Loving Las Vegas: The EAT'M Music Conference Parties Down in Party Town.
Pass Them Or-Derves Again, Buddy.
Long Live Rocks: Mr. Cyrano in Red Rock Canyon
Dateline: Las Vegas, Nevada. Why is music like a sausage? Because you enjoy both of them vastly more the less you know about the ingredients; because the closer you get to the manufacturing of either one, the more you understand what those odd little lumps are. And if only it were all a matter of snips and snails and puppy-dog's tails.
Your intrepid Mr. Cyrano is here with MC Webmaster J in the City of Earthly Squanderings for the Emerging Artists and Talent in Music music conference, or EAT'M (yum). This is the third year that den mother Lisa Tenner has mounted her rambling Rock of the Westies operation (now owned by mega-dotcomsters Solutions Media, Inc). Vegas is a strange place for a scene-oriented convention, in some ways; there's plenty of there here, as they say, but in some ways there isn't a lot of here here. We're staying in your mock Rio and seeing the sights in your pocket New York, your faux Paris, your ersatz Venice, your iced and chilled Egypt. Perhaps some sage soul will build a new theme hotel down here and call it "Vegas." Hey, it's a concept.
The Soul, Man: Honoree Sam Moore with Lisa Tenner (right) and Sue Shifrin-Cassidy
Yet EAT'M works in Vegas, and works big. There's a pragmatism in the air that speaks volumes to indie artists and floats the bigger lights like a sumptuous magic carpet. Consumption is just as conspicuous as your tab will cover; stars are stars and are treated as such -- wow, is that Sam Moore!? -- and it makes you want to be one. This is a cash-and-carry town that judges everyone by the color green, with detached equanimity and deft open coffers. And EAT'M thrives on this vibe. On the conference Web pages they answer the "Why Las Vegas?" question this way: "Because it's the coolest, hottest city in the world. Because you can go to Vegas and still write it off on your corporate credit card. It's not too hot in June. Lots of extracurricular activities. All of the above." And they're right. Let there be Glitz; it's rock and roll. And expense that sucker. Hell, charge it to the room.
Gargantua Soul: Your Mother Warned You About Bands Like This
By day EAT'M has a who's-who roster of everyone suing and being sued in our current nasty little growing-pains chapter of multinational Internet land-grabbing and consolidation. By night it's a different story. Blessed be. It's Friday late and the festivities are winding down when we catch up with New Haven's Gargantua Soul at odd raunchy sprawling Pink E's, across from the Rio. In the Pink E's men's room, Playboy centerfolds are plastered on every wall, and encouraging little engraved brass plates over the urinals say things like "Step closer, Stubby, it's further away than you think" and "Little dicks rule ... right?" (Wonder what it says in the women's room.) Out on the other end of the dark bar there's a rotating contraption that looks like a piece of Roger Corman cutout memorabilia, grimly churning 18 flavors of frozen drinks in 18 lurid colors. Pool tables are done in pink baize. And on the ragged stage vivid frontman Kris Keyes is resplendent in orange body paint and yellowed lime neon mohawk fringe, zipping about on his skateboard and roaring through a delightful high-energy groove-rapcore set, backed thoroughly by G-Soul's six pounding pieces. It's a far cry from Mr. Cyrano's usual kind of musical thing, but so what? There's no arguing with this kind of showmanship. Not a dulled eye in the house and a lot of us aren't sure quite what hit us, which is how it oughtta. I'm drinking a livid green concoction flavored with peach schnapps. Life is good, and through the roar of the twin guitars and the ranting drums and percussion rack and the jet-engine mix it may be that Keyes thinks the same.
Blue Period: Glam, Bam, Thank You Sir
San Francisco's five-piece glam gang Blue Period spatters the full house at the Hard Rock Cafe earlier in the evening with blizzard drifts of confetti and glitter in another nads-to-the-wall show. Lissome frontman Adrian Roberts turns admiring and puzzled heads through all three EAT'M daytimes, flaunting feathers and spangles and clingy gauzy wispy androgynous sexuality in a dazzling flourish of non-stop dare-you bravado. Done up in perfect makeup and studied intensity even at a 9:30 a.m. mentor session, Roberts and company live their show every waking moment, and by the time they get to busting out on stage there's a mighty curious crowd there to see what on earth these boys will strut out. Their live act turns out to be a near flawless one-ring circus of flash and poise and pose, with tightly-played preening antics easily dominating a jumpy, friendly set of songs from the band's new CD, "Nighttime Casualties." It's sound and fury and a sparkly blast of good time, packaged with care.
Meanwhile, back at the Conference: You can tell how good a music biz idea is these days by counting the lawyers filing the papers to stop it. By that chestnutshell, Napster (conspicuous in absence at EAT'M) and mp3.com (conspicuous by springing for a free lunch of sammiches) are way ahead of the pack; both are being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), by the major labels, and by various big artists for absurd sums that would give your average Third World nation a collective damp hard-on. Why? Because the rascals have sussed something that the rest of the world is slow to pick up on: no matter how tight your contract is, you just can't own electrons. The little buggers have minds of their own. As soon as you tell one what to do, whoosh, it's off doing it for someone else and not paying you any money.
Dig It All in Digital: Michael Robertson of mp3.com Meets Mr. Cyrano
And make no mistake: you, Dear Reader, may be in this for the tunes, but The Business is all about The Money. That's not news, but it's limpidly clear here. I'm impressed by the honest rage that the mere mention of Napster brings out among the Old Guard -- and frankly these reactions tell me just how powerful a force file-sharing software is. People slam tables, turn red, sputter and spit. The gatekeepers won't work with Napster and make it the supple, equitable and powerful tool it can be. They want to kill it, crush it, tear its binary guts out and mount its blue kitten head on a stake to parade through the e-streets. They -- and to be fair, let's note that whenever a writer starts using the royal "they" then there are wild opinions on the loose, and I'm no exception -- ahem, they don't want brash new upstarts tramping through their hallowed halls. Just a few weeks ago mp3.com was only a hair above Napster on the tousled head of Evil, but now it is settling its litigations, and perhaps being gutted in the process. It's instructive to watch the industry's agencies lining up to stomp their new partner. Let the entrepreneur beware.
There are lots of great thinkers in Net circles. For my money, Michael Robertson of mp3.com is a visionary, and one of the great deliberate actors on this strange current stage. For all of the flaws and twitches in his Web empire, Michael is one of the few who has frog-marched us across the new digital frontier. He is a solid thinker, a terrific public speaker, and a man with a real gift for creative analogy and reasonable persuasion. That did not stop your Mr. Cyrano from badgering him in the Q&A period of his presentation (oops), wondering why he bought copies of the major label albums that will populate his MyMp3.com Music Service Provider database but asked that musicians already represented on mp3.com send in their CD's gratis in order to be included. I mean, they bought records by Journey, right? They can buy ours. He offered me 20 bucks from the podium for one of our CD's -- and presumably to sit down and shut up -- and in retrospect I wish I'd taken him up on it. Would have been a great photo op.
Life's Rich Pageant: Simon Stinger and Friends After the Set
There are ideas in the air. Michael describes his Music Service Provider scheme in detail, carefully noting how it drives CD sales through the incentive of streaming mp3's. Conference circuit regular Pageant the publicist is working on the early press release for a company that's giving away the first million copies of its new albums, digging out a market by flash-flood strikes. Everyone in the convention center has a loud opinion about Napster, which is looking a lot like James Cameron's proud sinking ship this week. (Your correspondent still thinks it should float.) Mr. Cyrano joins the Indie Labels panel at the last minute when moderator Long Tom notes that no indie labels are actually at the table, and it's heartening to see the determination and glee behind the shy nervous smiles of people asking about starting up startups in these stormy seas. Monster marketer and clear-eyed soul Derek Sivers of the CD Baby online indie store is ubiquitous with his bottom-up and back-to-front marketing notions. There is zeal and ingenuity and force of personality everywhere you turn; there are musicians taking copious notes and bands with plans and long firm futures ahead.
And yet amid all this we are treated to a keynote speech by Jim Caparro of the Island/Def Jam group that is close to insulting, in which he talks about the industry's long-term concern with developing new artists (it doesn't) and supporting its Elder Statesmen (it doesn't) and encouraging new forays into cutting-edge technology (it doesn't). Caparro waxes enthusiastic about how in just a few years all of us are going to get to pay ten bucks a month to each of the major labels for the rest of our lives for access to an online library of music we will never actually own any part of. In Caparro's world there are no fans, no fellow travelers, no generous joyous people -- just "music consumers." Count me out, thanks, I still have a soul. Lively debate at our table about whether we should throw the rolls or the butter knives at the podium, but we were afraid we might miss and hit the Elvis impersonators. And all this after a spunky medley performance by Sam Moore, leading up to his gracious acceptance of a well-deserved Living Legend award from the EAT'M directors. It sits ill.
