by Mike Corrigan, Robert Geroux, Sasha Turner, Robert Hartwig and Phil Bailey
Recently, the music writers at this newspaper sent out a survey to more than 50 area music professionals and scholars posing a single question: "What are the five local acts to watch in 2005?" We targeted people around this town who are intimately involved with Spokane's live music scene: club owners, booking agents, music store owners, recording studio engineers and music writers, along with the folks for whom live music events are an integral part of their lifestyle. We didn't color the survey and had no influence in the selections. The results reflect a consensus among the people who do the behind-the-scenes work at each and every live show we attend, who put the professional sheen on recordings and who support local music in a hundred different ways. They are the experts, after all. And we value their opinions.
After tallying the responses, we chose to write about the top five vote-getters. Dozens of musical acts were mentioned, but only five emerged as clear favorites among those we surveyed. For some of the write-ups in this section, we had our survey respondents to do the talking -- which, among other nice things, really got us off the hook.
And so here they are, five local acts currently performing in the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene area that are being watched by those in the know -- five groups currently making an impact on the local scene. They may well be headed for even greater things. Check 'em out.
-- Mike Corrigan
BELT OF VAPOR
I'd never heard anything quite like it -- certainly not on a local stage from guys who grew up in my north Spokane neighborhood. Yet there it was, a trio making one hell of an intriguing racket with nothing but bass, guitar, drums and vocals. It was a perversely complex racket, too -- one filled with cascading, shifting, intertwining notes and dynamic breaks that made me stagger slightly at their sheer dramatic force. I had no idea what the singers were screaming at each other, but Belt of Vapor's tightly focused presentation left me questioning. And reeling.
You may not immediately "get" Belt of Vapor. But there's one thing that even the band's detractors have to admit: These guys are not BSing you. Though offstage they're approachable and friendly, onstage they're dead serious about their music. That comes through so loud and clear each time they perform in front of an audience. The intensity is overwhelming.
Bob Homburg, Aaron Powell and Justin Walter were elementary school friends long before they started making carefully constructed noise together. For all of Homburg and Powell's current familiarity with their stringed instruments, neither cop to any formal training. In fact, the only guy from the group who really knows his scales is the drummer.
"At the time, Justin was taking guitar lessons," Homburg says. "And he kind of taught both of us."
Though the trio had messed around for years in basements, the first inkling of what musical sensibilities they would soon bring to Spokane emerged from a local band they all played in called Self-Inheritance.
"I was actually the first drummer for Self-Inheritance," says Powell of the days before Walter's arrival on the kit. " And Bob was on guitar. That's how we wrote songs. Then we got a bass player and Justin came in on drums and I became the singer -- or yeller."
After the bass player quit, the other three stayed together, took the opportunity to change names and to write all-new songs. This was 2003; Belt of Vapor didn't emerge for its first show until March 2004.
"We had played with each other before," explains Homburg, "but not on these instruments."
Says Powell, "We just had to take some time and decide what road we wanted to go down. From there it was easy."
"It was easy," agrees Walter. "So much more basic."
And it is. The music of Belt of Vapor is primal and furious, stripped down in many ways -- yet there are subtle and not-so-subtle complexities here that make the resulting arrangements fun to unravel.
"It comes from just playing and writing music together," says Powell. "In Self-Inheritance, Bob would come up with a riff and they would add onto it, and I'd just basically yell over it. It was teenage noise and aggression."
Now everyone agrees it's much more focused and controlled.
"We know what we're doing now," says Walter. "And we know what to expect in a way so it comes very naturally."
Adds Homburg, "We know what we want to do without knowing what everyone is going to play."
It's a slightly disconcerting feeling, this live BoV thing. There's such a strange dynamic onstage with both singers facing each other and the drummer hunkered down between them. Instead of forming an eye-to-eye bond with the audience, there is instead an elastic yet firm tension among the three players that invokes a sense of sonic and physical solidarity. It's visually striking and provocative. It puts you on edge. It's breathtaking.
Belt of Vapor has been slowly committing an album's worth of songs to tape using home recording equipment that's "very portable." They've got the final mix on quarter-inch reel-to-reel and are all ready to send it off for mastering. (Look for the finished CD in about a month.)
