Music News

The Genre Gap

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."

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr