"WHY ISN'T DAN famous?" my friend Kate asked me at the Loring two Saturdays ago. She was referring to Dan Haeg, a.k.a Danny Commando, who was at that moment thoughtfully slashing away at another of his band's three-chord stomps. Granted, Kate is hardly an impartial auditor; she is the sister of Haeg's girlfriend. But if her question wasn't an insistent demand, it was hardly rhetorical either. In fact, that question seems to epitomize the experience of local music--the continual process of watching your friends perform and wondering why more people aren't.
It's true--former Odd guitarist Haeg does look the part of a rock star. He's gifted with the casual self-possession and grace of a stage showman, and his current combo, Danny Commando y Los Guapos, has sharpened their sound since I caught them last summer at the Entry. Haeg is one of the half-dozen best guitarists in town, by my count, and maybe my favorite of the lot. Moreover, there's nothing forbidding or avant-garde about this outfit to put off casual bystanders. Haeg is backed by Rich Mattson's wittily emphatic drumming, Grant Johnson's sawing away on slide, and John Davis's trumpet--which has an uncanny knack for sounding like three. In other words, nothing any rock 'n' roll fan couldn't get with--just an inspired variant on Stonesy roots rock. Which is something you might think there would be an audience for, since quintillions of customers pay the price of an appendectomy for seats so far from the stage they can barely see the wizened originals performing uninspired variants of their own material on the Jumbotron.
So why was the audience confined to just those of us in the front room at the Loring that night? I mean, let's not even talk about fame, which is a loaded word and maybe not even a desired endpoint, especially considering a majority of the most promising musicians in town have already been scooped up and extruded from the star-making machinery. The notion of carving a midlevel niche as a musician--matriculating on the local scene, graduating to a major label, and then settling into a hit-making career--is one not promised by the current economic model. But even with corporate radio hermetically sealed away from new music, even with the seed money the majors once sprinkled to the junior achievers siphoned off for the shareholders, even given these facts, the ability to garner some sort of local recognition shouldn't be a pipe dream.
And there are bands that buck the trend. But such recognition is so rarely forthcoming these days that when I do find myself part of a genuine crowd at a local rock show, I wonder why. At a December Love-cars gig at the Entry, for instance, a few friends noted excitedly that more than the few dozen instantly recognizable regulars were there that night. The result was something like shock: Here was a full room! And this was on the same weekend that the Strib's FreeTime had chosen to celebrate the hot nightlife out in the megamall bar scene. Here were folks who had postponed a journey out to Bloomington to see a hometown band.
Please don't mistake this as a call for boosterism. In the past I've teased scenesters for the insular blindness of supporting local rock unconditionally--coddling our favorites rather than challenging them to do better helps no one. In fact, you could say that the circled-wagon cry to blindly "support local music" is a symptom of malaise. When no one is even bothering to argue about music's particular merits, how vibrant can the scene as a whole be?
I'm hardly fool enough to believe I can solve this problem in 800 words or less--consider it a project to be examined over the coming year, by a newspaper that has weathered its accusations of not paying enough attention over the years. To start, though, I would suggest that one thing "independent music" could use is the rebirth of an (if you'll pardon the term) alternative infrastructure--the network of sustainable labels and radio and promotions and zines that kept noncommercial music breathing in the Eighties, linking musicians and fans with counterparts in other towns. Indie hip hop has been thriving with such a system in place, but indie-rock contingents, ravaged by the plundering corporate A&R raids of the early Nineties, seem isolated from one another.
There are still some ties. It was nice to see, for instance, that Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day selected Dillinger Four's Versus God as his album of the year in the current issue of Rolling Stone. D4's recent Entry show, by the way, was crammed to capacity--so much so that comfort was less an issue than air supply. In a way, maybe the notion of "local" music is misleading: Music made hereabouts will thrive insofar as it feeds into a national, or even international, chain of connections among like-minded bands. And to the extent that musicians--and their fans--refuse to look beyond the city limits, they will suffocate, both aesthetically and commercially.