Rocks on the Rocks

You wanna play your little games, I'll play your fucking little games. I heard all the rumors, the innuendo, the kvetches, gossip, and comments during Miami Rocks! (a two-night showcase of local bands at Club Nu on February 19 and 20), Miami Rocks Out (a pre-showcase smatter featuring several dozen live acts scattered amongst six local clubs), and the East Coast Music Forum (three days of panel discussions and seminars). I also heard all the bands at the Club Nu showcases.

At one point during a break in this marathon I found myself chewing beans in a bar with Rich Ulloa, the Y&T retail mogul and Mary Karlzen manager who, while speaking as a panelist at the "vertical integration" forum, actually did something useful, namely giving out phone numbers to the audience. "So Baker, I have an idea for a story you could do about who all these local scenesters would sign if they were in the talent scouts' shoes," Rich said. "As a matter of fact, who would you sign to a deal if you had the power?" Easy question. Um, well, let's see. If it was my bottom-line ass at risk, I'd say....

Off the top it wasn't as easy as I'd thought. Then I saw the showcases. A&R scouts: Whip out the checkbook, buckwheat, 'cause I just found your future.

The first and fattest contract goes to Natural Causes, who Caused me to have a stroke. Their music is so big, so evocative, entertaining, and advanced that I could barely talk afterwards, reduced to jabbering "I love these guys" over and over. There were some major problems, however, with the organically dramatic sextet's 35-minute set. First, Natural Causes should be playing no venue smaller than the Miami Arena. Second, they should never be restrained A as all bands had to be for Rocks purposes A to less stage time than an enthralled audience begs for. Third, the band should already be signed to a major-label contract; they should've been signed to one within 30 seconds of the conclusion of their monster performance at Nu.

Except for a few mix problems in the acoustically doubtful Club Nu, the music throughout went off without a hitch or glitch A someone was playing at all times and on time, with acoustic acts filling the gaps between full bands. Of the acoustic crew, Paul Roub and Zac delivered a surprisingly sedate mini-set, Carla Hall sang sweetly, the Bellefires suffered from the lack of amps and that big guitar/bass sound, Six Silver Spiders flew right over my head, and Will Quinlan, from St. Petersberg, earned a recording contract with his spirited ethnic thang. Or he would've if I were an A&R rep.

Then there was Question Reality. What a disaster. What a disaster it is that their manager wants this young outfit to work on making their songs more accessible. Their demo is accessible enough, but live they ascend to another level, even, or perhaps especially, in the acoustic format. Using some unusual instrumentation, they weaved a song called "Should I" around me and kept me bound up, startled, amazed, engrossed. Spinning poetry is right. Here's your label deal, kids.

Friday night's session began with Jacksonville's Barrelhouse, a talented bunch that opened with a crafty instrumental before the singer came out. Then the group lost its critical guitar from the mix and that hurt, except on "Head Trip," a song so jumpin' nothin' could stop it. Of course, they're from Jacksonville, so who cares?

But get the pen and paper and cigars back out for Cell 63. This act received a trashing from Miami Herald reviewers who aren't qualified to critique my dick. One of America's major newspapers has gone on the record as believing that the Cell consists of "Nirvana wanna-be's" A and people still wonder why music journalists have no credibility. Cell 63 paralyzed with a raw natural reawakening of sensibilities not experienced since the heydays of the Replacements, Soul Asylum, and Hsker D, all of whom, it should be noted, were from Minneapolis, not Seattle. You could also compare them to Social Distortion, if you really wanted to be truthful and/or complimentary. I saw all those bands live back in the Eighties. If Cell 63 doesn't blow them away, they at least stand at their sides as equals.

I ran into Mary Karlzen before her set, and she seemed to be as ill as Rich Ulloa had told me she was earlier in the day. Must be that Sting virus going around. "But I gotta do it," she said trouperlike. Super singer Diane Ward was even sicker and had to cancel her Friday night opening acoustic slot. Forget the Name filled in, with Jose Tillan (who also was an East Coast Music Forum panelist and also backed Karlzen for her full-band set) laying out fat bass lines, Rafael Tarrago tossing out resonantly sweet guitar, and Rene Alvarez in typically brilliant vocal form, particularly on the tune "She Tried." Man have these guys come a long way since the Eruption days at St. Brendan's. Sign 'em up.

And Karlzen delivered, thanks in part to the extra-guitar and back-up vocal contributions of Mark Scandariato, as well as the Derek Murphy-Tillan rhythm section and the world's most tasteful and tastey lead guitarist, Jorge Barcala (of Nuclear Valdez). I still prefer Karlzen's rockers to her country tunes, but that's pure personal taste A everything she plays is at least as solid and involving as anything currently on a major label, and her voice actually grew stronger as the set progressed.

