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Great Beans of Fire: The Boston NEMO Music Conference (Pass the Tea) and The Art of Erotic Mike Stands
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2000-04-25
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Dateline: Boston. The boathouses still line the Charles, the T is still cute, most of downtown still feels like a casino's version of a real city, the rest still seems lifted from the set of "Robocop," and the Fenway still looks like somebody should really do something about it (but I'm glad they haven't). There's a new flower in Boston's garden, though, blooming in great grand folly. Those busy Brahmins have scored a really huge hole in the middle of the city. It's called The Big Dig, and it's been small killies in the news pond next to the season's big fish story, "Days of Our EliŠn." I'd heard about The Big Dig and it hadn't made much of an impact -- woo hoo, someone dug a hole -- but this thing is awesome. It looks like they've found ruins. It should be a tourist attraction. Someone get Boston a promo agent quick, before they finish it. Seriously, this is better than the La Brea tar pits. Mr. Cyrano definitely wants a Big Dig T-shirt: urban renewal has never looked so fun.

The Little Dig down on Atlantic Avenue in my neighborhood (or The Big Noise, as I call it) cut off water to the laundromat last week. This didn't make it to the news, but there I was on Thursday afternoon out at the local clearance store buying socks and underwear for the Boston trip ("Very sorry, no water," offered the laundry guy). I'd never done this before; I suppose it's a measure of the sorry state of one's domestic life. Kind of cool, in a rock 'n roll way. Judging by the cut-outs, I wouldn't plan on getting into the underwear business any time soon. Plenty of Brooklyn bargains. But you could say the same of the music industry.

And people do. I've come to Boston for the NEMO Conference, which turns out to be a wonderfully-balanced meet- greet- listen- and swap-a-thon for regional bands, media, and industry pros and hopefuls of all stripes. Whether by chance or design the emphasis is on independents, and the bright-eyed Young Turk colonists of the indie scene fill the panels, talk earnest business on the SwissŰtel sofas, sling the talk of dreams-within-reach in the small (and useful, for once) trade show, and shake their groove thangs on the nighttime dance floors -- with their cell phones set on vibrate, of course. A month back in our MusicDish coverage of the SXSW Music Conference we flitted around Austin with Pageant, Long Tom, Roamer, Kathode Dave; they're all here, and the indie crowd is growing. No one is turning away the major label folks, exactly, but the new ranks of working musicians are smartening up fast, looking hard at the jittering skeletons in the major closets. The ghost stories of albums recorded and never released and of bands dropped with their music owned and kept unheard are no longer whispered, they're discussed out loud and mined for their lessons.

Antifolk Anti-king Lach (left), with cohort Tim
KISS Loves This Man I'm in the wandering room, wearing my crispy new underwear and socks, talking with Hal from Napster and trying once again to score the elusive Napster T-shirt (no luck), when Lach sweeps past. Lach -- rhymes with "bandersnatch" -- wears a lot of East Village hats here in the City, and they all look good perched atop his intense slim frame. He's the booker for the Sidewalk Cafe on Avenue A ("I got kicked out of every club in town, so I started my own"), the founder and kingpin of the thriving downtown Antifolk scene, a polished solo performer and the frontman and songwriter of the rowdy band Lach & the Secrets, and the honcho of New York's Fortified Records. He's also one of the quickest and wittiest men you'll ever see in front of a microphone, and at the moment he's got something else on his mind. "Congratulate me," he says, "I've got frogs." Eh? Turns out he keeps African Dwarf Frogs, which apparently do nothing all day but sing and try to make more frogs. They've succeeded. Hal: "Really? African Dwarf Frogs? I used to have African tree frogs!" Hal, Lach; Lach, Hal. A discussion ensues. It seems African Dwarf Frogs live in water and have live births. "Come to my showcase tomorrow," Lach calls as I embark on a graceful fade, thinking to myself: "God, I love music conferences." You just can't make this stuff up.

The mood is buoyant. Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads is being interviewed in the Duxbury Room, and Kathode Dave and Degy-San are on a panel debating when a band needs a manager over in the crowded oval Adrienne. Jack Rabid of the brilliant music magazine The Big Takeover is holding forth in the Dedham Room with Jim Testa of Jersey Beat and singer Brenda Kahn, who edits womanrock.com. Pageant, sitting on an Internet panel, is telling a young artist to quit dreaming about major label deals and get to work in the here and now, with Long Tom nodding vigorously in the moderator's seat beside her. There's revolution in the air -- a quiet and confident waft of winds to come, or perhaps we're all just too beat to get up a head of steam about it. Away from the big guns who tend to sidetrack the energy at other music conferences, there is a thrumming sense that Things Can Get Done Here. The panels are crowded and full of keen questioners, the trade show is bustling, and there's a minimum of distracted frenzied rushing about. There are only about 200 bands at NEMO, playing in two nights of showcases, and they've been very tightly chosen. Maybe this serves to keep the equilibrium poised.

