"Fuck it, we drove."
Milk Can's Joel Schantz didn't mean to encapsulate the mindset of the entire Dade County delegation in attendance at the recent Southeastern Music Conference in Tampa with his offhand remark. But as anyone familiar with Milk Can's body of work can attest, Schantz has a gift for nailing the essence of a particular moment with minimal verbiage. The guy says more with a shrug than most songwriters do with three verses and a chorus.
Schantz's band had just proven that, contrary to accepted laws of physics, milk can burn. Technically, they were done for the night, but none of the brass at Frankie's Patio in Ybor City was kicking them off the stage, and the few dozen or so die-hard fans still standing wanted more so...
"Fuck it, we drove."
The phrase became the motto of the 100 or so hard-partying South Floridians who'd made the trek north for the conference. Ears bleeding from listening to band after band after band? Fuck it, we drove. Tempted to do another shot of Cuervo but afraid you might get sick? Fuck it, we drove. Can't decide whether to crash or join the late-night orgy thrown by the Florida Music Association (one of the perquisites of membership)? Fuck it, we drove.
The conference showcased more than 60 bands from around the Sunshine State, sixteen of them from South Florida. "Finally," I thought, "a chance to see how strangers will react to Miami's finest playing away from home turf." No hype, politics, or boyfriends-in-the-band to sway the crowd. Just music and showmanship. To my surprise, Tampa fans reacted positively to just about everyone. It was the first time in my memory, for example, that Sixo's Rene Alvarez wasn't being mentally undressed by 100 or more swooning young women while he sang. Alvarez got off to a shaky start, sparely accompanying himself on guitar for two songs to a lukewarm reception. But when temporary drummer Diane Ward and bassist Tony Panda joined Alvarez on-stage, the intensity level skyrocketed. Felt like old times at the Talkhouse.
You can't really blame Bay-area audiences for not knowing what to make of I Don't Know's controlled lunacy. South Floridians have been puzzled for years. The band quickly won the SMC crowd over with its eclectic sound, irrepressible energy, and accordion-kazoo assault. Frantic front man Ferny Coipel seemed a bit subdued (by his standards), opting for the subtle fashion statement of a bow tie cinched about the goatee in lieu of flaunting one of his exotic floor-length skirts. Coipel didn't even bare his penis -- the most talked-about and overexposed member this side of John Bobbitt's -- until the second night's aforementioned FMA orgy back at the Holiday Inn, when Coipel performed a song-and-dance routine with his talented appendage. Let's hope that wasn't a preview of new material from I Don't Know, which has come on strong in the past year or so to challenge the Goods for the title of South Florida's premier party band. While the Goods have a bottomless backlog of chestnuts to augment their Minty fresh tunes, I Don't Know could use a few new songs for the benefit of those of us who have heard "Mr. Malcolm's Chronicles" 47,000 times.
Fifteen-year-old guitarist Josh Smith dazzled a crowd of serious musicians with his blues virtuosity. I bumped into Jolynn Daniel's guitarist-producer Jansen Press, who was staggering around in a daze following Smith's set, and had to talk the old boy out of burning his six-strings and joining a monastery. Suzy Creamcheese's enigmatic chanteuse Kimona 117 bared some thigh and generated much speculation as to what, if anything, she might be wearing underneath her way-short overcoat. While titillation is always welcome, especially from the impulsive Ms. 117, her coy and calculated sex kitten antics run the risk of garnering the band more attention than her impressive vocal acrobatics.
The Goods, I Don't Know, Suzy Creamcheese, and Black Janet all played at the Parthenon, a cavernous downtown Tampa venue divided into halves A one a live music bar, the other a disco. A group of gay men who had tired of the disco wandered into the live music section during Black Janet's performance and became instantly enamored of gamboling guitarist Rose Guilot. So smitten were the go-go boys that they yanked Guilot down from the stage to dance with them. Guilot, ever the pro, remembers it as the only time all night she could hear herself play.
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Tampa's live music scene, in terms of quantity and variety of venues and the number of people patronizing them, shames our own. Ybor City alone boasts a multiblock strip of bars, restaurants, and nightspots with no fewer than a dozen clubs hosting live bands, from blues to reggae to original rock. Sort of like Duval Street in Key West with twice as many bars and half as many T-shirt boutiques. Swarms of college students prowl the clubs for warm sounds and cheap, cold suds. Sure, you hear a lot of Tom Petty covers, but I'll take that any day over "The Rhythm of the Night" at some clip joint on South Beach.
But while the Tampa area's live music scene humbles Miami's, its bands do not. I heard about a dozen of them and only one regional favorite -- Tampa's own Clang, following I Don't Know at the Parthenon -- blew me away. Even more impressively, they did it before I'd had a chance to work up a decent alcohol buzz. I couldn't make out their muddied lyrics, which I suspect are an integral part of the total Clang package, but I had no problem soaking up their melodic, rapid-fire chord progressions and full, diverse rock sound with jazzy, bluesy, poppy overtones. Great stuff.
My most vivid memory of the entire weekend had nothing to do with the music or the booze or the debauchery. It was the sight of an old woman slumped resignedly on a sidewalk bench as hordes of carefree and totally oblivious young people raced by in search of fun, fun, fun. "Alone and Dying" read the sign around her neck. "Your donation will help send my body to Gainesville."
Like most residents of big cities, I've become fairly inured to the plights of your basic panhandlers, traffic light windshield washers, and sidewalk derelicts. Sometimes it seems like there are so many that if you gave each one a buck, you'd go broke and have to join them. But this woman's sign really got to me. I mean, when you think about it, we're all dying and alone. Some of us are dying faster than others, and some of us are alone less often, but in the final analysis dying and alone pretty much sums it up. The older you get, the harder it becomes to avoid staring directly into that harsh set of headlights. Sometimes you have to force yourself to look a little askance so that you can keep on moving down the road. At times like that an inspirational phrase such as "Fuck it, we drove" can come in handy.