinarily refreshing, particularly in a city where jazz often equates with comfort food.
The soft-spoken, witty guitarist-arranger Bob Fraser is the most in-demand string musician in Northeast Ohio. Not only is his playing economical and expressive, but he's a sympathetic accompanist and clever leader. The Lakewood resident has worked with everybody from Luciano Pavarotti to Joe Lovano to Dominick Farinacci to Ray Parker to Maureen McGovern (he played on "The Morning After"). He's also a member of the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and the Cleveland Pops Orchestra. -- Carlo Wolff
Like the Tribe, Cleveland's DJ scene has been doing some serious rebuilding -- with much better results so far. When the rave circuit all but died, local promoters and club owners worked overtime to bring high-profile DJs back to town. International superstars such as Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox, DJ Krush, Grooverider, and Sasha & Digweed all made stops in Cleveland during the past year, ensuring that the city will be included on the future touring schedules of other high-profile wax artists. Underground club events also helped reestablish Cleveland as a destination for up-and-coming and cutting-edge DJs. Of course, as always, the local DJ community contributed as much to the restructuring of the dance scene as anyone else. Need proof? Look no further than these Best DJ nominees.
Rob Black, whose past gigs included stints at U4ia, Trilogy, and Aqua, can be found at Wish on Friday and Saturday nights, where he spins the latest in progressive house. Black has also brought the tradition of weekend dance-music mix shows -- common in Chicago, Detroit, and New York -- to local airwaves. His Saturday-night sessions at Wish are broadcast live on WXTM-FM/92.3 between midnight and 2 a.m., allowing fans to get down with his house groove even when they're stuck in the house.
DJ Still Life spent the last year working to expose a different genre of dance music to Clevelanders: drum 'n' bass. Still Life was a resident at the now-defunct Jungle Lounge, Cleveland's first weekly all-drum-'n'-bass event. His sets at the Lounge displayed great emotional range and an intuitive knowledge of the genre, belying the fact that he is a relative newcomer to the dance scene. Still Life also put his love of the music to work as the drum 'n' bass buyer for Grand Poo-Ba's Record Shoppe, where fellow nominees Rob Black and Mike Filly work.
Filly is one of the scene's true veterans. Having DJ'd in Cleveland for more than 10 years, he has consistently demonstrated both versatility and an ability to stay one step ahead. In the past year, he's continued his Thursday- and Saturday-night residencies at the Mercury Lounge, playing a posh mix of downtempo, nu-jazz, and deep house. He's now also a fixture at Spy on Friday nights, and he's made appearances at Touch Supper Club and Funky Buddha, spinning two-step, the latest British dance-music export.
Stephen "Sleepy C" Cinch is another veteran of the Cleveland DJ scene. When his weekly residency at the Brillo Pad ended in early 2000, he developed the Mannequin Odd Dance label. During 2000 and 2001, Cinch produced a bevy of house tracks for the label, under his own name as well as the alias Fat Boys Club, and he also helped engineer cuts for other Cleveland producers, increasing the city's visibility to record buyers around the country. Cinch finally picked up a weekly gig in late 2001, spinning a mix of deep jazzy and disco-flavored house at Spy on Fridays.
Mick Boogie is also a resident at Spy, where he spins laid-back underground beats downstairs on Fridays and rump-shaking sets on the main floor on Sunday nights. Mick DJs on WENZ-FM/107.9 on Friday and Saturday nights as well, mixing up the latest in mainstream rap and hip-hop with the finesse of a traditional club DJ. -- Steve Boughton
Country fans have always waved their traditionalism as proudly as their Stetson hats and American flags, but this year's country nominees suggest that Cleveland's country devotees go even further, guarding their traditionalism as if it's a wondrous lost world.
No one protects that world with more tender attention than Hillbilly Idol. The wordplay in the group's name is the only thing modern about this 11-year-old quintet, which initially sprang from the founders' love of the Louvin Brothers and Everly Brothers. The sweet harmonies and warm melodies of those classic duos can be heard all over Hillbilly Idol, a nationally distributed album that also resonates with touches of bluegrass, folk, swing -- even polka, another lost world still thriving in Cleveland.