Why a revolution? Here's why. On Saturday afternoon the daytime session closes with a "demo derby," a public crash-listening ado for new music. Six panelists ponder 60 seconds (only!) of one track from each of the chosen-by-chance CD's submitted by the crowd, and call out a 1 to 10 rating with a few quick comments. Fair enough; your Mr. Cyrano chucks a couple of CD's into the Big Box and lounges in the back for the last 90 minutes of the two-hour session, listening with the rest.

What does one minute tell you about a song? Both a lot and too little. There's a pie-eyed crowd of music, lush pro-produced easy pop-rock crashing into raw ska elbowing aside grindy techno one-man-tape-loop chundling, and more and more. Moderator Juanita of WBCN-FM takes occasional good-natured comments from the musicians ("victims") in the audience. Philadelphia-based producer Lawrence Gelburd distinguishes himself with pithy, sensitive and insightful comments, showing us some real glimpses of his craft and doing a pretty good imitation of what he wished the horns sounded like on one ska track. Just before the end of the session The Box yields up the new record by New York's The Dan Emery Mystery Band, and and we thump into 60 seconds of track one, "Mustard" ("Squeeze me squeeze me squeeze me / I'm a little jar of mustard"). (Please note Mr. Cyrano's Disclosure Alert below.) It's a whacked little song, light and unkempt and upbeat and a bit giggly, and when the music fades the audience starts in to chuckling, builds to outright laughter, and ends up in grinning applause -- the only such reaction during the time I spent in the room. There's a real feel-good thing going; we're not sure what that was, maybe, but it was different and as likeable as freckles.

Or so we thought. Imagine our surprise when the panel, unruffled by a room full of happy clapping people, raps Dan Emery's absent knuckles briskly, giving out possibly the lowest marks of the entire session. "I'm giving it a one," sputters a livid recording studio owner, "just because he did something." "Also a one," nods a talent booker from Westwood One Entertainment, "he should stick to singing in the shower." A three, another three, another one, and a four from Juanita. Well pardon us; and we were so sure we'd liked it. Oops. Glad we straightened that out, else we might have enjoyed it by mistake. I'll take my revolution with extra sauce, please. And don't be stingy with the fries.

Cadillac Hitman Jeff Morris, in splendor
And you should see Tina the Bass Player

Boston's a tricky city for club-hopping. There's music all over town, but you can't get to it from wherever you are. We start with a breezy and confident outing by Acoustic Junction at the Karma Room on Landsdowne, where Mr. Cyrano kicks off the festivities by upending his full vodka tonic all over a bar counter that isn't nearly as smooth as it looks, annoying a bartender with the largest breasts ever encountered outside of "Baywatch." (The VT spill and the bartender had nothing to do with each other until after the fact.) Up then to Porter Square and Toad for a plucky set by Philadelphia's Tad Rude, whose forthright songs and hardtack delivery are overwhelmed by the boisterously inattentive weekend crowd in the tiny, packed room. In the hugger-mugger of Toad we run into Fault, a New York singer/songwriter. Fault is sheepishly pleased with herself. She's been naked live in front of a good 250,000 paying customers. Eh? European tour of "Hair." Oh. Of course. I distinctly remember her saying "Please drag me all around Greater Boston for hours on end until my feet are really killing me and I'm too exhausted to stand," but perhaps in retrospect it was something more like "What are you seeing next?" One way or another, we hustle down to Central Square to see New York's dynamo rock trio Jake.

You know that part of the night when everything slowly starts falling apart? When fatigue takes you by the arm and leads you to a quiet inner room, embraces you gently, and murmurs tenderly into your ear, "Love, I'm going to really hurt you now"? We're at that part. There's some kind of technical sound problem at Phoenix Landing and the band is taking forever to set up, and when the set finally starts it sounds like they're playing through a diesel muffler. I don't want to stay, Fault doesn't want to stay. We both really want to be someplace with chairs. We try all the venues nearby and we're not moved. Grumpy is right around the corner, preening and brushing his small bleary suit and waiting for an invitation to come visit. So we head back to nearly where we were before. There's a Beatles song like that. Right?

