Friday, August 26, 2011

The Final Battle (for Now) of the Bands

Last Friday, I returned to Jammin’ Java for the finals of the 5th Mid-Atlantic Band Battle but this time, I was not a judge. And though I missed the camaraderie – and free food – at the judges table, I was able to float around more, chat with some of the bands without fear of seeming partial and got a little closer to the stage for photos. So, still a pleasure.

I had seen two of the acts – Lightspeed Rescue and Bethany and the Guitar - before. LSR had made it to the finals in a previous Band Battle in which I was a judge, in February, where they lost out to Delta Rae. (The Silver Liners were also on the bill that night, making it a particularly tough competition.) BATG (the initials want to make me call the band Batgirl) were the victors of one of the semi-final nights I served as a judge for in July. So I knew coming in that I was going to enjoy at least two of the sets.

When I came in the door, the first act onstage was a new one to me, Static Cinema, a quintet from Warrenton, VA. They were impressive right away, with a tight, muscular rock sound, a charismatic frontman and smooth moves from quiet melody to hard-bouncing party noise. Having just Googled the band for more info, I’m even more impressed to see that the group “consists of five members ranging from ages 16-19.”
Well-played, young sirs! Here’s a few shots from their performance…

Next up was Bethany and the Guitar, as good as I remembered them with bright harmonies, sweet acoustic guitars and friendly, female pop of the Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson school.
I just looked back to my older posting on the subject and saw that that’s pretty much how I described them last time. And these new pictures show pretty much the same stage visuals (So sue me.) You can listen for yourself to a few songs at the band's web site.
During a break between bands, a few members of Lightspeed Rescue (it’s a Power Rangers reference) came up to say hello. I could honestly tell them that I was looking forward to seeing the group again, as I’d thoroughly enjoyed their set last time.
Though there was a little hiccup in the momentum, with sound set-ups taking a bit longer than usual, the band came out roaring.
You can hear a few tracks from LSR’s debut EP, “Celebration,” at their site and, while I was happy to get a copy from them after the show and listen on the ride home, it’s not half as much fun as seeing them live, when the boundless energy, dueling guitarists and buff hip-hoppin’ vocalist Brandon Bester (he’s taken his shirt off both times that I’ve seen them) kick it up many notches. The group sites influences such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Outkast, which is all well and good, but I daresay Lightspeed Rescue can carve out a niche to call its own someday.

The final act on the bill was The Understudies, who had a strong fanbase present - lots of people walking around with black T-shirts with the band logo on it. At the risk of alienating those nice people, this was the one act of the night that didn't rock my socks. I think it's a genre-thing; I'm just not one for mid-tempo, kinda MOR blues rock, however capably performed. The drummer was kind enough to give me a cool bumper sticker ("Piano is the new sexy," it said) and a copy of the band's EP and I gave it a spin, but songs about the blues guitar player in Memphis who broke my heart are not my cuppa...
And thus, with four finalists having shown their stuff, it was time for the big announcement. The night’s Host With the Most, Nate Ihara, took to the stage with club staffers David Silberstein and Amy Jones, to open the envelope…
And the grand prize winners of the Mid-Atlantic Band Battle 5? Bethany and the Guitar.
Those last moments of the Band Battles are always a little bit sad. One act gets to celebrate while the others have to deal with disappointment. Having sat at the judges table in the past, I know that the final result can come down to very small numbers. I can't argue with the outcome, as I thoroughly enjoy Bethany and the Guitar and wouldn't say they didn't deserve the win.

Still, Lightspeed Rescue had an energy that couldn't be denied, even if, in a sense, it was by the final vote. I saw the guys in the band bunched together in a consoling group huddle after the winner was announced and I wanted to pat them on the back and say, "Don't give up. You're winners in my book."