"I was going to do it this morning, " laughs Homburg. "But I didn't get up early enough."
For a band that has made its mark playing live, making a recording often poses problems. Belt of Vapor avoided some of the more obvious studio pitfalls by recording the basic tracks live in a garage to capture the energy of a typical BoV performance.
"It actually has a pretty good live feeling," says Homburg. "It's clear and crisp, but it has that rough edge to it, too."
"And there are little things that happened," adds Powell. "Like if Bob missed a note, we just left it in just because you don't want to fix it too much. It gives it character."
It lets you know that this sound called Belt of Vapor was, is and hopefully always will be made not by machines but by humans. -- Mike Corrigan
BURNS LIKE HELLFIRE
I'm congenitally suspicious of alt-country, in part because its attempts at authenticity are so overt and its self-understanding is so naive. This is sad and a little crazy, because the masters of country music were extremely adept at transmuting trash into brilliance: Hank Williams admitted that he got ideas for his songs from pulp books and girlie magazines, and all you have to do is look at the lives of C/W heroes to see that their music comes from the same marginal existence that spawned punk rock. Jerry Lee Lewis has more to do with Dee Dee Ramone, for example, than any "new country" schmuck like Trace Adkins or Kenny Chesney. And the sad thing is that while the No Depression folks try to emphasize the distance that separates them from the crap that currently comes out of Nashville, there's a deeper similarity: whether you're listening to Uncle Tupelo or Big and Rich, the reek of the 1970s comes through. I don't mean the real 1970s in places like Cleveland, but the ugly and supremely creepy universe of 1970s adult-contemporary and "classic" rock. Wilco and Son Volt are the modern inheritors of the crappy singer-songwriter schtick of people like James Taylor and Jim Croce, and Tim McGraw and Brooks and Dunn are the inheritors of arena-rock acts like Kiss and Jethro Tull. Whether it's confessional mellowness or over-the-top bloated "showmanship," it all draws from the same stagnant well.
Burns Like Hellfire miraculously avoids all this. When I hear them, I think of the 1980s scene that spawned bands like the Gun Club, the Blasters, Lone Justice, the Long Ryders and Jason and the Scorchers. These bands weren't afraid to mash together country and punk, and some of them were great. The only thing that kept those bands from transcendent brilliance in the mold of bands like X circa Los Angeles or Wild Gift, was a capacity to move beyond tightness and an ability to trash it up. All that Catholic imagery hid the fact that John Doe and Exene were lifelong members of the Church of Jerry Lee, and Jerry Lee himself might offer some advice to a band like BLH: When all else fails, set your piano on fire. -- Robert Geroux
Robert J. Geroux is a local rock scholar, an adjunct professor of political science at Gonzaga University and a volunteer radio programmer at KYRS Thin Air.
LOCKE & amp; THE CHRIS WILSON 5
When the music writers at The Inlander approached me and asked the question, "What are the five local bands to watch in 2005?" my first thought was, "Are there five acts to watch?" As it turns out, the answer is yes -- and with that admission, I began to realize that there are actually many more than just five. Describing the technical aspects of music has always been a difficult thing for me to do because what is most important about music (and all art) is how it makes me feel and whether the artist is doing something true and honest. I see a lot of bands come through town (and through Mootsy's), and I find that some -- not all, but some -- seem to be in it for all the wrong reasons. That has always been a big turnoff for me. Love, honesty and talent is what makes bands shine.
Locke and the Chris Wilson Five have those qualities, making them a great act to watch. The first time I saw them at Mootsy's, I was pretty much blown away. I had seen Locke around town and had no idea he was such a great emcee -- or even was an emcee (sorry, Andrew). The energy that the group brought to their performance was really inspiring. The whole bar was feeling the vibe. There was this guy standing next to me, and he kept nudging me, saying, "I'm from Montana -- these guys are great!" I didn't quite know what that meant exactly, but I was definitely into it, too. Funk-jazz-hop is a term that I have been thinking of as a way to describe their sound, similar to the Roots. I am really happy that they did well in The Inlander's survey and look forward to seeing them again. Obviously, I'm suggesting that you check them out, too. -- Sasha Turner
Sasha Turner is the co-owner of Mootsy's Pizza and has also put in more than a few hours working with her dad, Rick, behind the bar at Mootsy's, which hosts live music on a regular basis.
