Best New Scam
"FRIENDS" ISN'T JUST the name of a hit TV show. Many local musicians feel that friends are also the only way to get gigs at 7th Street Entry or Uptown Bar and Cafe--longtime strongholds of original rock.
If you doubt it, notice this year's so-called "Best New Bands" list as compiled by the staff of First Avenue/7th Street Entry, especially the presence of a little-known band called Box of Steaks. They rarely play outside the Entry, and from what I saw at a show this year, they were nondescript at best.
But more importantly, their drummer is employed by First Avenue, working the door and distributing tickets to the club's record store outlets. The fact of the matter is that this year, the polling group that determined the best new bands consisted largely of First Avenue staffers, along with local record shop workers. Longtime club-going critics such as the Pioneer Press's Jim Walsh and Radio K's Simon Peter Groebner did not even receive ballots.
Which may explain how B.S. earned three more votes than Flipp, and just one less than overall winner Phull Surkle. What's more, Box of Steaks shared a bill on September 5th with Soul Asylum clones Simple Men and the Superchunky Mollycuddle, two other unknowns who also somehow became Best New Band picks. Coincidence? I'd say not.
At least First Avenue über-booker Steve McClellan has no illusions that the unscientific survey has a few weird twists this year. McClellan knew that Box of Steaks and another winner, Dog Rapes Man, included First Avenue staffers, and he learned later that a third band, Hot Karl, did as well. "People may have been less than objective about Dog Rapes Man because (Shawn) works here. Simple Men and Mollycuddle appear to be [friends with record store balloteers]. And Box of Steaks, well that's a double-whammy because James Kelly works here, and he runs around to all the stores where they all love him. When one of his nominations came in as 'Box O' James Kelly,' I knew something was up."
Of course, taking advantage of First Avenue employment is a time-
honored tradition, dating back to Willie Wisely, Next of Kin/God Damn Liars, John Casey, and the everpresent Whoops, Kitty! (fronted by McClellan's wife, Cindy Lawson). But more than ever, this year's new band poll put McClellan between a rock band and hard worker. "When the results came in I said, 'James, did these people even come down and see the band or are they just doing it because you're such a nice guy? I gave [James and Shawn] the option to pull out. But they both thought it was all real and for me to do otherwise would've been tampering."
So there's your proof that there's a teddy bear beneath McClellan's surly exterior. Me, I would've booted Box of Fakes immediately. Their placement in particular goes right to the heart of club credibility, and reflects poorly on some decent people who work there.
However flawed, there is some merit to the showcase. Flipp and John Ewing Band headline the first night, and the New Year's Eve show sparkles with Phull Surkle & Casino Royale, June Sunday, Deformo, Interstate Judy and Solid State. Saturday's all-ager includes the well-regarded Cooper, Ten Fold Hate, plus Hot Karl and Dog Rapes Man, with Gnomes of Zurich a late replacement for Dillinger 4.
Whether this is the weakest New Band List of the decade won't be known for another year or two. Last year's class produced Vena Cava, Shapeshifter, Tribe of Millions, Polara, Smattering, Low, and Better Off Airport. 1993 spawned Hover-craft (Shatterproof), Lily Liver, Balloon Guy, Green Pyramids, Big Red Ball, Lefty Lucy, Beangirl, and Micranots. 1992 birthed Guzzard, Spectors, Korn Elder (the seeds of Ghost Dance Deluxe), Rex Daisy, The Legendary Jim Ruiz, Janitor Joe, Smut, and Dogshine. Even 1991 has had lasting impact: Hammerhead, God's Favorite Band, Dylan Hicks, High Wires (Polara bassist Jason Orris), Muskellunge (June Sunday's Rebecca Fritz), Zenbishops, Walt Mink, and Snapperhead (Acetylene's Scott Hampton). Only time will tell.
It's not that 1995 was a bad for new talent. Rather, it was a good year for newer clubs--which is good news for new bands. Yet McClellan seems concerned that the diversity of the club's mainroom schedule is not mirrored in the Best New Band poll. This summer, McClellan hired a new three-member booking team consisting of longtime club workers and stage assistants Sonja Hayden, Louie Solomon, and Rich Best. In time, three bookers may give a wider range of bands more chances for acceptance. But for now, McClellan's aware that loud and fast still rules.
"Maybe I'm just longing for yesteryear when Trip Shakespeare, Run Westy Run, the Blue Up? and Gear Daddies could all play one year-end show. Now a lot of bands that would've played the Entry stick to the Loring Cafe or Red Sea," he admits. "And as all the different clubs are struggling to find an identity, they won't book bands that don't fall within their emphasis. So we get the spillage, the punk bands and the all-age bands, groups the Fine Line won't touch, or Amelia's won't touch, or even the Uptown won't touch because they don't do all-age shows."
The question, however, is whether 7th Street lost its lead naturally, or surrendered it actively? McClellan may perceive that bands are flying the coop, but some bands feel the Entry has been stonewalling outsiders, or just stuck in the past--which in turn may have fostered new clubs such as Lee's, Red Sea, and the Bryant-Lake Bowl. For one, Cabooze booker Lynda Davis has noticed a migration of Entry-identified bands looking for work on the West Bank. On the other hand, maybe today's baby bands are better suited for more modest, atmospheric rooms like Lee's, Blues Alley, and the Turf Club rather than the hard-edged space of 7th Street.