But that's just me, not a judge, speaking.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

We Get Out (part one) - Scattered Trees at Red Palace

I'm rather ashamed to admit it but, since I'm among friends, I'll cop to the fact that I've been living in the DC area and writing about local music for double-digit years and, until last Sunday, had not been to the NE club area. Despite being a transplanted New Yorker who knows full well how people cop out of enjoying all a city has to offer for dubious reasons, I hesitated to go into this unexplored territory. Is there safe parking? (I once had my car broken into two blocks from the 9:30 Club, albeit many years ago.) Would I be okay wandering the streets alone? (I'm comfortable going to most NW places alone, but was waiting for someone to go exploring with me this time.) Bottom line, I was a wuss.

Push came to shove when I got word that Scattered Trees would be playing the Red Palace (former home of two clubs - The Red and the Black and the Palace of Wonders - which knocked down some wallage to form one new entity) on H St. NE. The band's album, "Sympathy," was advanced to me earlier this year, and I was pretty quickly smitten, especially by one track, "A Conversation About Death on New Year's Eve," which is, happily, available as a free download from the group's publicity gang. Take a listen and see if you don't love it, too.

Finally, spurred by my love of the album, I was determined to suck it up and see what NE has going on. My trusty Plus One pal, Sally, agreed to come along. Lesson learned - when in doubt about taking a chance on something that's intimidating (but not actually dangerous) - just do it! We had a great time. After taking a few wrong turns on our way into the NE quadrant, we came upon H Street - wide, well-lit, filled with cool-looking shops and free street parking - and walked into the Palace, a neat venue with a fascinating collection of carnival and burlesque signage and props (including a few that would be downright creepy if they weren't so obviously fake), a pleasent outside patio and a small (150 max?) performance space upstairs.

We ran a little late and so caught only the last song of the show's opener, Australian singer-songwriter Paul Dempsey, and even that was just as we walked up the stairs. Dempsey's publicist was kind enough to send a zip file of his debut, "Everything is True," when I told him I was going to the show and, having heard some of the songs pop up on the iPod shuffle since, I can say I'm sorry I didn't hear more. Again, there's a song available to share - "We'll Never Work In This Town Again," so hear it here. And, as a former Brooklynite, I gotta post this pic of Dempsey at a C train station.

The next act on the bill, the Alternate Routes, is one that Sally and I have seen before, a fine local act that tills the rootsy rock field. To give their music a culinary metaphor, I'd call them a Five Guys burger - nothing fancy or exotic, but a simple, solid, comfort recipe done with care and good taste. The guitarist who was closest to me is kinda cute, too...
Here's the whole group...
One song featured a tool box as a percussion instrument...
And I just happen to like stage accessories...
But the night, for me, was all about Scattered Trees who (staying with the food theme) are like finding a great all-night cafe that adds just the right new accent to a favorite dish. In this case, the sound is meditative, melodic rock with layered harmonies and melancholy, but not depressing, lyrics. Lead singer Nate Eisland wrote the album after the death of his father, making its beauty all the more bittersweet.

I've been enjoying "Sympathy" since I first downloaded it in January (it came out in official physical form in April) and the Chicago-based band started its first full U.S. tour earlier this month. So I was psyched to finally get a chance to see them. And they didn't disappoint.

Given the album's quiet charms, it's one that I frequently listen to in the late evening but, not unexpectedly, the band ramps things up in concert, adding muscle to the songs without stripping them of their tender sentiment.

Besides lead singer Eisland, there's a double threat guitarist/keyboard player guy and a cool female (in this photo), another guitarist and a drummer...

When I win the lottery, I'm getting a digital SLR camera that can be pushed past these orange exposures. Until then, here's an example of what happens without flash...
And what I get with it...
And we'll end the photo gallery with a second low-angle shot that features another visual obsession of mine, Shoes of the Stars...

Apologies for the randomness of this posting, BTW. College girl was watching "Hairspray" while I was working on it and I was continually and happily distracted by the upbeat musical action. You can't stop the beat!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Beauty Pill - the pictures

So, when we last left me (see the previous entry), I was sitting in the balcony at the Artisphere, watching Beauty Pill record in the Black Box Theatre. Here's how it looked from that perch...