Earlier I was talking to manager John Tovar, and he worried that Holy Terrors frontman Rob Elba would use a few seconds of stage time to dis the industry he and his band were showcasing for. Elba did, mentioning something about what a bunch of freeloading numbnuts all of us with VIP passes were, how we were spending all our time upstairs sucking down free booze and food. This isn't about free food and booze, asshole. There was no free booze. (The catered buffet for us bigshots, however, I must say, was the best I've seen/tasted in a while.) Besides, during Holy Terrors' set, I couldn't move from the floor in front of the stage. I was entranced by the tightest band in the universe. Chill on the attitude, and here's $25,000 upfront for recording purposes (and that's not a knock against your excellent Live Six cassette). We'll talk full deal after dinner. On me.

Demonomacy had the most technical trouble, but they got over on it enough to prove they can really play some intricate and complex arrangements, can kill for real. Doesn't matter. If a label can't market three girls who look like they walked out of the cast of Facts of Life and play hard death metal better than any of the guys, then the industry is ...well, it is what it is.

Snatch the Pebble, with an intriguing guitar sound, also had trouble. (Overall, the sound crew, which had to mix to all sorts of different configurations and approaches, quickly, did a good job. A few difficulties shouldn't be overblown. Plus this train ran on time, so even the bands that suffered should be forgiving. A&R reps know enough to know a fouled fade when they hear it. I think.) Pebble uses special amps and effects in most of their shows; without them they were a bit lost. The important part is that, according to sources, at least one talent scout absolutely loved Snatch the Pebble. Perhaps this person knows that the group's unfocused sound that night can be fixed in the studio. Just call Frank Falestra at Synch.

The horny, happening island-music outfit Le Coup played Saturday's opening slot, a tough gig considering party reggae always goes over best after the audience has had a chance to warm up (in the parking lot or at the bar). But they were impressive; Kevens Celestin A and I know this is going to sound hypocritical and stupid A should be signed on his looks alone. And the aptly named bass player, Miky Bassie, is worth the price of admission.

As closers, both Tuff Luck (Friday) and Load (Saturday) were forced to play to a dwindled down and clearly tired out crowd, but both played with energy and attitude. I had a little trouble reconciling Tuff Luck's defiant stage show with their glossy eponymous album, but Tampa Creative Loafing critic Michael Upledger told me off the record that they were his favorite band of Friday night. Load sucked, and I loved it. These guys are far too cool to sign to a major, but if I worked at an indie I'd set them up with a new van and steal their souls.

Love Canal gets a development deal A a pearl of a band that jams, but needs a bit of polishing; less showmanship and a little more grit and they move to the top of the roster.

Rooster Head? Loved drummer Mike Vullo's dress. Disagree with bassist Dave Cook that the mix hurt them. I told him it might have been the on-stage monitors, but he noted that he had strolled down into the audience while playing to hear how it sounded and was still unhappy. But I would never sign Rooster Head. They've put out three masterpiece albums without any help, and I hope nothing ever stops the flow from Michael Kennedy's songwriting genius (no, I don't use that word lightly) and Bob Wlos's harmonic wizardry. Rooster Head might be the only band in America that could follow Natural Causes and not get shrugged at. What I would do is give them $20 million to start their own major label. Then they'd be the "corporate scum" Vullo referred to by way of introducing his band to the audience.

Speaking of the bottom line: This year's Miami Rocks almost didn't happen. Between a little weather disturbance name of Andrew and the September liquidation/restructuring of the company that runs the event, Stuart Posin, Georgina Vidal, and Ralph Cavallaro (and the other organizers/workers/volunteers) deserve accolades for making it happen at all. Instead they got spat on by the Miami musical community and Miami in general. Last year, Miami Rocks conducted its showcases in Broward County, at the Button South. Nearly 3000 turned out. This year they brought it back to Miami, to Club Nu on the Beach, and barely 400 turned out. Posin says the company lost thousands of dollars, and he's busily trying to fulfill those obligations. "We'll get it done," Posin says.

A spiteful, infuriated benefactor of the Rocks experience might suggest that he hopes all these bands get signed and get out of Miami and come back when they're big and punish you slackers by charging $25 to see them at the Arena. But I won't. For all those who did attend, who learned so much, for the tireless efforts of the organizers who busted their asses and their bank accounts, but mostly for the sake of the music, I salute Miami Rocks. Did I mention the great catering in the VIP lounge?


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