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Facing Sideways 

by Leah Sottile, Mike Corrigan and Clint Burgess


"You can wear these. I wiped the sweat off," Justin says, an innocuous grin spreading across his face at the realization that his offer of his headphones is, well, sort of gross.


"Here, try this," Aaron says, passing me two chunks of sea green foam to shove in my ear canals.


Bob says that I'll be just fine, but he adds that my face might melt off once they get going.


I take the foam.


It would be so easy to label all of this, the practice space of Belt of Vapor, as clich & eacute; -- what with Jimi Hendrix conjuring his famously blazing guitar on the wall above, a color-by-number velvet poster of KISS gracing in the space above Justin's head and Kurt Cobain frozen in a idol-like rock sneer in the corner. Sure, Jimi and Kurt and Ace might be inspiring them, but unlike so many bands, these three are hardly trying to be them.


Maybe that's what makes Belt of Vapor (Bob Homburg on guitar, Aaron Powell on bass and Justin Walter on drums) so unique in a local rock scene that's been overrun by purveyors of teenage angst and pre-pubescent punk poster children. There are no white belts here, no black hair dye or neat-o forearm tattoos. And in Spokane these days, all of the above have come to shamelessly define our music scene.


You can check these guys out -- along with a collection of local bands, Civilized Animal, Flyreal and Mylestone, and headliner Fishbone -- at Saturday's Silveroxx fest at Silver Mountain, a kind of mountain bike-a-palooza. The day will also feature the first annual Super Downhill Race -- a top-to-bottom chase where bikers will drop nearly 3,500 feet over four miles of track. During band breaks, professional bikers Chris Duncan and Grant Breshears will scale huge jumps and two 50-foot gaps.


Before they start to practice again, Bob flips through The Book of Fascinating Facts, pausing briefly on a page with football facts before throwing the book across the room. Justin sucks down the end of a cigarette, his white T-shirt hanging transparent with sweat from his gaunt shoulders. Aaron calmly notes that he thinks the right side of his body has completely stopped working, and that he might be dying. Aaron, Bob and Justin are only 20 years old, but watching and listening to them play speaks volumes about life and musical experience past their years.


Bringing no formal training to the table, all three make music strictly from what they've learned on their own accord -- and from their years of playing together in their past band, Self-Inheritance, and other side projects.


"He's the only one who's taken guitar lessons, and he's the drummer," Aaron says, pointing at Justin. "Music education-wise, we don't know what we're doing. But we do know what we are musically doing. Does that make sense?"


"We don't know 4/4, 4/10, yadda yadda yadda," he trails off.


"We've got soul," Justin finishes.


The three start off with "the new one." Bob nonchalantly knocks out the melody, Aaron picks up the bass line and Justin slowly starts to unhinge behind his drum kit. They face one another, directing occasional glances instead of verbal cues at each other. There's an unsaid understanding about their music here -- it's something they all agree is a result of knowing each other so well.


"[Our friendship] is the absolute basis for this band," Justin says.


They all agree that in Belt of Vapor, there is no front man, which may begin to explain why they don't totally face the audience when they perform. Aaron and Bob turn their mikes toward each other, and though many think that screaming at each other is the band's performing shtick, they laugh and say it's just their way of being able to hear what's going on while including Justin at the same time.


"Me and Bob played facing out at one show and we f--ed up," Aaron says. "We just said, 'Let's just face each other because that's how we practice.'"


"We need to feed off the energy from each other," Bob adds.


Describing themselves as "anxiety-ridden weirdoes," Aaron says that performing is difficult enough for their band, so watching each other is the only way they can feel natural onstage.


"Being in here," Bob says, gesturing to their bohemian practice space, "that's where it's at. If you see us playing at shows, that's just the final product."


"When we get comfortable, that's when shows will be as fulfilling as practices," Aaron says.


All this is coming from the band that took this year's title in the Battle for the Van competition, the makeshift battle of the bands that took place at the B-Side. After months of competitions, these three walked away with the coveted vehicle -- but they've felt nothing but grief since driving it away.


That's the thing about Belt of Vapor: It's not about taking the trophy at competitions or about the stereotypical band image. This, to them, is a mirror image of their emotions. Music means serving their own hearts sunny side up on a platter to their audience, then shrieking at them to eat up. Deciphering what Aaron or Bob are screaming is impossible, but listening to their fury makes knowing the words seem pointless. They're not out there making music to be understood -- they simply use it as a means of self-expression. That said, these guys aren't totally opposed to all the perks of being a successful band, like loyal fans and recording an album. It's just not their main priority. "For us, it's all we have. We put all of our passion into it," Justin says.


Maybe it's that undying youthful passion that makes them unique. Whatever the case, Belt of Vapor's sound is the brainchild of three kids begging to raise the talent bar of Spokane's local music scene. You'd better grab some foam for your ears.





