As monsoon winds swirl around the south Scottsdale practice space of Shoeless Joe, three members of the Tempe quartet -- bassist Theron Wall, singer/rhythm guitarist Dave Wolfmeyer and lead guitarist Chad Hines -- wait for drummer Michael Wood to arrive.
"You're late," someone shouts as Wood finally emerges from an old Volvo station wagon. Wood's spent most of the day having car trouble. "Buy American," Wolfmeyer says with a broad grin.
For all the glamour that MTV attempts to bestow upon its manufactured pop stars, this tableau is much closer to the real story of rock 'n' roll. Four guys on a Wednesday night stuck in a 50-dollar-a-month storage facility. Strains of the metal band practicing in a shed down the row cut through the wet night air. The band members will spend three hours playing their hearts out to one curious onlooker in a cramped, un-air-conditioned, eight-by-eight room. "Livin' la Vida Loca" indeed.
All across North America, the same scene is being repeated by hundreds of other bands. In a way, the members of Shoeless Joe are not unlike so many of those groups -- shedding blood, sweat and chunks of their souls for a chance to make their passion pay their bills. The only difference is that most bands, no matter how earnest their effort, lack the talent or the insight to stand out. Any such doubts are erased when Shoeless Joe kicks off a galloping rocker with the opening salvo -- "Sitting around waitin' for my phone to ring/It's working wonders on my self-esteem."
Their music resonates with a simple clarity through a haze of pot smoke. The songs evoke lost innocence, when the possibility of youth fades into the harsh reality and unrealized aspirations of adulthood. "Burned out dreams and wasted time/I got a scrapbook full of empty pages that tell you/The story of my life."
Shoeless Joe had an inauspicious beginning. Wall and Wolfmeyer spent much of the early Nineties in a female-fronted outfit known as 10th and Ash. Typical conflicts broke up the group. Wall, having recently graduated from Arizona State University (where he studied cello), moved to Seattle. He urged the rest of the group to join him there in the hope of restarting the band, this time with Wolfmeyer singing. That didn't happen, and after a series of false starts, Wall and Wolfmeyer began writing and performing as a guitar/cello duo known as Truckers on Speed.
The grunge capital wasn't especially hospitable to the pair of desert outsiders, but the two paid close attention and came to the conclusion that for all its relative hype, Seattle's musical talent pool paled in comparison to the Valley's.
"The bands here [Phoenix] kick the shit out of what's going on up in Seattle. It's just that here no one will go see it unless somebody's telling them it's cool," says Wolfmeyer.
"Up there people aren't afraid to go out and see somebody for the first time and give something a try. I've seen bands that were here for five years doing the same shows at the same places for nobody. Up there, they'd be huge."
After 18 months, the pair returned to the Valley with a strong catalogue of songs, determined to forge the new group. "We planned on doing the same shit we were doing in Truckers but actually having drums -- doing the rock thing," says Wolfmeyer.
Now more than a year after their debut (and after finally settling on a stable lineup), the group is set to release a two-song single -- "Tales of a 25-Year-Old Nothing" b/w "Heart at Home." The band recorded the disc at Mind's Eye Studio, and plans to give it away as means to drum up local interest.
One reason Shoeless Joe lacks a hard-core fan base is that its sound is difficult to pigeonhole. At first, they come off like a more thoughtful version of the Denton, Texas, alt-country band Slobberbone, with elements of the blue-collar humor and pathos of the Bottle Rockets thrown in. And the band members aren't afraid to trumpet their No Depression leanings. "Uncle Tupelo was a total epiphany for me, man," says Wolfmeyer. "They seemed to make sense out of everything I listened to my whole life."
The influence of Uncle Tupelo, the Belleville, Illinois, trio, is evident in Wolfmeyer's songwriting. The lead track from the single "Tales of a 25-Year-Old Nothing" echoes the heart-on-their-sleeves country-punk ethos of early Uncle Tupelo. In fact, much of Shoeless Joe's material wouldn't seem out of place on either of the group's first two records; Wolfmeyer's biting, world-weary drawl sounds like a young Jay Farrar.
