AZMC '91: PLAYING FOR KEEPS Ahhh . . . there's nothing like a music conference. Musicians of every size, taste and hair style steal into town. Music-business people--everyone from writers and deejays to promoters and record-company executives--fly in and schmooze themselves silly.
During the day, everyone drifts in and out of panel discussions debating vital issues, like how you can wire the band van together or which music lawyers can be trusted. At night, the artists play in what are optimistically known as "showcases." Held at clubs, theatres or practically any space that will hold a crowd, the showcases continue for several nights running.
Limited to 30 minutes at most places, bands play with the idea that record-label talent scouts, artist managers and booking agents are in the crowd taking notes. If a conference is successful, a band or two will sign a record deal. Everyone else will come away enlightened and exhausted.
November 6 through 10, that scenario was played out in the Valley as the first Arizona Music Conference and Showcase flapped its wings and got off the ground. Headquartered at the Westcourt in the Buttes resort, AZMC '91 featured two days of panels and three nights of showcases. There were 22 venues scattered across the Valley which played host to band showcases. Most clubs featured five to six bands per night on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The following is a sampling of the weekend's showcases as seen through the now-bleary eyes of the Sun Tracks staff.
ROSIE FLORES Arizona Center
Perhaps the most prestigious act gracing the conference was L.A. roots-rocker Rosie Flores. And perhaps no participant was treated more shabbily.
Flores found herself placed inexplicably in the middle of Arizona Center on Thursday evening. Her nowherelandish, postdinner, preparty 8 p.m. slot drew a couple dozen semicurious shoppers. Adding injury to insult was the conference's failure to deliver a promised drum kit. Obliged to make do, the band's percussion section consisted of a tambourine, a cowbell and a pair of sticks.
Rosie could have pouted, but instead she and her band riveted the little gathering with selections from her latest work After the Farm, as yet available only on the Swiss label Red Moon Records. The music gods and lawyers permitting, these superb sides--filled with Rosie's rich brand of gritty, down-home rock and soaring ballads--will soon show up on Hightone Records.
After her set, Flores was gracious, but bewildered by the treatment she received.
"Well," she said with a smile, "I at least hope my name was helpful to them."--
BRILLIANT FOOLS 3RD FLOOR
Hayden Square Amphitheatre
The Fools and the Floor are both pop-alternative bands. That's where the similarities end. Led by ex-Gentlemen After Dark guitarist Robin Johnson, Tucson's Fools is yet another guitar band that finds no shame in mining that seemingly endless vein of pop licks, the Byrds. The Fools like their pop sweet--lots of strumming and very little rocking. And though they're more potential than substance at this point, they do have a future. Johnson is a strong front man with a voice, and the band has a couple of tunes that are a cut above, like the closer "Goodbye."
If pop bands don't dig into the Byrds legacy, they usually end up gravitating toward the English model. The members of Tempe's 3rd Floor are Anglophiles whose lead singer James Toro goes for the look (black shoes, white socks), the voice (thin, lightheaded ramblings) and, of course, the hair (the Jesus Jones-inspired art of flipping long bangs) of the English-pop idiom. Unfortunately, the group didn't do as well at emulating its mentor's music as the Fools did. There is some talent here--the band's lead guitarist John Brantley, for instance, was strong--but the group's original material lacks personality, and the stage show is a compendium of 120 Minutes-derived moves. Will someone please tie up those blond bangs? --
SPINNING JENNY Minder Binder's
The highlight of Spinning Jenny's set at Minder Binder's wasn't the band's considerable power-pop stylings or the rougher touches contributed by newly acquired guitarist Freddy Gildersleeve.
No, the ultimate moment in an otherwise mixed performance was delivered by singer-guitarist Stephan Easterling. Full of enthusiasm, he blindly rushed to the front of the stage and accidently conked himself in the head with his microphone.
Now that's entertainment.
Everything else was kind of ragged. The addition of Gildersleeve is a plus in that he provides punch to the band's twangy "twee" tendencies. But energy and abandon are two different animals, and at times the Jennys seemed to let their newfound gusto get out of control.