Riddle Me This -- When I was a kid, one of the first impressions I could pull off pretty successfully was that of Leon Redbone. It was easy. I just kind of made this low, trilling growl in the back of my throat and pursed my lips so that only the smallest bit of sound passed through them. The majority of the vibrations were sent through my nose. Voila. I was a hit. While my repertoire has grown considerably since that first time I saw him perform on the early Saturday Night Live (long before it was referred to as SNL), I still credit Redbone as the guy who gave me my start. Not in music or in music journalism, but in celebrity impressions.


Song stylist Leon Redbone is an odd one. He persists on the fringe of the popular music continuum, spending most of his time in the periphery, only to emerge from the shadows at random intervals to remind us once again that he still exists -- and exists to entertain. He plays the part of the mysterioso with great aplomb. His story is defined by riddle and intrigue. We may recognize the name and that timeless visage, but who among us can claim to know who he is -- or even what he is? Spokane audiences will once again have a chance to sit enraptured and in awe of the phenomenal phantom known as Leon Redbone on Wednesday night at the Met.


Redbone first emerged on the Toronto music scene in the early 1970s with a sound and a performing style that recalled pre-World War II ragtime, jazz and blues informed by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Bing Crosby and blackface star Emmett Miller. He started making regular appearances on Saturday Night Live in the late '70s, sporting his familiar fedora, dark glasses and bushy mustache. In the context of that show, his gravelly baritone, guitar accompaniment and neo-vaudeville song style came across as intriguingly enigmatic rather than hopelessly nostalgic. And the television exposure helped boost the sales of his second album, Double Time, transforming him into a performance icon.


Though his recorded output over the last 25 years has been somewhat sporadic, his television appearances (including the Tonight Show) and movie cameos (recently in Elf) continue unabated as his list of collaborators and admirers grew to include Merle Haggard, Ringo Starr, Dr. John and Bob Dylan. His latest album, released in 2004, is called Whistling in the Wind (Rounder) and features Redbone on vocal, guitar and banjo fronting a small ensemble of supporting musicians.


Yet for all his visibility, Redbone continues to obfuscate and confuse, playing the role of enigma to the hilt. Whether his persona is a contrivance or springs from a genuine concern for the sanctity of his private life is unknown, as the artist flat-out refuses to divulge any facts about his background or personal life.


The man also hates to fly. In fact he will not fly. And so, Redbone will be arriving in Spokane by ground transport, reportedly a day early, to get the lay of the land before his Wednesday night show. So if you should run into him somewhere on the streets of downtown, be sure to say hello.


But keep your impressions to yourself.





Finger-Pickin' Good -- bluegrass (bloo-gras) n. a kind of unamplified country music characterized by virtuosic playing of guitars, banjos, etc.


The dictionary definition doesn't quite capture the essence of bluegrass. As an early American musical style that has lived on through the passing down of songs and instruments, bluegrass is kind of like a second child: It gets enough attention to get by but is often left in obscurity.


Not this weekend, however. The Bluegrass Festival at Beacon Hill will put the spring back into your bluegrass step and let loose a collection of performers who are sure to have attendees dancing on the lawn (or grass).


This festival showcases local talent that often goes unrecognized in the Lilac City. Granted, the youthful, barhopping masses aren't lining up to see middle-aged men pluck a banjo, but there are still plenty of bluegrass fans lurking about. As an age-old art, bluegrass has withstood the test of time and weathered all the madness of folk revivals, country that sounds more like rock 'n' roll, and other genres of music that all draw from bluegrass in one shape or form. The music lends itself to good times on a sunny afternoon, and the bands will be providing plenty of toe-tapping tunes. Local favorites Prairie Flyer will be slinging banjo, guitar, bass and anything else they can bang out a tune on. This seasoned group of musicians always brings their best stuff to the stage. And while they do play bluegrass standards, they're not afraid to mix in a contemporary tune done in bluegrass style.


The remainder of the festival will feature sets from additional local artists: the South Hill Ramblers and A Wing and a Prayer. The Ramblers perform authentic bluegrass from the Southeast by way of Spokane. No strangers to the soulful side of the Southern sound, this group infuses a gospel-like flair to their music. Also featured at the festival will be the Broken Valley Road Show from Montana.


The festival is sponsored by the Aurora Northwest Rotary Club and radio station KDRK (Cat Country), and the event's proceeds will go toward aiding children who attend Spokane Public Schools' Havermale School, providing an opportunity for local residents to lend a helping hand to those who are in need. Children at the Havermale School have had the support of the Aurora Northwest Rotary Club for the past three years, but they can always use additional support. So bring a blanket and come on out to Beacon Hill Park to take in some finger-pickin' for a good cause.





Publication date: 08/26/04
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