For the most part, though, the band prefers to look farther back in terms of their musical influences. "When we were doing the Truckers on Speed thing, we used to have a lot of people say, 'You must listen to a lot of Steve Earle.' And I was always like, 'No, I don't. I listen to the Beatles and Stones -- which is something that Steve Earle listens to -- that's a definite influence on him.'"
The group's diversity also shapes its sound. Wall, though classically trained, didn't actually pick up the bass until halfway through his college years. "I was really frustrated with the classical-music program [at ASU]. Playing the cello, I absolutely love the instrument, but there's no repertoire outside of classical music for it. I never could play music until I picked up the bass unless I had music written out for me."
He's a more-than-capable bassist, yet Wall brings a fresh approach to the instrument, a blend of his formal training and his love for twang rock.
Hines' résumé includes guitar duty in a "Funkadelic-influenced trio" while Wood's previous group, Unlisted (which still performs in the Valley), was more into the "heavy alternative" sound.
Wolfmeyer's eye for detail -- and his withering sense of the inequities of life and love -- shine through on the nearly 20 acoustic demos that Shoeless Joe has recorded. "Dandelion" is a cousin to Billy Joe Shaver's "Old Chunk of Coal," while "Cindy Crawford (Shellshocked & Woodstocked)" is a hilarious lyrical romp that manages to invoke both the moled supermodel and Supersuckers drummer Dancing Eagle.
Still, where Shoeless Joe excels is on numbers like the ethereal "Desert Sun" (an Arizonan redux of Tom Waits' "Ol' 55") and "Zamora." Songs that sound more optimistic, yet in the vein of Tonight's the Night-era Neil Young.
The group plans include releasing a full-length and getting out on the road. "That whole thing in Seattle taught us that it's not that hard to get shows if you have something to promote yourself with. You can go anywhere, and as long as you have enough money to get from place to place, and some music to give to people," says Wall.
Wolfmeyer agrees, but like the characters in his songs, yearns for something bigger. "Yeah, our main focus is to have a full-length thing out. I'd love to be doing nothing but music, I mean, who wouldn't? That's the big pipe dream."
Shoeless Joe is scheduled to perform a single release show on Thursday, September 2, at Billy Gordon's in Tempe. Showtime is 9 p.m. The group is also scheduled to perform Saturday, September 4, at Long Wong's in Tempe. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.
To the Point: Former Sledville front man Mark Norman has been busy pressing the major-label flesh. Norman is just back from a pair of trips that saw him take meetings with Interscope Records bosses in Los Angeles and a New York jaunt where he was wined and dined by Atlantic imprint Lava Records. Although his status as a prospective corporate signee seems to have come out of thin air, Norman has worked furiously on a collection of new songs since returning from an extended stay in California earlier this year.
The first material to emerge from Norman's new project, Ghetto Cowgirl, is a four-song double single that comes out next week. Norman will mark the occasion with a performance/release party at Long Wong's in Tempe on Sunday, September 5, opening for roots rockers Los Guys. The self-titled disc includes the songs "To the Point," "Without Warning," "Excuses for Losers" and "A Thing Like That." Recorded with engineer Chris Widmer at Tempe's Mayberry studios, the tracks include contributions from a bevy of local talents ranging from Gloritone bassist Nick Scropos to Peacemakers guitarist Steve Larson.
Joining Norman onstage will be a pair of his former Sledville mates, guitarists Thomas Laufenberg (currently of the Pistoleros) and Phil Beach. Rounding out Ghetto Cowgirl's makeshift lineup will be Yoko Love drummer Mike Hill and Pollen bassist Chris Serafini. Norman says he plans to follow up the single with a full-length release in November.
The Circus Leaves Town: The Songwriter's Circus will end its nearly two-year run with a special blowout show at Tempe's Balboa Cafe on Sunday, September 5. The program will feature a performance by the Bay Area folk-rock duo of Jim Brunberg and Jeff Pherson, better known as Box Set. Local songwriters are being invited to perform after the group's 7 p.m. set.