At the other extreme is Al's Fast Freight, which represents a different lost world -- that of jam-band hippies. True, the quartet plays up its "red neck, white trash, blue collar" roots, but from the group's loping melodies and quavering vocals to its loose rhythms and airy arrangements, one is continually reminded of the most country-influenced album that the Grateful Dead ever cut, Workingman's Dead. When it was released in 1970, most traditional country fans would have considered it an outrage, but over the decades, the record has become as much a touchstone to stubborn traditionalism as any Merle Haggard song.
Speaking of Haggard, Terry Lee Goffee could probably whip through any part of the country legend's catalog you'd like to hear. On his album of covers, Country Classics, he tackles Hag's "The Fugitive" with the adulation of a lifelong fan and the skill of a lifelong professional performer. Goffee's warm tenor hangs somewhere between Junior Brown's deep purr and Hank Snow's buttery swoop, and since the late '70s, he has used it to equal effect on string-laden Christian country hymns and uptempo guitar raves. "I enjoy Jimi Hendrix as well as Jimmie Rodgers," he once told The Chronicle-Telegram, but unlike Brown, who highlights his incongruous tastes, Goffee sublimates them in a style that's traditional by default -- straight hard country. Nashville hasn't celebrated his like since John Anderson climbed the charts by singing about the misery of driving behind a chicken truck.
Tying up all these strands of traditionalism is Hayshaker Jones, a quintet whose command of both hard country and straight rock would make it a welcome addition to any alt-country bill. Echoes of everything from Buck Owens and the Byrds to Dwight Yoakam and the Jayhawks can be heard in Hayshaker Jones's masterful honky-tonk. The group boasts two occasional DJs, which might explain its command of history, but as the band stresses in its bio, "These guys . . . don't act or look like they are from the past." Their mission, instead, is to give sounds of the past a future. -- Franklin Soults
Cleveland blues pretty much begins and ends with local legend Robert Lockwood Jr., and rightfully so. One of the few living links to blues patriarch Robert Johnson, Lockwood learned his chops firsthand from the master -- who was romantically involved with Lockwood's mother for a time -- and his playing is imbued with Johnson's fiery, dexterous style. At 85, Lockwood has a résumé as long and impressive as that of any breathing bluesman, and he remains active, gigging regularly and dropping a new disc last fall. A collection of material recorded in 1990 and 1998, What's the Score is another solid addition to Lockwood's unimpeachable canon.
There are plenty of other exceptional blues talents worth seeking out, chief among them the Schwartz Bros. Glenn Schwartz's career is almost as decorated as that of Lockwood: He was the original guitarist in the James Gang and a member of Pacific Gas & Electric, and he has been making the rounds in Northeast Ohio for three decades. A supremely righteous man, Schwartz is known to spike his off-the-cuff blues revivals with passionate proselytizing. See his show at Hoopples on Thursday nights, and join the converted.
Mr. Downchild (a.k.a. Steve Brazier), an English expat who's been playing the blues since the mid-'60s, is another of Cleveland's steadfast blues traditionalists. Taking his name from a Sonny Boy Williamson tune, Downchild specializes in blues at its most devolved, blending spare, emotive guitar with fiery harmonica and some surprisingly strong harp playing. On Downchild's first album, They Call Me Mr. Downchild, he was backed by none other than Lockwood himself. On his latest, Behind the Sun, Downchild concentrates on solo works, shining even brighter than the spotlight trained on him.
At the opposite end of the blues spectrum is the Walkin' Cane Band, which offers a decidedly modernized take on the form. Frontman Austin "Walkin' Cane" Charanghat's deep, commanding vocals and vigorous slide guitar and dobro playing complement the powerhouse rhythm section of bassist Mike Barrick and drummer Jim Wall with due force, making the Walkin' Cane Band one of the most relentless blues acts in Northeast Ohio. -- Bracelin