Another spot new bands hanker to get into is the Uptown Bar & Cafe. Booker Maggie Macpherson has shown a certain level of commitment to newbies with the club's New Band Nites and Cafe Tuesdays. But while we locals may think of the Uptown as just a neighborhood bar, it's still a very hot stop on the national routes. Almost 20 national acts played the club in November. If you take away the aforementioned showcases, local bands were left with about 15 slots a month.
When pending confirmations fall through, Macpherson may call on a small circle of trusted bands to fill emergency open dates. In 1993 it was Lily Liver, in 1994 it was Hot Date, this year it seems to be Wonsers, or someone Kim the soundperson knows and likes. While there may be no way around it, it is a drag for bands to play a show that's off the calendar, with too little notice to even call friends or do promo. (Many musicians were not amused by a recent bar ad in which Saturday through Monday was listed as "TBA," when dozens of bands would kill for a call back.)
Whatever the case, there is no doubt that bands need to make friends to get good gigs, especially now that some clubs now let headlining bands create their own bills. That could be a positive development, as long as bands are given adequate lead time to turn a bill into an event (such as the lounge-mongering Polar Bear Club extravaganzas, or the all-star St. Paul Music Club tributes). Otherwise, this good idea can go wrong, as when a mid-level local band is given "the favor" of booking its own show on a weeknight with two weeks' notice, and risks the ire of fellow bands and the wrath of the club when the night doesn't work out.
So what's the solution? Probably the same old solution: musical and promotional persistence. Every booker I talked to for this story appreciates courteous call backs--preferably from just one band member. (Same applies to media geeks, by the way.) One thing that I find encouraging is that with a little work and luck, true originality still prospers from time to time. Strawdogs, Peal, Dust Bunnies, and Phull Surkle are just a few unique local bands who draw quite respectably, perhaps because they're good players, and fun bands--a proven plus on a club level. And while their approach may not be right for all bands, the number of available venues has never been higher for qualified, well-organized bands.
In the end, no club owes any band a gig or a career. Though the relationship between bands and bookers may seem adversarial at times, both have a stake in raising attendance at local venues. "I don't see a whole lot of people going to see new bands," says McClellan. "If we're gonna stick our necks out and book things that aren't just pablum-fed alternative, we've got to figure out how to get bodies in. There are a million bands who can be a clone of last year's major success, but that's when it really becomes a matter of who you know."
HELLO, I MUST BE GOING: And so, having done my bit to rid local music of crime and corruption, my job is done here at City Pages--at least as far as this weekly music column is concerned. For now, I'll be logging the lion's share of my hours at Request magazine. But be warned! After I attain my imminent status as "elder statesman of Slack," I'll be back with occassional features and notes in CP faster than you can say "Paul Metsa." (Tune in to KFAI's Local Sound Department, Friday January 12 at 7:30 p.m. for my tell-all interview with host Mark Wheat.)
From now on, the guy you really need to know--if you don't already--is Simon Peter Groebner, a.k.a. Simon Peter, or simply Simon. The New Ulm native has been a weekly music contributor for two years at the Minnesota Daily, as well as host of Radio K's sensational live-in-the-studio local show, Off the Record (which, incidentally, features a live in-studio with Son Volt this Friday). Simon will be the local-scene mainstay of a revamped CP music section that will serve local music culture and the broader readership better than ever. I'm eager to read it, and to be a continuing part of it.
BACK TO BOOKING: Local musicians might want to become "friends" with Nate Dungan of Trailer Trash and Lee's Liquor Lounge, who will also be booking the 400 Bar in 1996. Good luck to outgoing 400 Barkeep Bill Sverkerson. Lynne Bengtson has returned to the Fine Line Music Cafe, replacing Craig Teiken from the band Wood. Todd Gallagher has apparently left the Blues Saloon, but Rob Curtis is back behind the board at Red Sea after a fire at the Perfume River Restaurant next door forced the club to close for a while; San Francisco transplants Puzzle Factory and locals Julius Seizure reopen the joint Thursday. Innocent performs Friday, and Saturday it's Zeleke, a hot world beat/Chicago Soul band with roots in Ziggy Marley's Melody Makers.
MORE MORE MORE: I can't resist some boldface blurbs for the road, especially with so many good homecoming shows. After Babes in Toyland play an early show Saturday at First Avenue, Spanish Fly baby band Like Hell headlines a four-band bill in the Entry featuring Hot Karl, Cooper, and Thirsty Ear artists Rocket Fuel is the Key, featuring ex-local Scott Durgin of Dropkick (and First Avenue)... If it's looking like another lonely Christmas, spend it with Run Westy Run, Milk and Ultrasonics at First Avenue, or visit the Billys and Dust Bunnies at Cabooze... Friday, The Mighty Mofos and Curtiss A square off in the Entry, and Tuesday's 7th Street Entry "new" band night features Rick Fuller's earlier band, Grunge Machine, due for a 1996 retrospective on Fuller's Earmark Records. And finally, a welcome back to singer-songwriter Lori Wray, who'll perform a solo set opening for Rhea Valentine Thursday at 10:30 p.m. at Bryant-Lake Bowl.
Thanks everybody, and remember: [email protected]
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