So-called "ethnic" bands face a perpetual dilemma.
If you unite with other bands and organize a movement, you're likely to be marginalized, seen as a hyphenated artist. If you downplay your ethnicity and try to win acceptance on strictly musical terms, you're likely to be ignored altogether by wary radio programmers and booking agents.
Dwight Miles understands the predicament, 'cause he lives it every day. His long, black hair and rugged Apache features give away his heritage, but his CD rack is much heavier on Charlie Musselwhite, James Brown, and Chess blues legends than any Native American bands. When he pulls out his blues harp and jams, it's usually with a non-Native band like his friends in the Hoodoo Kings. But Miles says that regional Native American music, as wildly eclectic as it is, needs to be assembled under one umbrella or it may never reach the ears of white listeners. That's why he organized the November 2 American Indian Music Fest at the Melody.
The six-hour showcase featured a lineup designed to accentuate the diversity of Indian music in Arizona: from the straight-ahead dance-rock of Clan/Destine to the genuine honky-tonk twang of Native Pride to the more esoteric chicken-scratch traditionalism of Cisco, based in the border-area reservation community of Sells.
Pulling together such a lineup inevitably requires some give-and-take. Clan/Destine's rock has reached a fairly broad audience and has taken the band to Europe for successful tours. The members are used to getting a considerable fee, but in this case, they willingly played for a share of the door. Also, Miles concedes that their audience might not be too receptive to the country sounds of Native Pride, and vice versa, but he felt that only through a collective effort could the cause be advanced.
"I want to expose these bands and get us all united to help each other out," he says. "We want to let more people know. Not just Native people, but everybody. 'Cause there are some good bands out there."
Though Clan/Destine has organized similar festivals in the past at the Electric Ballroom, Miles says about 18 months passed between shows, partly because no one felt sure that a local club would house it. When Char's Has the Blues owner Ab Lattouf bought the Melody Lounge a few months ago, he expressed an interest in bringing such a show to the Melody.
Miles, a Phoenix native, grew up in a strict Pentecostal environment, in a family so suffused with music and the Lord that his sister once sang as an opening act for gospel giant Andrae Crouch. Miles' brother is a preacher at the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Miles' musical background differs considerably from the members of Cisco, who've taken conjunto's accordion-and-sax polkas and run with them for the similar chicken-scratch grooves. What all the music fest's acts share, though, is an uphill battle with local venues.
"There's a couple of Indian bars here in town where bands play," Miles says. "There's one called the Esquire. I used to play there for years with a country band; a guy from L.A. and we used to do a blues segment each set. But there are not a lot of gigs for these bands. They usually have to go to a reservation or something, or play a dance.
"Native Pride could hold their own with any country band. The guy's a great guitar player; he plays a mean Strat. You could take them anywhere and they'd be just as good, but for some reason, there's that stigma, that because you're Native they're not gonna come see you. Which is too bad, but it's something we have to fight, I guess."
It's a fight that places a premium on underground networking, and efficient word of mouth, two tactics familiar to any dedicated follower of raves. In fact, to hear Miles describe a chicken-scratch show on a reservation is to conjure in your mind a low-tech Native version of a rave: bands playing from 7 at night to sunrise the next morning on a basketball court or some other ad hoc party site, with dancers caught up in the exultation of the almighty beat. Just like ravers, Natives must incessantly deal with naysayers who think their music doesn't translate to a broad spectrum of music listeners.
"When you say you're a Native band, they think only Native people will come out and see you," Miles says.
It's an erroneous assumption that will persist until repeatedly proven wrong.
Far Away, So Close: The Deftones' controversial return to the Valley included a bit of 11th-hour booking intrigue. Chronic Future, which had planned to open the show, was dropped from the bill because The Deftones' booking agent imposed an extra band on the bill without telling the show's promoters. That band, Far, was the fourth on the bill, which meant that Chronic Future was squeezed out. It would have been the Scottsdale teens' first local show since July. Look for some mid-November shows from them.
Royale Treatment: The jazzy neoclassicists of Phonoroyale celebrated the release of their debut CD with a low-key, but appropriately stylish, soiree at the Rhythm Room on October 27. The new CD, titled Radio Flavored, features 11 of the band's retro ready-made standards. The show highlighted the band's latest addition, saxman Marco Rosano, and exciting workouts on songs like "Crazy Moon" and "S.C.O.U.N.D.R.E.L." You can look for the band at the Axis in Scottsdale every Tuesday.
Voice your choice: On Saturday, November 8, Nita's Hideaway hosts a benefit for the Arizona affiliate of NARAL, an organization dedicated to preserving a woman's right to reproductive choice. Bands on the bill include Tempe perennials The Piersons, the Low/Watts, and Honeychild.
Who's in town: While much hoopla centers on the Stones and their absurdly overpriced show, for many of us, this week's Ani DiFranco show is a greater source of interest. Much as she's been appropriated as a flag-waver for the indie ethos, or as an icon of postmodern feminism, DiFranco also has considerable musical gifts that are often overlooked.
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A dynamic, percussive guitarist and wildly emotive singer, DiFranco--for all her apparent nontraditionalism--actually shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of one of her favorite artists, Bruce Springsteen.
Like Springsteen, her live magnetism can obscure the odd clumsy song or repetitive arrangement. DiFranco can also get a bit cutesy and coy with her peek-a-boo songs of sexuality, but that's partly because she writes in code, for the converted cultists who crave any morsel from her diary of self-discovery. DiFranco is scheduled to perform Monday, November 10, at Club Rio in Tempe.
Another can't-miss, at least for Lindy Hop practitioners, is the Cherry Poppin' Daddies show Sunday, November 9, at Boston's in Tempe. It should be a welcome chance for the sizable local swing cult to slice a rug to a first-rate live ensemble.