Here are 10 Steps to Forming a Rock Band: 1. Find like-minded people who share your vision; 2. Hone your chops by learning covers and jamming in the basement; 3. Evolve musically from playing bubble-gum pop to modern alterna-rock; 4. Take guitar lessons from a certified local rock-star and start writing originals; 5. Add members to band to complete your sound. Practice!; 6. Win a local band competition; 7. Record a CD; 8. Get in front of local crowds opening for national touring acts; 9. Start generating some major label interest after mp3s of your new songs are posted on the Net; 10. Get your driver's license.
OK, while the steps outlined above may follow a well-worn path down the rock 'n' roll highway, that last one seems a bit out of place. But that pretty much summarizes the chronology of Mylestone. These guys have realized more rock star dreams by the time they hit driving age than many aspiring musicians do in a lifetime.
My involvement with them dates back to around 2001, recording the band doing Jackson 5 and Hanson covers. Riley Long was banging out a simple boom-chuck beat on his father's drums, while his twin brother Curran played keyboard parts that would make Reuben Kincaid want to add him to the Partridge Family. Meanwhile, their 12-year-old cousin Patrick O'Neill stood in front, belting out "Sha-Na-Na's" in a clear, high tenor.
Now, four years later, with the addition of Cole Tanner on bass and Aaron McConkey on rhythm guitar, Mylestone is about to release their second CD, recorded by me and produced by Portland powerhouse Rob Daiker (Velabonz, Meredith Brooks). While I may be biased, having worked with the kids since they truly were kids, I do honestly believe these guys have what it takes to make a mark on the world outside of our little burg.
I have worked with many bands in the studio, from a few major label and indie artists to dozens of local talents, and the guys in Mylestone are among the most dedicated, focused and driven musicians I've come across. Combine this with their natural talent, and I think they definitely rank among the bands in Spokane to keep an eye on in the coming year. (Mylestone throws an EP release party at Fat Tuesday's this Friday night, May 20.) -- Robert Hartwig
Robert Hartwig is a local musician and recording engineer/producer at Spokane's Black Coffee Recording.
The first time I heard Weight was the first time any of us would -- at Mootsy's, in a packed room with cigarettes ablaze and the beer chilled. I wasn't expecting to feel like I had just been beaten by a man-mountain sloth and then shoved face-first into a fryer, but I was. Usually, shows involve some yokel fighting his microphone, screaming like a ninny, then rushing off on an oh-so-emotional bender while the band plays silly riffs and jumps into the air like they're playing an invisible game of jump rope. You don't have a reaction, just the usual "Gee, I'm going to get another beer, make this night at least worth something." Then it turns into any other night at the bar: "Let's get really drunk and do something stupid."
But Weight is different: The band projects visual and sonic symmetry. On guitar is Aaron Powell (also of Belt of Vapor), whose understated technique helps form the group's melodic component together with bassist/electronica artist Dave Griffiths. On the kit is Joe Preston, one of the most naturally fluid drummers in town. They don't have a vocalist. They claim not to need one. A Weight performance begins with patterns of bass and guitar lines weaving individual, interlacing melodic threads around a sturdy rhythmic foundation. Samples add texture and atmosphere. It's amazing what three quiet guys can do with a few instruments.
The bar scene is a sinking ship, and usually I'd rather be floundering in hopes that a yellow inflatable boat will pass. I wouldn't go to a bar to listen to a sassy yahoo punk band or whatever other tomfoolery is being currently displayed. But as scared as I am of bars, I would go to one to see Weight. That's how good they are -- to check them out, I'd risk going to a place I now fear more than anything. -- Phil Bailey, with Mike Corrigan
Phil Bailey is a local artist, music junkie, occasional waiter and man about town. Joe Preston happens to be the art director for The Inlander.
Check out the Arts & amp; Culture section for other features from our local music issue.