Anywhere's Better than Here

How can Miami ever develop a decent music scene when its best bands keep leaving town?

Atlantic Records country-folk artist Mary Karlzen has also tumbled to the realities of traveling from a Miami HQ, pointing out that she may relocate temporarily to Atlanta when her next tour begins. "If you're based here, you have to drive at least eight hours just to get out of the state," laments Karlzen, a Chicago native who's lived in Miami for the last eleven years and built a strong local following through countless gigs at now-defunct clubs such as the Stephen Talkhouse and Washington Square. "I'll always come back here and I'll always consider this home, but there is something great about a change of scenery."

And a change of scenery can be crucial to an artist's work, says Froilan Sosa, vocalist and guitarist for Nuclear Valdez, Latin-tinged rock veterans who stayed in Miami throughout their two-year stint with Epic Records in the late Eighties and early Nineties. "For some reason, when you get a recording contract, it makes you want to change your surroundings," Sosa admits. "It creates a healthy environment for change. You want to go to a new place to seek a different kind of inspiration and have some new and different things around that can stimulate you in ways you're not used to. That's why we did our first album [1989's I Am I] in Los Angeles -- for that freshness and the exposure to all of these new elements. But the second record [1991's Dream Another Dream] was recorded here, and I think it captures the essence of us recording in a place where our family and friends are. It has a more Latin feel to it, and that's because it was done here."

Sosa and his Caribbean-born bandmates have never thought of relocating to a different city, despite the adversities facing Miami musicians. And even though the band was released from its contract with Epic after their two albums failed to break them nationally, they see no reason to leave town. "We love Miami," Sosa exclaims, adding that the band is currently working at different studios in town on their next album, which they will shop to various labels. "We love the sun and the beaches and the Cuban coffee and the pastries. For us to relocate would just be wrong. There's just no point in it. The only real reason to relocate is to either be closer to the music business or to go to a place with a better live-music scene. But we need to stay close to our roots and the things that are a part of us. Miami is truly a melting pot of different cultures, and that's what we are, too. I could never see us living someplace like Los Angeles."

It's pushing midnight on a recent Tuesday night at Rose's Bar & Music Lounge, one of the few live-music venues on South Beach. Local singer, songwriter, and guitarist Nil Lara has just wrapped up his first set of the night, an informal performance that leaned heavily on tracks from his upcoming debut album for Metro Blue, a new subsidiary of the esteemed jazz label Blue Note. Lara and his three-piece band were working the kinks out of the new material in preparation for an upcoming tour that will take them along the East Coast and through the South, keeping them on the road until mid-February.

Although the Rose's gig was unannounced, the place was packed by the middle of the first set; Lara had called friends and fans over the previous weekend to let them know about the show. It was the kind of gesture that would be almost unthinkable for an artist newly arrived in a strange new city. Lara, though, is a Miami institution; his mix of traditional Cuban music and varied strains of rock, funk, and soul has made him arguably the most successful nightclub-level artist in the city, and he has established a rapport with his followers that can only be achieved through constant performing. They know his little personality quirks (performing barefoot, for instance), and he's comfortable enough with his audience to rearrange and reshape even his most revered older material. For instance, a song such as "How Was I to Know," a guitar-based rocker from his 1994 album My First Child, now emerges from the stage in a reworked version that builds from a slow, moody intro into something tense, emotional, and more dynamic. It's a relationship that keeps the material fresh and allows Lara to take certain risks and certain chances -- risks and chances his audience listens for.

"I've been here since I was sixteen and playing as long as I can remember," the Cuban-born Lara says after that Rose's show. "I've seen a lot of clubs come and go and seen a lot of musicians come and go. For studio musicians, there's definitely more work in New York, and maybe some people just get bored and want to try something different, be someplace different. But I've never given up on the city. You just have to center yourself and put your own effort into bringing people out to the clubs. And really, if you're doing original music, it shouldn't matter where you are or what your surroundings are. You could be living in the middle of the United States and still be happy doing what you're doing. I don't think this is such an easy town to make it in. It really takes a lot of work. But nothing's ever easy, is it?"

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