I was expecting that, since it was the last day the band was scheduled to be in the space, it would be a time of reviewing finished tracks. And yet, as I was watching, a guitarist came in and Clark began talking to him about a new track he wanted to add to a previously-recorded bit. It took about a half-hour to set up the guitar...
(making records is a lot like making movies or TV, a lot of waiting between actual creating)

And while I'm watching this, someone new arrives to check out the scene as well. We chat about how cool it is to watch the process unfold and, when I ask the guy if he'd heard Beauty Pill before, he tells me that he's Chad Clark's brother! Ha. I hand him one of my bizniz cards and ask him to pass it on to Clark and tell him I said hello and would have something on the blog later. Shortly thereafter, the guy's phone rings and Clark looks up to wave him down. We exchange goodbyes and he heads off. A few minutes later, Clark looks up and seems to be waving for me to come down, too. I look around me. Yep, I'm the only one here. I point to myself. "Me?" He nods.
I guess his brother put in a good word.

And so, I returned to the actual studio, where the adventure started, and sat quietly while the guitarist finished his track. My view got much better.

In a break, I asked the photog who the guitarist was and he told me it was Ryan Nelson, who co-wrote the song in progress with Clark some time ago. (BTW, Nelson said he had a terrible toothache, so more praise for his playing and good attitude.)

After Clark signed off on the guitar part, there was a brief break while the mics were being reset for a vocal part to be done by Jean. Clark and I chatted briefly and, though he didn't seem to remember our correspondence about the film, he was very gracious about having me crash his party. I'll keep y'all posted when the next phase of the project - the album release "exhibit" takes place.

In the meantime, here's a piece that explains the project in more detail and tells the story behind the song that was being recorded.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Live from the Artisphere - Beauty Pill records

Throughout the month of July, DC area band Beauty Pill has been working in full view of the public, recording a new album in the Black Box theatre of the Arlington modern art museum, the Artisphere, while the public looks on from behind a large window on a balcony perch above the well-stocked studio space. That's where I'm sitting right now, watching as guitarist Ryan ( last name I don't know) lays down some chunky guitar rhythms to pair with an atmospheric music bed that band founder/producer Chad Clark was reviewing when I first came into the session.

And when I saw I came into the session, I mean it. I walked directly into the Black Box studio, not seeing any signage to tell me otherwise, and found myself right behind the soundboard, where Clark was working. Wow, I thought, they really ARE letting the public get a close look. And as I looked for a place to sit, a nice young woman came up nd introduced herself. "I'm Jean," she said politely, putting out her hand. I shook it and told her my name. Then she asked if I'd been here before (yes, to the Artisphere, no to a recording session) and offered to walk me up to the balcony, where the audience is supposed to be. What can I say?
I like to be in the heart of the action.

As I was just typing that line, Clark looked up and directed a comment to me. (I'm the only one here.) "we're professionals. That's all you need to know," he said. I gave him a thumbs- up and he flashed one back.

Actually, I needed to know more. Thanks to this brave new world on instant info acces, I pulled up the band's site to learn who I am watching here. While I've heard the band's music before and once had some phone./mail exchanges with Clark over using one of his songs in my long-lost family rock&roll comedy film, I had no idea what he looked like, nor did I know when I was shaking her hand that the nice young woman is Jean Cook, one of two women in the band.

I will post some pictures when I get home. Though I envy the guy who's roaming the studio, getting up close with his pro camera.

Alas, this wonderful opportunity to watch a band at work ends tonight (I just heard about last week and barely made it here myself) so I can't tell you to rush right over yourself.

However, the second phase of this "exercise in radical transparency" ( a phrase attributed to the band, as if they said it in unison) will occur in the winter, when it is said they will return for another interactive installation that will feature the new album.

Considering I typed this on an iPad, forgive the typos...
More anon