Ed Matus has been performing as part of Miami's music scene long enough to have seen plenty of live-music venues rise and fall. Mostly fall. The 25-year-old guitarist started playing out with his ornate hardcore band, Subliminal Criminal, in 1991. The trio found a home at spots such as Washington Square, Rose's, and Mars Bar. Matus even worked as a doorman at Cheers, one of Miami-Dade's most popular rock clubs. "A lot of people used to go there," he says. "And I saw what kind of crowds came in. I used to think, What would happen if this were to stop? I'm sure Miami would be without a good venue for a long time."
Cheers did shut down in 1997, because neighbors complained that the bar's all-ages shows were attracting kids who loitered and vandalized property. Matus and a rotating cast of musicians now perform under the name of H.A.L.O. Vessel, creating electronic music with effects pedals, keyboards, and drum machines. But, because Washington Square, Rose's, and Mars Bar have also closed, H.A.L.O. Vessel has been stuck performing at warehouses and parties.
That changed last month, when the Hungry Sailor, a pub in Coconut Grove long known for showcasing reggae, hosted a performance by his troupe on a Monday night. Accompanied by Rich Rippe, the lanky bass player for the jazz-rock hybrid Swivel Stick, on keyboards, and Chris Cline, Swivel Stick's burly drummer, on African log drum and djembe, Matus took the stage behind his custom rack of pedals.
The scent of beer and cigarette smoke was a welcome change from the dusty air in the warehouses he had been playing. So was the size of the crowd. Matus says he was pleased to see more than 50 people crammed inside the bustling bar, many of whom he had never met before. "If you're in a group in Miami, you always want to draw in new people," he remarks. "You're not going to be able to do something like that if you play at a place like Churchill's [Hideaway], because a lot of people have trouble with the neighborhood and, the truth is, it's really far for most people, who live in suburban Miami."
These Monday nights are also a departure for the Sailor, which has attracted marquee names on the reggae scene since 1975 and hosts local reggae nights. Alex Dinu has owned the Hungry Sailor for the last three-and-a-half years. He has preserved the reggae showcases on his busier nights, choosing to experiment with the slower Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings. (Tuesday nights feature two house rock bands that play original and cover songs, while Wednesdays bring local swing, ska, and punk bands to the club.)
Dinu says Mondays have a special feel, thanks to the man he put in charge: Ed Artigas, a local musician who sings and plays guitar in Gosport, a band known for its swirling layers of guitars and vocals. "The one thing Ed does different on Monday nights is that he showcases one band and has a DJ in between, so it's more of a hangout," Dinu says. "He's creating a different atmosphere than our other nights. For our other nights the following comes out to see their band and leaves, and then the next band comes on."
And the people do come out to the Monday-night shows, which Aritgas has dubbed "Subculture." After 11:00 the crowd never drops below 50. A recent night at Subculture featured a performance by the sequencer-driven, guitar-strumming duo, J.E. and Justin G., which attracted close to 150 patrons. "Anything's welcome and anything goes," says Ana Tosca, a local music fan and Subculture regular. "It's not really stuck to a format as to what sort of band is going to play there."
Artists like Matus, in turn, are delighted to play for folks who may not know their music. "The crowd that goes there is a little bit more open to a lot of different things, musically speaking," he explains. "People know what to expect when they go there, which is diversity. Miami's always had a problem with things being homogenized. The hardcore kids only want to listen to hardcore and the snotty indie-rock kids only listen to what they like.
"I like the fact that Ed [Artigas] is bringing together all different sorts of music, whether it's a live act or the music that the DJ plays. You have a lot of music that you honestly have to like. It's not music that's some fad that everyone listens to to be cool," he continues.
Still, Matus concedes that performing more experimental types of rock isn't going to make him rich. "I'll be happy if I make my money back in gas," he says.
Artigas says the Sailor's Monday nights aren't a money-making venture for him, either. "There have been opportunities for me to make money, but I choose to pay the bands more," he claims. "I try to give them as much as possible, depending on how the door makes out. A miserable night at the door would be thirty-five dollars, so I would give the band twenty bucks and take fifteen for me, the DJ, and the doorman. When my band would go play at Cheers we'd get paid twenty dollars and there would be 80 or 100 people there, but they had to pay three bands, security, sound, all those other costs, plus staff. That's why I'm in the band business, not the bar business," he laughs. "I don't consider myself a promoter. I do this so that more local bands have a place to play where they get treated fairly. It's a place for the scene to grow. It's not like I want a huge music scene. I just want a place where people can hear music that isn't your regular radio-hit fare."
According to Artigas the only criteria he uses in selecting bands is "that they have their own identity, sonically speaking, as opposed to some band that sounds like Pearl Jam. The bands tend not to be cover bands because not only do you sound like somebody else, but you're also playing somebody else's songs. I want original music."
The acts that Artigas books to play Subculture are generally young and ambitious, an alternative to what you'd expect at a bar with beer specials and pool tables.
Gemma has been playing out in the music scene for a little more than a year. The quartet teases the audience with catchy melodies and dreamy female vocals that often abruptly change into meandering instrumental passages driven by erratic time signatures, like the sonic equivalent of a patchwork quilt. Machete has a similar, though more polished style. Its songs are simpler and decorated with unique sonic effects like a guitar that runs through a PA speaker. Swivel Stick's lineup includes an upright bass, clarinet, saxophone, electric guitar, drums, and assorted percussion, from ancient African drums to electronic programs. The quintet plays instrumental rock that's influenced as much by Miles Davis as it is by Sixties-era King Crimson.
These bands may not be household names, but Hassib Chelbi, who's in charge of the door at the Sailor on Mondays, says the club does attract its share of fans off the street. "There's a lot of people that walk by and say, 'Hey that sounds pretty cool,' and walk in," says Chelbi, who plays bass for Gemma.
Artigas is doing more than creating an affable environment in which people can hang out and bands can perform. He's also keeping the bar owner happy.
"He's doing everything right and the vibe is there," attests Dinu. "I see the numbers as far as bar sales, and I see more and more clientele every week. It's working well. There's nothing really going on Mondays like that, anywhere ... It's going to be Ed's night for a while."
Almost everyone, from musicians to patrons, has said they would like to see Artigas improve one thing: promotion.
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But Artigas insists he has made a strong effort to get the word out. "You can check it out on my Website (www.bigdis.com/spy-fi/shows). I e-mail people. We have done flyers," he says. "Besides, the fact is that our core is word-of-mouth, which seems to do okay. We'd like to do better, but what's your potential on a Monday night?"
Dinu, for one, isn't worried. "The word hasn't gotten out yet, but slowly but surely it's going to get out," he vows.
Artigas is modest about his role at the Sailor. He maintains he's just a musician who's facilitating a place for bands to play. Still, he can't help but issue a rallying call to the foot soldiers in South Florida's beleaguered live music scene: "I'm calling the people and the fans to action: Hey, come out and support, there's something cool going on. I'm calling out to the eighteen-year-old and nineteen-year-old kids: Hey, come out and make a band, and I'm calling out to the other kids to open their own venues. It's not hard. Find places to play, whether its another night at the Sailor, or a skate park, or a warehouse. Just do something because if more of us do something it's going to grow."
Subculture will host Machete with special guest Azalia Snail (New York), January 25 at The Hungry Sailor, 3064 Grand Ave, Coconut Grove, 305-996-1549. Doors open at 10:00 p.m.; cover charge is $2.