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The Genre Gap

Twin City tunesmiths the Hang Ups.
Andrew Bessler

Rock is not dead. Just ask anyone who was onstage at Sunday's Arizona Music Forum's all-day festival. Performers made frequent references to just how much "local music rocks" or "how great all the bands are here today."

Unfortunately, those making the observations must have been at an altogether different event from the marathon music session we sat through.

That's not to say that the event was a failure. In fact, the AzMFest was a rousing success on a number of levels.

What seemed to be an absolute logistical nightmare came off smoothly, thanks in large part to Club Rio's multi-stage indoor/outdoor setup and solid planning by organizers. The public participation and turnout were also heartening -- coinciding nicely with the Tempe Town Lake opening happening just a few hundred yards away.

The same sort of praise can't be heaped upon the majority of the performers.

The aftertaste says less about the AzMF or the local scene than it does about the state of popular music.

Judging by the incessant and well-rehearsed plugs for tee shirts, CDs and Web sites, it seemed most of the groups spent more time working on promotional strategies than on songwriting -- a mentality that fits right in with the current "marketing first, music second" philosophy of the record industry.

The gathering did provide an ample opportunity to see the trickle-down effect that MTV and commercial radio has had locally.

Based on the generic sounds of most of the younger "pop" bands -- and there were plenty of them -- it seemed they all learned to play by listening to Matchbox 20 or Sugar Ray records. And since a large percentage of the "rock" bands on the bill decided to ape the cretinous rap-metal brigade occupying the upper register of the Billboard charts, a good portion of the day was spent playing a game of "Find That Melody."

In terms of quality and talent, it was hard to differentiate between million-sellers like Creed and Godsmack and any number of bands on the AzMF bill. That may be a good sign for the commercial viability of Valley bands, though it doesn't speak well for the integrity or quality of local music.

The AzMF is a democratic and well-intentioned initiative, but the premise behind an event like Sunday's festival is inherently flawed. Let's face it, even in America's most thriving music centers, say, Chicago or Austin -- which Phoenix is clearly not -- you'd be hard-pressed to find 25 well-known bands worth seeing, let alone 50 or so relative unknowns. So the idea itself, though admirable, was doomed to a kind of inevitable fate. Getting that many bands to show up on time and play was a victory in and of itself -- though it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory in the end. As one underwhelmed onlooker concluded, "This is what happens when you bring egalitarianism to local music."

Still, there were more than enough performances -- good, bad and flawed -- to keep things interesting.

Big Blue Couch's midafternoon set was one of the few real highlights of the day. Word of mouth has been strong on the band, which offers up an arty punk/debauched rock 'n' roll vibe -- something like Television crossed with the Black Crowes. If nothing else, the musicians at least looked like convincing rock stars, with the lead singer doing his best Iggy/Jagger impersonation while the rest of the band played with detached cool. Similarly, local vets the Diesel Dawgs put on an energetic display of unironic blues-rock to a good response.

Most disappointing was the dearth of female bands. That's not to say there weren't plenty of female musicians on hand, it's just that most of the acts tended toward the sleep-inducing sounds of Jewel and the Indigo Girls rather than L7 or the Donnas, the only real exceptions being a harmony-rich outdoor set by Rhyze and a patio performance by Betsy (backed by members of the Pistoleros), who proved herself a more than capable vocalist on a handful of originals plus an elegiac reading of Lone Justice's "Don't Toss Us Away." A late-evening set by Inda Eaton was pleasant, though the band's songs (titles included "Love Means Never" and "Hey La") left behind the unmistakable taste of granola and wheat germ.

Late-evening turns by teen bands like Tolerance and Six Point Restraint (and earlier in the day by Curve) brought attention to a new phenomenon -- rock 'n' roll parents. Bash & Pop caught a glimpse of more than a few "rocker moms" and "Little League fathers" manning the merch booths, carrying in equipment and berating sound men instead of home-plate umpires.

There was a time when rock 'n' roll was the one thing that parents steered clear of. Rock used to represent rebellion against authority, personal experimentation, freedom and sex -- concepts with which the parents of most 16-year-olds aren't exactly enamored. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the current plight of popular music -- the homogeneity, safety and blandness -- than to see it turned into an episode of Family Affair. Rock music is no longer feared. Parents have stopped worrying about hidden messages on records for good reason. The only thing you're likely to find buried in the grooves of an Offspring disc is a plug for some giant corporation -- "Turn me on, Pepsi pitchman."

 

Nightfall brought a predictably tepid set from Phoenix's ZPB (Zack Phillips Band) followed by an impossible-to-peg performance by Arms of the Sun. The group was fronted by a six-and-a-half-foot singer clad in vinyl pants and bearing a striking resemblance to Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett, and its sound would have been fairly common if not for a strange mix of harmonica and slide trombone. Without much in the way of sonic palatability, the musical and visual novelty wore thin.

The acoustic blues of Danny Rhodes proved a welcome respite. Though it seemed most in the crowd were uninterested in anything even remotely rootsy, Rhodes seized the day by bringing his young son onstage to play drums. The tot managed a more convincing backbeat than most of the other trapsmen three times his age, backing his father on a pair of Delta-flavored numbers.

