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On the Rocks

After reading my account of the alcohol-stoked sexual high jinks, violence, and general depravity that Baker and I witnessed, and, in the grand tradition of those paragons of journalistic excellence and artistic integrity, Hunter Thompson and Geraldo Rivera, participated in during December's SoFlo Rock Awards, my wife, Arleen, decided to chaperone me to this year's Miami Rocks, Too! extravaganza. I persuaded her to leave the Glock 9mm at home with a promise that I would be on my best behavior. Unfortunately, Miami Rocks provided me with precious little temptation to go back on my word. Caligula-does-Woodstock it wasn't.

First up on the agenda was Thursday night's Women Rock showcase at the Cactus Cantina, which, after a few beers and/or Cuervo shots, is pronounced "Cactina." Last year, the Cactina was the site of one of the biggest surprises of the Mi-Rocks fest, a searing performance by Kathy Fleischman and Poetic Injustice. Apparently, P.I. forgot to get their anti-breakup shots and succumbed to the dreaded disease shortly thereafter.

Still, it was with high hopes that I arrived (fashionably tardy as usual) at the Tex-Mex venue, and was promptly informed that I had missed the opening set from Jodi and the Hautboys. A couple of H-bums that I ran into outside confessed that things had gone less than wonderfully, due in no small part to sound problems. Bad sound is like herpes to a musician - it might not kill you, but it can flare up and make your life miserable at the least opportune moments. I've stumbled into the Cactina on many a Sunday night, and have found Jodi and the Hautboys to be one of the few area bands capable of making good music and actually enjoying it at the same time. As if the sound problems weren't drag enough, it was also revealed that Ms. Jodi, a native Miamian and a fixture on the local acoustic scene, was about to depart for the nation's capital and a career as a singing bureaucrat. Who knows where that could lead - I hear the Prez has a weakness for C&W. Maybe one day we'll see Jodi and the Hautboys playing the Dan Quayle Inaugural Ball. For the time being, South Beach habitues are going to have to survive their Sunday nights without her.

On a more positive note, I did manage to arrive in time to hear a couple of tunes from Vesper Sparrow, and I am pleased to report that the band, once one of the area's premier acts before undergoing a rash of personnel changes, is back on track and approaching their old form. A reinvigorated Vesper could have been a tough act to follow, but the Wait were up to the challenge. Although all members were dressed primarily in black, there was no mistaking this band for the Wake - they turned the Cactina into a pressure cooker, quickly rising from a simmer to a boil and threatening to blow the lid off the place. The Wait's performance came as no surprise, as they have gradually built a rep as one of Miami's jammin'est, most consistent bands behind the one-two punch of Louis Lowy's songwriting and Diane Ward's heart-rending vocals. They were gracious enough to leave the joint standing long enough for Whig Party to gamely close out the show.

I began to compile a blacklist - a litany of all the people I met or saw at the event sporting the absence of color - partially because I was amazed by the number of folks who opted for maximum darkness, and partially as an excuse in case I got caught staring too long at one of the less conservatively dressed females in attendance. I'd be willing to hazard a guess that better than 70 percent of performers and attendees were attired, in all or in large part, in black. To my chaperone's dismay, many of these outfits were, shall we say, well-ventilated. I found it especially expedient to resort to the blacklist the following two nights at the Button South, where the barmaids wore dental-floss tonga bottoms and the female patrons favored the pumps-and-cleavage look.

I have to admit that I had, back in the days when I was a pathetic, lonesome, slobbering single male (before I found true love and permanent bliss in the state of holy matrimony), occasionally proved susceptible to the animal allure of strategically exposed flesh. I am therefore thankful to Ms. Jonelle, a fetching singer-songwriter who, along with Jim Baumann, performed an acoustic set at last year's Miami Rocks event, and who possesses a great deal of expertise in the field of simple-minded-male manipulation, for an object lesson in the power of T&A to reduce even the most macho of us to quivering masses of hormone-driven genetic Jell-O. I was standing at the back of the bar in the V.I.P. section, trying my damnedest to get the bartender's attention for the better part of ten minutes, when Jonelle interceded on my behalf. Sporting a skimpy black halter and a bare midriff beneath a lacy black bolero jacket, which could be left more or less open depending upon the situation at hand, Jonelle faced the bar and took a languorous drag on her Virginia Slim. Before she could exhale, the male bartenders were falling over each other to fetch her a drink. She nodded in my direction and I had a fresh long-neck in front of me in seconds. I believe that if I hadn't asked the guy how much I owed, he would have forgotten to charge me. Now that's power.

 

It is precisely that power that France Blais and her band, Wet Flower, hope to exploit. The band's promotional materials refer to Blais as a sultry, "5'2" love child" who "slinks and slams" across stage. I would add writhing and emitting pseudo-orgasmic moans to her resume. Combined with scratching guitar lines and chunky bass runs, Blais and the rest of the petal-power band opened the night's festivities with an interesting, if spotty, set.

