A dizzying blitz of corporate-generated hits blasts the ears of today's songsmiths, plaguing them with a sense that if their music does not sell, it does not matter. That sense is especially sharp in Miami. The boom of the Latin-music industry brings to our beaches the platinum pop idols of the Americas and makes local acts feel the pressure to produce not just records but record sales, not just music but money. Nevermind that few consider the best-selling acts to be the best artists.
A year on the beat here has introduced me to a caste system. Weary stars, meticulously packaged by publicists, divvy up their fifteen minutes of fame one interview at a time. Meanwhile desperate outsiders call and mail, cross over and bend over, and gig and gig and gig, trying to get their names out there somehow, trying to sell their souls. That is why there is something truly beautiful about the live show that doesn't really matter. And something very brave about the recording that won't sell.
There was much bravery required by Danny Jessup's Good Time Music Nite at Tobacco Road on December 28, from audience and artists alike. A motley crew of anti-commercial types, many of them denizens of the local alternative reality Nartworld, demonstrated both the rare rewards and considerable dangers of outsider pop. Siesta Trailer Park and The Tiny Show brought on delightful lyrical lunacy you won't get on television (at least not without David Lynch). The grand finale by the Curious Hair, however, crossed the line from independence to self-indulgence all the way to assault and battery. In a dramatic departure from the group's rather well-behaved recordings, Rat Bastard huffed and mumbled on the microphone while a roundup of otherwise perfectly fine musicians including Amanda Green, Maria Marocka, and Matthew Sabatella plunked keyboards and abused strings, oblivious to all around them. The closing space-jam was so alienating to the rapidly diminishing audience that it either was a work of incomprehensible genius, or, as one listener complained, "a musical Dachau."
A very different group of long-haired freaky people teamed up at El Hueco the following night. Neither the throw-pillow-and-beanbag-chair aesthetic of The Hole's décor nor the introverted nose-to-the-strings ethos of the batik-clad acoustic guitarists diminished the professionalism of assembled acts. Tight without being uptight, newcomers Los Bloomers de Havana debuted with an mix of unplugged hip-hop, son, and blues kept under control by the nodding head and meaningful glances of anchor Roberto Poveda. When the transplanted Argentine Tereso followed up with a wild solo set, Poveda surreptitiously sidled over to the soundboard and cut out the distortion. No such oversight was needed for audience-member and local hero Nil Lara, who obliged Poveda by offering his classic "Vida Mas Simple" and the stunning new number "Fuego."
Lara has long balanced on the fine line between audience pleaser and industry whore. The odd bedfellows of his fan base (from YUCA junior executives to Argentine rockeros) turned out in force at Churchill's just before Christmas for his only show in Miami in the past six months. The appreciative crowd stayed through a marathon pair of sets, unperturbed by the inordinate amount of guitar tuning during the first set and eating up Lara's well-worn favorites and six new tunes slated for release on the songwriter's long-awaited followup to his 1996 self-titled debut on Metro Blue.
The playlist included the vodou rhythm-inspired "Tap Tap" and the Beatles homage, "Sinking in All of Your Senses," two new tracks Lara began laying in New York City and, he says, "salvaged" in Los Angeles -- all on a Metro Blue budget. The Beatles tribute is fitting for a shift from the focus on percussion in Nil Lara to the guitar-based pop of the new project. During initial recording sessions this fall, a switch from his own band to studio hands under the tutelage of a hotshot engineer and coproducer has not been successful. "I wouldn't ever do that again," he said over lunch on a recent afternoon, citing problems ranging from Big Apple time pressure to the difficulty of working with unfamiliar musicians. "You carry all this energy into the studio, not just from the band who made the material their own but from the public as well," he explains. "That's why I'm a big fan of bands."
There has been much speculation about the breakup of Lara's old band and the seemingly long silence since his debut. Driving down NE Second Avenue at lunchtime, Lara taps his dashboard as evidence of his activities in the interim. "This was our tour van," he says. "This used to be covered with stickers of everything, from everywhere, but then we scraped them all off." Lara and band members took turns in the driver's seat for the grueling 22 months of promotion, beginning in 1997, that took them to Japan, Europe, and across the United States twice with only one ten-day trip home. "I should have known better," he says. "I should have taken time to stop and write new material, but we were making ourselves known. That's what the record company wanted us to do, and that's what we wanted too." What did he do when he returned? "Nothing," he shrugs. "Recuperated." The tour was so grueling that afterward his drummer joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. "After the tour ended," he reveals, "I couldn't keep paying them."
Although Lara may be refreshed, he is resisting record company pressure to rush the project. "They told me they wanted the material by December," he laughs, "and I told them they would have to wait." Instead he says he wants to make sure he keeps things familiar. "If I were to continue to record, I would probably do it out of Miami, whether it's with a great engineer or not, but definitely with a rehearsed band." He is hoping to strike the balance between pleasing himself and appeasing the label. "I'm producing, so I'm putting all this work in myself. And then they might not even release it when it's done." An idea strikes him. "But I will. After all my own work, if I have to do it, I'll put it out myself. Sometimes that's what you have to do, do it yourself."
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