Live Music: Dead on Arrival

Welcome to Miami-Dade County, where the clubs play disco, the musicians whine, and the rock fans languish

It's Friday night at Churchill's Hideaway and two guitarists stand onstage tearing into their strings; amplified moans and wails burst from the speakers. Behind them the drum, bass, and keyboard swell in a towering crescendo, then fall away to massage a quieter passage. One guitarist leans into a microphone and begins to sing. His voice is resonant, a roar of joyful anguish. At the end of a line he throws himself away from the mike, tangled locks lacing his face, sweat staining his faded T-shirt. Reaching for that elusive, perfect note, he appears to be strangling his guitar. The music has transported him to another world.

It's a familiar image in the realm of music videos: that of the tortured rock musician flailing away. But here in real life, with the full band creating a passionate, dynamic force, the scene unfolding onstage assumes an electrifying immediacy. And this is no garage band. The five musicians are veterans who have recently signed a recording contract with an independent label that will, they're told, enjoy worldwide distribution by PolyGram.

The group -- its name is unimportant; there are at least two other local outfits in similar situations -- could be huge next year. And they are from Miami, born and raised. Played here nearly all their lives. Graduated from local high schools and worked assorted day jobs through the years with friends, acquaintances, and potential fans.

And on a Friday night at Churchill's, one of only two reliable live rock venues in town, there are fifteen people in the audience.

Miami-Dade County has a population of more than two million people. Throw in the nearby tract of land census-takers and advertising executives count as part of the Miami MSA, or Metropolitan Statistical Area -- we're talking neighboring Broward County -- and you've got close to three and a half million, the eleventh-largest metropolitan area in the United States. There is no shortage of living, breathing human beings in South Florida. In fact, we live in an area with nearly three times the population of New Orleans, more than three times as populous as Nashville, Memphis, or Austin. Seattle, Atlanta, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have fewer residents. Yet those locales all enjoy as many as several dozen live rock clubs and thriving local scenes.

Miami's live rock scene, however -- and it doesn't matter whether your tastes run to ska, punk, alternative, indie-rock, funk, heavy metal, or plain old pop-rock -- is virtually nonexistent. In the recent past, club after club has shut down. Rose's and Stella Blue turned off the lights this past spring; last year it was Cheers; before that Stephen Talkhouse, Washington Square, and Cactus Cantina. South Beach Pub, Miami Beach's last remaining rock club, lingers in a kind of musical purgatory, raucous and rowdy one weekend, dark the next, its owners unsure whether to continue with live music.

Only Churchill's, in Little Haiti, and Tobacco Road (generally open to local bands only when national acts aren't in town, which is often) remain. There is only a smattering of alternatives: the Design District's Power Studios, off-night concerts at the Grove's Hungry Sailor, and the odd show at places such as World Resources on Lincoln Road or the Grind, a coffeehouse in North Miami.

So why is it that the county's live rock music venues find patrons such rare commodities, the market so fickle and inhospitable, the business so devoid of profit? In short, why do all the good clubs keep closing?

On one level, the answer is simple: In this half-assed banana republic, rock music is about as appreciated as a down-filled, fur-lined parka.

Alas, it's a bit more complicated than that.
The problem can also be traced to the clubs, with their often lousy parking facilities, ridiculous drink prices, and less-than-exemplary sound systems. Local musicians themselves shoulder some of the blame: They could stand to promote themselves more, and as a whole could bring their showmanship up to the level of the national touring bands with whom they must compete.

An even more disturbing possibility, one expressed by many of those who love the world of overdriven guitars and unpretentious bars, is that people in South Florida just don't care about live music.

But the Broward and Palm Beach scenes are thriving. Fort Lauderdale's SW Second Street strip alone boasts live music at three or four clubs, all within stumbling distance of one another: the Poor House, Dicey Riley's, Tavern 213, and even occasionally the Chili Pepper. Hollywood has a happening collection of music joints, all practically next door to each other, in the Young Circle area. Likewise West Palm Beach's Clematis Street. Not all these venues showcase rock, but many do. More important, the owners who have set up shop in these neighborhoods aren't lacking for patrons.

Back in Miami, the jazz and blues scene is doing reasonably well. Although some purists gripe that certain clubs don't present "real" jazz or "authentic" blues, there are still several jazz and blues clubs for every one that regularly features live rock. Same story for live Latin music, whose venues outnumber live rock clubs nearly tenfold.

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