Rayko at the Hard Rock: One Non-Blonde
Picks of the Litter: Thursday night at the Hard Rock Cafe. We're about to be treated to a glorious seriatim night of music courtesy of Derek and CD Baby, splashing a showcase here for bands with albums available via the online store. The party is squooshed into the far corner of the Cafe rather than the big room it was in last year, and a few steps into the room we run into a glass case with buddy Vernon Reid's Living Color outfit mounted in it. Now that's just weird. Vernon, your pants are in Vegas. In case you were wondering.
So Mr. Cyrano is busily trying to buy a drink for sultry Los Angelina Terrapin, who doesn't want one (we settle on Diet Coke, no ice, but this takes a long time), when New York's Depoet and the Monkey swarms the stage. Fronted with bony energy by David DePietro (Depoet, natch), the band does a spiky charged hard-bitten pop percolated through New Wave sensibilities, pared lean and drizzled with lyric-driven staccato rhythm. Jennifer Marks follows, also from our regular City beat, delivering the sharp set we tried to spot through the bad sound mix up at her Boston NEMO Conference showcase in April. Tonight she rings charming and true. Jennifer's tight smart songs range from jazzy novelty ("My Name's Not Red") to sock-hop girl-group stylings ("High School Reunion," which she recently sang at her Long Island high school) to crisp pop-rock, and it's a pleasure to see her unobstructed by technical problems.
Shift coasts, and if anything up the ante. Los Angeles' Rayko plays a sexy speedy crunchy flail of Clash-flavored high-pulse rock; their relentless set is a powerhouse unfolding that matches the classic precision guitar attack of bands like The Ramones with a spunky assault that tastes trim and new. Mr. Cyrano's pick of the conference follows in the funky dress of Simon Stinger, a florid and mutable San Francisco five-piece band that plays full-out with verve and sly winking appeal. Founded in late 1995 by vocalist Alicia Perrone and bassist Victor James, Simon Stinger has been busily building an impressive history of regional success and big-name sponsorships, and proudly hunkers in a carefully-crafted personalized tour bus that is, well, way fun. From well-placed covers (Devo's "Girl U Want" rocked the house) to punchy upbeat originals, Simon Stinger's set demanded attention and paid back at odds that would make casino security turn pale. If only every night in the clubs could be this good.
Annie Minogue: That's a Palm Tree, Not a Hat
I Blame Britney: There's a weird Kid Thing going on here at EAT'M: all stripes of teenage and younger artists are performing. It's a bit disorienting to be going about one's nighttime stuff and to run into a ten-year-old boy with an angelic voice, or a barefoot sixteen-year-old with love beads and a guitar, or a statuesque girl in shapely clingy plumage who announces that she's 15 and lives in Dallas and is a singer-songwriter. This is the modern world, like Paul Weller said. How very Vegas.
Two last grown-up acts that stand up tall among the blur of the overall excellent showcases and deserve mention here: New York's Annie Minogue, whose early outdoor showcase at the Rio is an easy romp of vocal commitment and confident vigor, and Las Vegas' own Epstein's Mother. Minogue's new EP, "Home," captures her friendly live energy and gives careful room to her intricate vocals; Mr. Cyrano hasn't heard the Epstein's Mother album yet, but a post-EAT'M gig (their third in three days) in a local college bar venue is breezy, filled with adoring dancing fans, and oozing good-day good-night good-time fun. Their Web site compares them to Matchbox 20, but don't buy it. These guys are good. So is that Epstein of the Las Vegas Epsteins...?
See you in two. And see you next year in Vegas.
Money lost at Keno: Five bucks
Money lost in the slots: A quarter
Number of utterly superfluous 3 a.m. breakfasts regretted after the fact: Three (MGM Grand, Hard Rock Cafe, the Rio)
Where to get steak and eggs at 3 a.m.: Hands down, the Rio -- only $4.95.
Favorite beach chair valet: Butch, at the Rio
Blue Period: www.blue-period.com
Depoet and the Monkey: www.depoet-music.com
Epstein's Mother: www.epsteinsmother.com
Gargantua Soul: http://www.gargantuasoul.com/
Jennifer Marks: www.jennifermarks.com
Annie Minogue: www.annieminogue.com
Simon Stinger: www.simonstinger.com
CD Baby: www.cdbaby.com/
Big cheers to Ronnie Spector for winning $2.6 million of her money back from the system this week. You go, girl!
Photos by Pierre Jelenc.
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» Music as a Service: Michael Robertson at EAT'M
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