As it turns out, The Lizard Lounge is not where the NEMO map says it is. It's half a mile north of there. We're in search of Seks Bomba, the combo that picked up a Boston Music Award the night before as the area's Outstanding Swing/Lounge Act. We do even better: we find Seks Bomba, but we get there in time to see most of a set by The Cadillac Hitmen first.

The Cadillac Hitmen's Web site is orange with a cactus motif, featuring links to audio gear and tequila sites and decorative peppers and pistols. It starts off this way: "Three guys with no past and a gal with no future playing the instrumental soundtrack to their lives ... Sounds like heartache and loneliness mixed with tumbleweeds, warm beer and a fistfull of amphetamines blasting from the speakers in your '68 Eldorado as you're tearing through the desert at 90 plus with hot wind in your hair and dust in your teeth..." That's pretty much what they sound like. They're a four-piece hard-bit outlaw rockabilly twangpunk instrumental operation, all red sky and cool gear and post-Tarantino flair. With their rodeo shirts, snug-fitting leather, cowboy hats, wraparound shades and tandem guitar choreography, they'd be as at home sharing audio digs with The Cramps as they would with Dick Dale, and their 1997 album "The Assassin" loses nothing in the studio translation (there's also a 1999 record called "Tri-State Killing Spree," which I've not heard). I have a pint of Rogue Dead Guy Ale in hand and the smug feeling that we've ditched The Circuit and gotten to where the fringe knows best. And I like it here.

At this eventual hour and with all that Cadillac twang ringing in the air, Seks Bomba's tight and joyful performance is an endurance test. Brain to feet: "We like this band. Can you make it?" Feet: "No." Brain: "Whaddaya mean 'no.' It's only another 25 minutes." Feet: "You want to do the standing and walking around, fine. We'll go up there and think. We like to think. You come down here and stand for a while." Brain: "That's not how it works. We can't stand, we don't have toes." Toes: "Leave us out of it." Feet: "That's it, we're outta here." I enjoyed this band immensely, but all I remember of their show goes, roughly, "ow ow ow ow ow sleep please." This is what music conferences are like. My notes are crabbed scrawls and make no sense. Seks Bomba's Web site is classy, idiosyncratic and very funny, and must serve until I can catch up with them again.

Saturday night: same again, please. If I've learned one thing from the night before it's that Feet are going to have to be consulted about the evening's festivities, so I settle in at Lizard Lounge for duration, until Boston's Angry Salad closes everything up in the late slot at The Middle East. Feet seem cool with that.

New Yorker Jennifer Marks struggles gamely to bring her winning songs to life through sound problems that somehow can't be remedied. Jennifer's 1999 record, "My Name's Not Red," is triumphal -- a long meal of delicate courses, sweet followed by savory, each garnished with insight and calm, honest self-assessment. Does it ruin the joke if I mention that Jennifer has raucous red hair and that her album is released on her own Red Kurl Records? Her bouncy verve staggers through the maelstrom intact, but all the rest is swallowed in a single gulp by the mix. Next up is The Buck Dewey Big Band, an aptly-named five-piece ensemble -- these guys are big, and they toss around a big ol' sound -- that claims to do blues, rock, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, rap, Broadway schmaltz, Latin and "beer-hall soaked waltzes." Oddly enough, they do, and mostly all at once. Clad in big suits, pale fedoras and excitable ties, they are informed as much by The Muppets as by Frank Zappa and Spike Jones. In their closing extravagance they plunge into the crowd, blaring away on cordless electric guitar and horns, while nimble bassist Daigo Fujiwara leaps from chair to chair on the stage, spinning his stand-up bass like a Brobdingnagian top and thwacking away at it as it goes. Stellar.

