Music News

Shapiro: It's Nice to See Virginia's Best-Kept Secret on the Road

When I drove into Harrisonburg, Virginia, again this month. I didn't need the puddles on the ground to tell me that it had rained overnight — the air was already thick with the smell of dog food.

Townsfolk offer all sorts of excuses for the precipitation-activated odor, but they should feel lucky; a town like Harrisonburg probably ought to smell like dog food more often.

A stream infested with fecal bacteria runs through the center of this town, the home of no one famous except former NBA star/convicted deadbeat dad Ralph Sampson and dubbed the "methamphetamine capital of the East Coast" by former attorney general Janet Reno.

On the plus side: Harrisonburg is home to the best tacos I've ever eaten, and it's home to Shapiro, one of the best local-level bands I've ever seen.

To be honest, I'd rather write a column about those tacos — savory, spicy, served with a cold bottle of Jarritos — but they aren't worth flying to rural Virginia for.

Shapiro, on the other hand, is worth driving to Tempe for.

When I first saw them, they were playing a free show at Eastern Mennonite University, a small, practically Amish college in the outer limits of Harrisonburg. Walking on stage, they looked like a ragtag bunch of doofuses, and I was anything but hopeful, despite the promise of music editor Martin Cizmar, who did two years in the 'Burg and who said I was lucky to be seeing them at all, let alone for free.

Then the music came. It probably kicked off with "Prelude," a slow, steadily building piece of piano-driven power pop that was undeniably endearing. As they worked through their show, it was clear that these guys either spent every waking minute practicing their set or that some freak accident not only landed four stupidly talented kids in this cultural backwater, but also blessed them with a supernatural stage presence and chemistry.

At the time, I'm pretty sure the guys were only about 19 years old and still bagging groceries at the local supermarket while dreaming of making it big — following the Kurt Warner turnaround plan, apparently — but they sounded as polished as U2, as though they'd been doing nothing but touring for longer than they'd actually been alive.

Shapiro's music is generally upbeat, driven more by lead singer Jeremy Teter's keyboards than by the guitar work of Nathan Granofsky, who looks roughly like equal parts Harry Potter and Peter Frampton. Their sound is bound to draw comparisons to Ben Folds, but with a heavier rock edge, it's a lot closer to Jukebox the Ghost.

By the time they'd finished the set, I was amazed. They'd put on a show that was tight, playing with and off the audience and building to a perfect crescendo that culminated in an encore featuring a half-mocking cover of Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie." (The song was still relevant at the time, I promise.)

It was obvious that the guys loved what they were doing, and it can't hurt that they don't take themselves too seriously, dancing like idiots as necessary and taking the stage with Sharpie mustaches. To not enjoy the show, you'd literally have to have a stick in your ass. Even then, you probably couldn't deny that the music was great.

Fast-forward four years, and Shapiro has just released the full-length album that they've been promising since the first time I heard them. Their sound has evolved since then, but not by much, given the high level they were already playing on before some Nashville producer discovered them. To anyone who's already familiar with the band, the album has almost all the songs you're hoping to hear and plenty of new material to justify dropping a few bucks on a copy.

To anyone who doesn't know these guys, hearing "L.E.A.V.I.N.G." for the first time is well worth your time. You'd be even better off seeing them live. Especially in a city that doesn't smell like Alpo.

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Brian Bardwell