Sunday's show will mark the final regular monthly gathering of the Songwriter's Circus. However, Circus organizer David Grossman promises that the series will continue on an event basis in the future. Grossman admits that the change is due in large part to recent poor attendance. The lack of support is somewhat surprising given the fact that the format has been tremendously popular in other cities (Grossman says he was even approached about possibly franchising the idea). Still, Grossman remains undeterred and hopes that this final show will generate enough interest to continue the series with some degree of regularity.
The Balboa Cafe will also host a rare performance by transplanted Tucsonan and founding Giant Sand(worms) member Billy Sedlmayr. Naked pueblo pals Rich Hopkins (of Sand Rubies and Luminarios fame) and multi-instrumentalist Stefan George will join Sedlmayr onstage Friday, September 3. The trio is set to work through a number of Sedlmayr's unreleased hard luck and heroin originals as well as songs from his collaborations with Hopkins' Luminarios. Local twang rockers Chicken are set to open. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Hey, Come On: "Anytime anybody compares you to somebody over and over again, it gets kind of taxing, but you should just let it roll off your back." Easier said than done for Verbena front man Scott Bondy. The Birmingham, Alabama, trio has been winning praise for its just-released major-label debut Into the Pink, along with a load of comparisons to grunge kingpins Nirvana.
As unfair as it is to the band (which includes bassist/vocalist Anne Marie Griffin and drummer Les Nuby), it's hard not to be struck by the eerie similarities between the voices of Bondy and Kurt Cobain. The two share the same sort of nasal twang and a lyrical sense that often equates love and death. The gentle piano chording that colors the disc opener, "Lovely Isn't Love," belies the song's haunting message ("Lovely isn't love/Until it bleeds").
Shaking the Cobain comparison has proved especially difficult as Into the Pink was produced by Bondy's friend, former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl. Bondy says Grohl was interested but initially reticent to produce the record for fear of altering the group's sound. "He was kind of like, 'I don't want to fuck with you guys.' He was also worried about whatever baggage might be involved in us working together and being paranoid about corrupting us and our sound, which was totally unfounded.
"The upside is we have Grohl attached to the record, which kind of makes it okay in a way. But at the same time, just because he's attached to it, a lot of people compare it to Nirvana more than they would anyway."
One association that Bondy doesn't mind is with the Sex Pistols. "I definitely think it's there. Which goes back to the point that if we do sound like [Nirvana] in any way, it's probably because we share a lot of the same bands as influences. A lot of journalism is short-memoried. It's like, 'Wasn't there punk before grunge?'"
Into the Pink is a record that isn't afraid to show its punk roots. From the "Holidays in the Sun" march that kicks off the title track to Bondy's 'bama boy does Johnny Rotten vocal sneer on "Pretty Please" and "Submissionary," Into the Pink is brimming with London '77-era influences. The sound is a bit of a departure from the group's previous full-lengther, Souls for Sale, which Bondy accurately characterizes as a "Stonesish scruffy, swaggery rock 'n' roll record."
The group's shift from a Memphis-style indie pop band to a punkish power trio also coincided with their departure from Merge Records. Bondy says the group was happy during their stay on the label but that the decision to leave the Southern indie for Capitol was purely practical. "We needed a van," he says, laughing, "and we wanted better distribution. Merge was great to us, but we wanted to play the game a little bit more, so to speak."
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And as for those who like to portray Verbena as "neo-grunge"? "That's bullshit. We're much more like a snotty punk band than a grunge band," says Bondy. "There's none of that morose self-angst vibe that grunge had. I think we're a lot more empowering than that."
For those whose tastes run more toward the technological side, Modified will also be hosting a very rare appearance by German electronica pioneer Hans Joachim Rodelius. Rodelius' current "Indian Summer" tour is the avant-garde legend's fist ever solo outing. Better known as half of the influential duo Cluster (contemporaries of electronic experimentalists like Can and Kraftwerk), Rodelius is touring in advance of his forthcoming Global Trotters (a project featuring Rodelius and a constantly changing cast of contributors) album Drive. -- Bob Mehr
Verbena is scheduled to perform on Saturday, September 4, at 9 p.m. Hans Joachim Rodelius is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, September 8, at 9 p.m. Both shows are at Modified.
Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org