Pictures of Lily: Stargazer Susan Rosetti
Rum tum tum on the Bongo Drum Stargazer Lily is Saturday's evening star. I first saw a snip of this Philadelphia four-piece band at the SXSW conference in Austin and was captivated by their partial late-night set; now I've been taken hostage entire. Fronted by vocalists Steph Hayes (guitar) and Susan Rosetti (occasional percussion), Stargazer does a shimmering and pulpy-sweet pop-rock with precise give-and-take harmonies and rock-solid swing from the rhythm section (Jim Miadas' swirly painted red and yellow bass is lovely to behold). There's something of Grace Slick in all of this; there's something of The Nields. Rosetti in particular is blessed with that vague sort of ephemeral star quality that distracts the eye as a bright bird in heavy trees might; look intently and you're not sure what you just saw, but glance away and it's there again, teasing and sylphish. She uses a boom mike and stands firm, legs splayed; as she sings she runs her index finger slowly, deliberately, luxuriantly doooooooown the top of the long length of the boom. When her hand reaches the bottom counterweight it lingers; she cups the weight; exquisitely and gently, she squeezes it. And runs her finger up the bottom of the shaft to the joint. And lingers there, and squeezes. It's calculated stage-play, it's unspeakably erotic, it's downright mischievous, and it works. By the end of the first song the audience is starting to sweat, and by the end of the second we're entranced. By the end of the set the air in the room smells funny. I stay late and miss all but the closing bars of Angry Salad in Central Square. But they'll understand.

A brief utopian excursus: it's early Saturday evening, and I'm working my way toward the semi-basement of Club Passim just off Harvard Square for Lach's solo showcase. A balmy night is a-brewing, and the streets are full of students soon to be drunk and loud; the contented hum of the promising coming spring is pleasant and reassuring. Turning the corner at Palmer Street and walking up to the club I'm met by a familiar reedy tenor voice and a bright clash of amplified acoustic guitar -- Lach's music is spilling out into the street, soundtrack to the sudden dark, warm and enfolding. It's hot in the club and they've opened the door behind him, and though he doesn't know it he's singing, appropriately enough, to the whole sidewalk. And people are stopping, and listening. Wouldn't that be a world to live in: a world filled with brash, beautiful and many-splendored music, filling the air with dreams and feelings from a thousand glorious hearts. Instead of the hearts of the Billboard top 40.

Back in New York City: Speaking of those thousand glorious hearts, I saw my third Saint Low show Saturday at Fez -- a real radiant pleasure. What happens to rock and roll waifs who get thoughtful and grow wise? If they're really really good, they get to be Mary Lorson. Mary is best known as the lead singer with Madder Rose, a band that fell victim to the wanton label consolidations of recent years. Saint Low is her eloquent new project, an intense and stark group with a supple instrumentation (guitar, keyboards--Wurlitzer and Hammond--, bass, drums, electric violin, and backup vocals) that backs Mary's elusive songs the way the ocean backs the shore: restlessly, seamlessly, and with a grand liquid sweep, plunging toward distant horizons.

Saint Low is playing out in the City now, and their young still-rare dates should not be missed. So heads up. In coming weeks Mr. Cyrano and MusicDish will bring you an interview with Mary Lorson; in the meantime you can check out the band next on May 6th at CB's Gallery -- and to tie up all our straggling strings in one firm knot, Saint Low is playing there to help celebrate the release of "Natural Selection," the new CD by those NEMO rapscallions The Dan Emery Mystery Band. Are you with the panel, or with the people? Turn up and find out.

Boston: Dig it. See you in two.

Linkography:

The Boston NEMO Conference: www.nemoboston.com/
The Cadillac Hitmen: www.cadillachitmen.com/
The Buck Dewey Big Band: www.buckdewey.com/
The Dan Emery Mystery Band: www.web-ho.com/
Lach, The Fort at Sidewalk, Antifolk and Fortified Records: members.aol.com/folkbro/
Jennifer Marks: www.jennifermarks.com/
Saint Low: www.saintlow.com/
Seks Bomba: www.bomba.com/
Stargazer Lily: www.stargazer-lily.com/

Where Robocop was actually filmed: Dallas, Texas.
How Many of the Baby Frogs are Still Alive at This Writing: One. Max.
Best Promo Item Seen at NEMO: Tabasco-style hot sauce bottles with labels advertising Matt Witte's New Blood Revival ("Come and Get Nasty With Us").
Second Best Promo Item Seen at NEMO: Sheet mints that look like old glassine stamp album hinges, remind you of blotter acid, taste awful, and are impossibly cool, from mH2O.com.
Most Awful Thing to Happen in Harvard Square: The Tasty, the ultimate in 24-hour greasy spoons, is gone. In its place is an Abercrombie & Fitch.

Disclosure Alert: The Dan Emery Mystery Band is signed to Home Office Records, which is this writer's New York City independent record label. We are extremely likely to love their stuff. Of course, so are you.

Photos by Linus Gelber.


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