Even so, cool songs like "Back in the Life" and "John the Gardiner" stood up well, and the band's increasing cohesiveness as the night wore on suggested good things to come from this East Valley band.--
MARK NESLER Toolies Country
Bless them, AZMC's framers resisted putting Dallas country singer Mark Nesler in the Sun Club.
The tall, swarthy Nesler wrapped his cool baritone around George Strait songs while band members picked and fiddled their way through a taut set of similar two-stepping and shuffle-friendly favorites at Toolies Country. Nesler passed the mic and the spotlight--while never relinquishing leadership--to others in the band, permitting each to strut his or her stuff.
Given the tenor and content of Nesler's act, it's obvious this boy plans to be a Nashville cat. The band's set was a primer in adroit showcasing. Nesler and associates displayed their considerable, label-worthy talent and professionalism without once broaching the innovative. They like that in Music City.--Larry Crowley
BIG PETE PEARSON AND THE BLUES SEVILLES Chuy's
What can you say about the Valley's big soul man that hasn't been said before? Well, Big Pete keeps gettin' bigger, his sax player keeps on blowin' and the Sevilles' bluesy, R&B mix never loses its bounce or its boogie. Forget Arizona, this is one of the best blues/R&B bands anywhere.--Robert Baird
THE CLOWNS MODERN DAY SAINTS
DEAD HOT WORKSHOP
After the Gold Rush
Remember Ronnie Van Zant's "Turn it up!" exhortation at the beginning of "Sweet Home Alabama"? At After the Gold Rush last Thursday, the crowd was shouting just the opposite.
There was no sound mix at this showcase--only volume. Obviously, someone with the metal-bar-loud-is-better philosophy was running the board. During the Clowns' set, you could see the drummer hitting the cymbals, but you couldn't hear a thing. Volume is a constant problem at this club. To whoever runs the sound board at After the Gold Rush: Grasp the volume knob firmly between your thumb and forefinger and turn it down!
Led by ex-Plimsoul, ex-Walking Wounded guitarist Eddie Munoz, the Austin-based Clowns did a long set, much of which was a sonic wash. It's difficult to judge a melody or even a rhythm line when all you hear are pounding drums and waves of bass. Described by Munoz as "Cheap Trick meets the Ramones," the band's original material sounds more like Soul Asylum than anything else. The group has a decent stage presence and, despite the difficulty hearing them, more than a handful of catchy tunes.
When it comes to Modern Day Saints, a nondescript alternative group from L.A., the less said, the better. The tunes were stale and uninspired, the musicianship was nothing special and not one, but two, band members were wearing long johns. If AZMC continues next year, this is the kind of band that needs to get a "Thanks, but no thanks" letter.
The evening's closer was Tempe's Dead Hot Workshop, the best unsigned band in the Valley. Vocalist Brent Babb's stream-of-consciousness, between-tune banter was in high gear and the band was on a roll. Coming at the end of a week in which some of the band's equipment was stolen and a close friend died, the Workshop's performance was inspired. Bassist Brian Griffith, drummer Curtis Grippe and guitarist Steve Larson were all on, and Babb was in a mood not only to blab, but to belt it out.--Robert Baird
Dragworm's performance last Friday night at the Sun Club was hindered by the fact that the Sun Club failed to open at Dragworm's scheduled 7 p.m. start time.
There was no one out front with an explanation, no note on the door--nothing.
A quick peek through the side entrance revealed a couple of guys playing pool and another guy setting up mic stands on stage. Taped music was blaring and the bar was brightly lighted--but the paying customers were all in the parking lot, waiting.
Half an hour later, a Sun Club employee wandered out front. He was sporting a black tank top that accented his nifty tattoos. He seemed oblivious to the group of people patiently standing by the front door.
"Are you going to open the club tonight?" someone asked.
"No, we're just fakin' it," he answered, and went back inside.
Judging from the band's abbreviated sound check, heard from the parking lot, Dragworm--a Phoenix-based alternative prog-rock outfit--employs a guitar-driven spaciness reminiscent of early 4AD stuff.