Although Bash & Pop is no fan of current post-Grateful Dead jam rock, Tempe's Shawn Johnson and the Foundation proved to be an effective, even charismatic, live outfit. Their Dave Matthews-meets-Phish hybrid was invested with more enthusiasm and conviction than any of the bands attempting to capitalize on the here-today-gone-tomorrow (hopefully) allure of rap-metal. However, after a half-hour with the Foundation, don't be surprised to find yourself rushing home to listen to some Ramones records in an effort to purge your mind of the band's incessantly loopy, groove-oriented sound.

The most convincing and strangely moving performance of the whole event came early in the day with a set by west Phoenix retro-hard rockers Gun Hill Road.

Though the band claims a sound that falls somewhere between Van Halen and Aerosmith, they're actually closer to the mainstream early-'80s hard rock of Night Ranger and Survivor.

The group provided a clinic in the lost art of shredding (sarcasm, folks), with flowing manes bobbing and rocking from side to side.

Something began to give way in this jaded heart -- a feeling that there were more blood, sweat and tears invested in the effort of these aging war-horses than any of their well-styled juniors. There was something pure of heart in their playing -- no matter how trite the music, how hackneyed the rock 'n' roll clichés. Perhaps it's only a matter of context, but set against the majority of bands on the AzMF bill, it was clear that Gun Hill Road had more balls than almost anyone there, proving that regardless of conventional wisdom, Ted Nugent will always be wilder than Fred Durst, that UFO will always be cooler than Filter.

You have to admire Gun Hill Road's steadfast refusal to give up on their particular brand of rock 'n' roll. It's the kind of band that's timeless. The set they played could have come off just as well at the Mason Jar in 1979 or 1989 as it did at Club Rio this past Sunday.

While most in the scattered crowd were indifferent early on, the band's toils were not in vain. By the end of its set, the group had the audience clapping, hollering and flashing devil horns in begrudging admiration -- illustrating the day's most salient point: Bad rock from the '80s, played with spirit, is still infinitely better than bad rock from the '90s played without it.

Bash & Pop certainly never thought the time would come where we would actually welcome hearing a band that might break into "Eye of the Tiger" at any moment, but in era (and on a day) when the kids are doing it all for the nookie, Gun Hill Road sounded as powerful, vibrant and welcome as the Sex Pistols. Shit. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Pop Story: This past September when Minneapolis pop band the Hang Ups stopped by Tempe's Balboa Café, a group of pop nerds (including yours truly) gathered with much anticipation.

Although the group has been among the Twin Cities' better bands for more than a decade and released a handful of albums and EPs, this past year marked the first time the group had ventured west for a full-scale tour. Adding to the anticipation was the fact that the band had completed work on its third full-length effort, Second Story. Good band, new record -- "Where's the story?" you ask. Well, Don Dixon and Mitch Easter decided to get together to produce the record marking their first collaboration since making R.E.M.'s indie classics Chronic Town and Murmur; pop fans will take serious notice. The resultant disc is a wonderful mix of '60s-styled pop that gives equal nods to the Association, Zombies and Simon & Garfunkel.

 

Speaking from his home, Hang Ups front man Brian Tighe admits that the prospect of working with the quasi-legendary knob turners was both an exciting and scary prospect. "The idea of it was intimidating, but just being in the studio with them -- they're really funny guys, both of them," says Tighe. "They were so easygoing that it made the whole experience real comfortable."

It's no mystery why Dixon and Easter chose to work with the band. Their Balboa performance proved the group to be genuinely gifted songsmiths, with an amazing ability to weave dense harmonies and lush arrangements into blissful pop nuggets.

Tighe's own developing musical tastes color much of the material on Second Story. "Before writing these songs, I was listening to a lot of Ray Davies," he says. "He's probably my favorite songwriter, so I can't help but use him as a certain gauge. There's also a playfulness in his vocal delivery that I followed, which I think freed me up on this album."

Although the influence of Davies and the Kinks permeates much of the album (especially the crunchy "Party"), the group's mesmerizing sound runs the gamut from the Crosby, Stills & Nash harmony of "Blue Sky" to the Beatlesque title track. While the group hasn't really courted commercial success, recent years have found their music seeping through to the mainstream. Their breakthrough came with a Dixon-remixed version of "Jumpstart" (a cut that originally appeared on 1993's He's After Me), which played during a pivotal boy-falls-for-girl scene in the 1997 comedy Chasing Amy. Discerning pop fans should be out in force for the Hang Ups return to the Valley.

The Hang Ups are scheduled to perform on Saturday, November 13, at the Balboa Café in Tempe, with the Pennydrops. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Mind Blowers: As if the chance to see Guided By Voices (see the story) isn't enough to mobilize indie music fans, then the added bonus of catching Those Bastard Souls open for the Dayton rockers should have folks lined up early. The sorta-side project features Grifters' main man Dave Shouse as well as members of the Damnbuilders, Red Red Meat and the late Jeff Buckley's band. The group's latest V2 Records release, Debt & Departure, is an inspired mix of dark, aching roots rock (think Sticky Fingers-era Stones) that has earned the band almost universal praise. Songs like "The Last Thing I Ever Wanted Was to Show Up and Blow Your Mind" and "Curious State" explore deep country blues grooves backed by Shouse's brooding vocals. With Shouse's reputation as a consummate showman, the Bastard Souls opener should not be missed.

Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: bmehr@newtimes.com


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