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For most Arizona bands, the arc they can expect their careers to take is not unlike that of the Sciannas. Take a bunch of transplanted musicians, in this case Connecticut-bred brothers Fran and Dan Scianna, and thrust them into a mystifying music scene where it takes months, even years, to hook up with the right musicians, or at least a bunch of guys who'll quit watching the season opener of Friendslong enough to rehearse. The transplants play whatever acoustic gigs they can and scout musicians, as Fran and Dan did, until they found guys like drummer Dan Jewell who could help them achieve what they had formulated in their minds to be the "Sciannas sound."
Achieving this telepathy requires more patience and social graces than it does to merely accumulate friends, but when the band is finally ready to play out, a healthy percentage of pals from work and genuine chums will certainly come in handy. Early shows are well attended, thanks to persistent promotion and the fabled friend-of-a-friend attendance booster. After a few months of healthy shows, they book a show at a new club and notice there are only a dozen-plus people there. Two of them want you to hurry up so they can sweep the floors. The draw starts to dwindle. Friends of friends are no longer friends. Fans move away without e-mailing. Noncommittal types find commitments with someone who wants them to stay home to watch the season finale of Friends. It's a vicious cycle.
Some give up right there. Fran and Dan Scianna, however, felt there had to be a more methodical way of accruing and maintaining an audience. They formed a pact with other bands in a similar situation and called it the Commission.
"The idea had been tossed around for a few months," says Fran Scianna. "We'd played together on different bills with [bands like] No Lily and Initial J and came to the same conclusion that no one's going out to the shows. If we all supported each other, people would see other musicians in the audience and pretty soon they would start to bring other people."
If this sounds like a case of performers performing for other performers, at least there's none of that bitchy "me me me" attitude that pervades the open-mike crowd. You won't see other musicians being stingy with their applause at a Commission show, or someone tuning up in the back while another band plays. Commission bands seem to have discovered the act of supporting another band to be as enriching as being on stage. Unlike open-mike acts, Commission bands have plenty of shows under their belt. It isn't performing that's the novelty. It's performing to receptive audiences that's the rarity here. Even mediocre bands can command large audiences -- surely you've seen that happen. It's got more to do with the transient nature of our state and an atrophying of clapping muscles, which most Phoenicians suffer from, the audience equivalent of shoegazing.
The Sciannas have just finished conducting their most recent Commission meeting at Chaser's in Scottsdale. The meeting takes place the first Tuesday of every month and lasts roughly 45 minutes. There are no dues and no reading of minutes, just an informal pledge to support each other's bands. In attendance this night are members of No Lily, Initial J, a ska band from Cincinnati called the Busticles and singer-songwriter Bob Hermes.
The topics for discussion include the solicitation of other bands, promoting gigs and the idea of making the Sciannas' regular gig at the Priceless Inn in Mesa a sort of informal Commission night for musicians. The brothers say the attendance for that gig has jumped from five to 10 to 20 to 30 in the past few weeks.
As for suggestions on how to make their shows more eclectic and experimental, someone suggests Commission bands invite other Commission band members to walk up and perform a song. A commonplace occurrence in most music scenes, it happens at blues clubs whenever there's another guitarist or a horn player in the audience. It seems strange that it has to be put forth as a suggestion. Then, you realize you have trouble recalling the last time a local rock band did just that.
Fran Scianna remembers it being that way back East. "In Connecticut, there were no clubs, so you either played in Massachusetts or New York. We played a lot in New York or Boston -- it's so competitive there, there's not a willingness to work together amongst bands," he says. "Here, you have bands from all different parts of the country looking for a cohesive scene. The Commission shows, already it's built up camaraderie. That hasn't been a problem of bands vying for the best slot on a given show because we rotate bands and encourage people to get there to the shows early, check out the opening band and stay for the whole show. That's a pet peeve of many of the bands I've talked to. They play with a group whose people evacuate the premises the minute their set is done. Even the group takes off. So there's no cross-pollinating of audiences."