Square Deal

Washington Square comes out of the dark with a live CD

Graham Parker once expressed sympathy for the people of Russia (before unbundling), whose government fed them so much misinformation, they thought Billy Joel was a rock star. If you don't get that joke, you belong in Miami. This is, after all, the town where disco never died. John Travolta movies still clean up at the box office here.

So it should come as no surprise that Gloria Estefan outdraws F.O.C., even if the concert-cum-endurance test at Joe Robbie attracted roughly 52,900 more paying customers than the WVUM/Square/Talkhouse benefit the following night. That isn't Gloria's fault, of course. And as long as the checks clear and the money finds its way down to South Dade, why begrudge her a little p.r.? (Val Kilmer, on the other hand, should be shot.)

This is a town that adores winners, but only after they've made it. In the mid-Seventies Frank Zappa drew more students to a concert on the UM patio than the Hurricanes did to some of their games in the Orange Bowl. More than a decade and four national championships later, you've got to be an Olympic marathon runner to make it to the stadium from where you're forced to park your car on game days. In terms of record sales and drawing power -- especially here in her back yard, where she's permanent homecoming queen -- Gloria Estefan is a winner.

Ironically but not unpredictably, the Miami Sound Machine had to make it big throughout the rest of Latin America before they could achieve success on their own turf. They weren't born selling out the Arena 63 nights in a row. Granted, Gloria never played Churchill's on a weeknight, so we'll never see how she would respond to the ultimate test. But she's a star, and Miamians love that above all else.

It's true that not all of the bands who played the SoBe venues were polished enough to share a stage with the likes of Sra. Estefan, Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, Tito Puente, and company. Hell, Celia Cruz has been belting out "Cuando Sali de Cuba" longer than some of the Square/Talkhouse performers' parents have been alive. On the other hand, if you exclude the Latin all-stars, the Joe Robbie blowout fell about nine and a half hours short of being ten hours of quality entertainment. Be honest, now: if someone had told you prior to Hurricane Relief that the Bee Gees' set would be one of the highlights and that Gloria and Paul Simon would do less than an hour, would you still have bought a ticket to the show?

The odds are long against original rock acts, doubly so in a city where even the popular-music editor for the only daily newspaper doesn't get the Billy Joel crack. There aren't a lot of venues for young bands to play, nor is there much of a local market for their product should they ever reach the point where a demo tape, EP, or CD become warranted. That is why Live at the Square #2 is an interesting development.

On the heels of the hurricane benefit (and after having already been postponed for over a month, thanks to the big wind), Washington Square is going ahead with plans for a six-day, 48-band extravaganza that will eventually be distilled into a twenty-cut compilation CD and a 30-song cassette. Plans call for initial pressings of 1000 CDs and 500 cassettes, which will be distributed nationally to radio stations, music biz bigwigs, and tone-deaf musical publications such as our very own. The first Live at the Square CD, recorded in August, 1991, found its way onto the air on rock radio stations in Tampa, Atlanta, and as far away as New Jersey, as well as college and alternative stations across the state.

The project is not without its detractors. As Live critic and boycotter Marilyn Manson is quick to point out, performers not only aren't getting financially compensated for the gig, they have to ante up $150 to pay the Square for the privilege of performing, with no guarantee that one of their songs will make it onto the CD. Fans will shell out anywhere from $5 to $8 to see the band play, and then another $10 or so to buy the CD once it's released. At first glance it would seem like a steal for the Square and a rotten deal for everyone else, yet 48 of SoFlo's finest have already ponied up. Why?

The answer lies primarily in four letters: A-DAT (multitrack digital audio tape). For their buck-and-a-half, performers get 30 minutes of state-of-the-art, digital, eight-track recording courtesy of Esync Records, and they get to keep the master tapes. Since the tapes are all digital, musicians can later go back and do studio overdubs and the like with minimal effort and at low cost. For a young band with precious little professionally recorded material, this could be a relatively painless way to put together a demo at a fraction of the cost of full studio production.

In a nutshell, Live #2 will be a clean, crisp, live, state-of-the-art compilation, free of the muddy sound and uneven recording quality that so often plague the genre. Because it will be recorded live, it will also reflect participants' current musical direction -- none of that, "Hey, man, we used to sound like The Pogues, but now we're more like Helmet-meets-Jellyfish." It will be available at all the usual places, and will find its way into the hands of a few major players as well as a myriad of wanna-bes and never-weres. Like most compilations in this country, it will probably not sell beaucoup units, but that's not really the point.

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