As for the show--who knows? Your intrepid reporter grew weary after spending more than an hour staring at various pebble formations in the parking lot. He decided he'd rather go out and see some live music. He got tired of "fakin' it" at the Sun Club.--Ted Simons
It's another Friday night at the Mason Jar and there's a guy on stage grabbing his crotch and screaming into a microphone.
Typical metal mush, you say? Not so fast. The featured band Friday night was DVS and, well, yeah, the pelvic thrusts, insipid stage banter, precision hair-toss drills and other muddle-headed metal cliches were very much in evidence throughout the band's set.
But these Valley-based boys threw in a few curves, too. Like half-decent songs, for instance. At best, the DVS song list was a credible imitation of every other soft-metal/hard-rock tune piped to the masses on KUPD. The band's vocals were high and hard (effective harmonies, too) and the dual guitarists didn't constantly regurgitate the same tired solos and chord changes.
Most of the DVS lineup formerly played together in Risque, a local band that apparently went nowhere with great ease. The same thing could happen to this gussied-up edition. After all, we're not talkin' original concepts here. DVS is simply a clearer copy of an old, well-worn MTV clip. And if that sounds like a compliment, well, it almost is. --Ted Simons
BLAKASAURUS MEX COSMIC BOOGIE TRIBE
Three groups on the AZMC '91 roster--Kelvynator, Blakasaurus Mex and Cosmic Boogie Tribe--are members of the New York-based Black Rock Coalition. Headed by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, the coalition is dedicated to overturning the belief that black bands can't cut it in the world of fair-haired metal music and high-volume guitar thrashing.
Unfortunately for the conference, Kelvynator canceled its appearance at the last moment, depriving us of firsthand proof of just how nasty this overlooked group can play. Leader Kelvyn Bell is a guitarist who can match Vernon Reid at stirring rock, funk and jazz together in a single guitar solo. We'll have to settle for listening to Kelvynator's newest release Funk Tales, due out on Enemy Records within the next few months.
There were, however, no disappointments to be found in the two other BRC bands that played Club Rio last Saturday night. L.A.'s Blakasaurus Mex did well in representing the coalition's I'm-black-and-I'm-loud philosophy. The foursome melds Funkadelic and Hendrix influences to achieve its own style of postmetal pummeling. Hispanic vocalist Ernie Perez, who introduced himself as the "Mex" portion of the band's name, also held tightly to the Hendrix leanings by singing of peace and unity without sounding awkward or corny. No small feat when the cruise control of the band is set on 90 mph.
Cosmic Boogie Tribe followed and increased the speed, leading one onlooker to comment that the Tucson band could be called "Faith No More meets the Red Hot Chili Peppers." The lead singer stomp-pranced through the audience and added a heavy rap element to the band's bass-heavy overdrive. The Blakasaurus boys hung around stageside for the Tribe's show and were no less enthusiastic about their assaultive fellow funk-rockers than the rest of the crowd. The black rockers and their companions did a great job of showing why they call it a "coalition." --
ANT FARMERS Arizona Center
Albuquerque's Ant Farmers arrived in town as one of the bands most likely to succeed at the Arizona Music Conference and Showcase '91. The Farmers were riding high on the strength of a positive record review in Option magazine and a buzz that had crowned them kings of the New Mexico new-music scene.
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The hype was for the most part justified last Saturday night at Arizona Center. The Farmers proved themselves well versed in the R.E.M. school of minor-key vocals and garage-tempo tunes. The band also had the smarts to pull off a cover of Spirit's killer classic "Nature's Way."
But the show was hardly overwhelming. Slips and snags prevented the Farm boys from creating the intended atmosphere. A film projector beamed moving pictures on a big sheet hung behind the stage--but the makeshift screen kept falling down. A slide machine aimed at a side wall didn't work, either--the ambient light in Arizona Center was too bright. (Either that or I really did see the face of Richard Nixon staring at me from the wall above the pay telephones.)
Front man Jon Little was kind of a drag, too. His voice was more than up for the job, but he kept striding in circles around the stage like a short, pale, pudgy rapper. On one of Little's frequent trips, he got going so fast he fell down.
No one said good music had to be pretty.--Ted Simons