A low rumble like a carpet-bombing followed, exploding into a flash of drums and stagelights, and the eclectic songwriting talents of Tampa's Factory Black rolled off the Button South assembly line. Linda Lou Nelson, owner of the Cactina, asked me, "What do you call this kind of music?" All I could respond with was a shrug. Factory Black ran the gamut from hard core to pseudo-country, and the wide range of styles they exhibited might have been one reason for the audience's lukewarm response - nobody was quite sure what to make of 'em. I thought their set was the highlight of the evening, at least as far as the full-blown bands were concerned.

A pair of acoustic performers also rose above the din, literally and figuratively, that Friday. The Source, with their percolating percussionist, overcame bad sound and a lost contact lens, and had many in the twentysomething crowd bopping along to their high energy, low-tech, coffeehouse harmonies. Nil Lara, who once rocked with local legends KRU, held the Button South hostage with his incredible voice, thoughtful lyrics, and able backing from guitarist/vocalist Albert Menendez. Lara's no-frills approach was a pleasant respite from the sonic assault of blaster bands like the Itch, three of whose members apparently have been saving laundry money by not wearing shirts to gigs. Of course, they were bundled up compared to bassist Tony Rocha and drummer Andre Serafini of Quit, who took the stage attired only in skivvies. Maybe they should have worn something warmer, because Quit, who generally can be counted on to light a fire under any crowd they choose to play for, failed to throw off their usual sparks. Maybe the big stage distracted (the Button South is a lot of ground to cover for a three-piece), or maybe it was just past their bedtimes (they went on at about 2:00 a.m.). Whatever, I've seen them tighter.

Saturday night the venerable old barn really rocked. The highlight film started rolling with the Staircase Creepers, another Tampa-area band featuring polished songwriting, clear, articulate lyrics, and a mastery of musical styles ranging in influence from Bowie to INXS to the Psychedelic Furs. Their sound was melodic, keyboard-flavored, and hook-filled, and made it evident why they're a favorite along the St. Pete-Gainesville corridor. I think I saw TCA salivating.

The Funk will be best remembered for the bizarre inter-lewd that took place during their set featuring a guy in a Saran Wrap diaper, an Amazonian brunette in a string bikini, and a large python that slithered between the exotic couple's legs and caressed their unmentionables while the band played on. Suffice it to say you won't find a lot of people who can tell you what song the Funk was performing while the kinky trio did their thing. The snake did not make the blacklist, unless you include the times it came in contact with the babe in the bikini.

Circus did their best to blow out the eardrums after a smoke and strobe entrance. Dry ice and flashing lights - what a novelty! They were so loud I think I actually started regrowing my own hair without minoxidil. After such an attack on the senses, it was an exquisite pleasure to witness Diane Ward, Wait frontperson, in an acoustic setting where her stellar vocals could be given free reign. Ward's set was a tour-de-force on par with Lara's the night before, and one can only hope the A&R people in the V.I.P. section were paying attention.

Bonefish Johnny and Down Pat of Groove Thangs put their unique spin on an introduction for FOC that was more entertaining than some of the earlier bands' sets. This is where Miami Rocks kicked into overdrive. FOC simply laid waste to the place. With an irrepressible, funky, reggae-rap-rock mix accented by percussion and turbo-charged by frenetic horns, FOC showed the poseurs and the pretty boys exactly how it's supposed to be done. Equal parts Fishbone, Public Enemy, James Brown, Prince, and Jesus Jones, you could work up serious writer's cramp listing all the influences evident in FOC's music. In conversations with music-industry folk after the show, the consensus was that FOC tore it up but (uh-oh) perhaps they didn't have popular radio potential (a major plus in my book). Big record labels want to hear bands that sound like what's already been proven successful - watch how many Nirvana knockoffs spring up in the next six-to-eight months - but they don't have the cojones to get behind a band that leads the way. It's the mentality that made Japan the world power it is today - don't be the innovator, copy him - and nobody is going to confuse FOC with Michael or Madonna. But the band offers a hell of a lot more bang for the buck, and if you were one of the dancing hordes that flocked to the stagefront during their set, you don't need me to remind you how thoroughly the band kicked ass.

 

This year's event was cosponsored by ASCAP, the giant music licensing society (think royalties), and a major feature was the expansion of Miami Rocks to include the East Coast Music Forum, a nine-panel discussion on various topics of interest to bands, musicians, singers, songwriters, and composers. Legendary producer Tom Dowd (a major force at the Layla sessions, among others) gave the keynote address and was an unfailingly polite and accessible presence at the showcases.

Many bands used the seminars to pass their tapes on to talent scouts and producers, while others attended for the pure entertainment/informational value. During the Saturday panel featuring major-label A&R people, one local singer voiced concern that he had trouble putting together a good band, but had great songs that he really wanted to get heard. One of the A&R reps responded, "Well, here we are. Give us your best shot." The kid, nonplussed by the sudden spotlight thrust upon him, hesitated for a moment, but then sang his heart out. Now that's entertainment. Of course, not all seminars offered such drama, but they were, by all accounts, well-received. Perhaps the best piece of advice was offered by veteran songwriter Wes Farrell ("Hang On Sloopy") who said, "There are no rules, but there is one common denominator - radio is money." I hope FOC didn't hear him.


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