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"Who's in charge of this? Is it okay if I sing?"
The question came from Peacemakers guitarist Steve Larson. The answer was a soft murmur, neither affirmative nor negative. In actual fact, no one was in charge at Balboa Cafe on Wednesday, April 28, the night that the recently formed Arizona Music Forum put together its first local jam. But that's what made the night so fun, the sense that no one was steering the ship, that musicians were free to combine in any form they wanted, and play anything that struck their fancy.
Arizona Music Forum is the latest attempt by well-intentioned industry scenesters to create a more supportive environment for local bands. In truth, there are so many impediments to the growth of the local scene--state liquor board, city officials, lack of potent college radio, etc.,--that it would be easy for any new organization to swiftly sink into the quicksand of overreaching ambition.
Probably wisely, AZMF is taking a more modest path. The group's founders, Mick Treadwell and Linda Hale, both know that the organization will need to grow considerably before it'll have the clout to take on some of the big issues. But their immediate goal is more realistic: to build a network of local musicians and music-related people in the community who can build similar networks on regional and national levels.
"I know that Mick felt that Arizona didn't have a way for people in the industry to get together and share ideas and really build it into the mecca for live and recorded music that it should be," says Hale, who runs Blue Bottle Entertainment.
"He's worked with Evening Star, and I know from managing the Rocking Horse, we never used acts from Arizona to open for nationals that came through. We used other nationals that were traveling through, and didn't create another slot for locals. And I think Evening Star hasn't really taken a big look at the Arizona music scene and what they could do there. I think from Mick working there, he saw that there was really no outlet."
For Hale, another eye opener was working with out-of-state bands that passed through Arizona on the way to South by Southwest. For the most part, such bands ended up playing to minuscule Valley audiences.
"The whole SXSW thing was so disappointing with the bands coming through, because those bands aren't getting any support, they don't have the distribution, so people don't know who they are," she says. "And that same thing is happening with the bands in Arizona. You can't go to other cities and play, because where are you going to drum up your fan base from? There is no fan base. So you have to network."
Arizona Music Forum's attempts at networking fell flat over its first several weeks of meetings, with only a core group of five or six people turning up regularly. For Hale, who endured the failure of ADAM (Arizona Development of Arizona Musicians), a more charity-based organization created last year, it was enough to wonder if the effort was worth it. "I was a little hesitant: Do I really want to go through this again, all the hard work and the struggle of trying to get people united?"
The April 28 gathering promised to be different, though, because after eight weeks of discussion and debate, the organization was finally making music itself part of the equation. Sure enough, the debut of the AZMF jam brought out the most impressive crowd the organization has seen so far.
After a 30-minute set by the highly proficient prog-rock band the Thoughts (think Adrian Belew-period King Crimson), the jam formed around the nucleus of the Diesel Dawgs and Muddy Violets, with Larson tossing in some twangy licks for good measure. Ex-Sledville singer Mark Norman took the mike for a pleasantly sloppy rendition of the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues," after which the rest of the band slunked its way through Led Zep's "When the Levee Breaks."
Larson, the besotted country fan, assumed command for the night's first highlight, a dead-on version of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Larson's growling baritone was so accurate that it could only be described as loving mimicry. The effect was a bit like watching Kurt Cobain sing, with Cash's voice coming out.
Members of Bit o' Jane and 68 Lo-Fi eventually made their way onstage, with Lo-Fi frontman Kaige leading the band through a tear-in-your-beer take on Prince's "Purple Rain," which inspired at least one smart ass to hoist a lit cigarette lighter. But the real revelation of the night was Harm, a strange, inspired bunch of misfits with a country sound, hard-core sense of rage and an endearing appreciation for hip-hop.
The group's cow-punk romp through Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Membrane" was so bizarre that it took a heads-up from New Times contributor Bob Mehr to make me realize what they were playing. It was hard to decide who was funnier--bearded singer Troy Melendez, who looked for all the world like a disgruntled club bouncer, or guitarist Chris Berrey, a skinny, nerd-punk in black-frame glasses who audience members figured couldn't be more than about 12 years old.