Birthday parties are supposed to be festive occasions (at least when it's someone else's birthday). So it should come as no surprise that Stephen Talkhouse's first was a real blowout. A baker's dozen of the area's top original acts showed up bearing the same gift -- free live music -- and the Talkhouse returned the favor by charging no cover.
The resultant mob scene was enough to bring tears to the eyes of this hardened chronicler of the local music wars. By the time I arrived, Jimmy Lawler, the club's perpetually manic doorman, had long since shifted into hyperchatter mode (wherein the phrase "Hihowareya" reduces to a single syllable) and was letting people in as fast as he could ID them. Forty or fifty latecomers milled about the entrance, waiting for someone inside the club to leave so they might enter. The watering hole was so thick with tony bodies and unfamiliar faces my first thought was that maybe I had somehow crossed over into a parallel universe and had actually entered Chili Pepper or Union Bar by mistake. In all my misspent nights in the Square-Talkhouse-Cactus triangle (similar to the Bermuda Triangle, but easier to disappear into, and with less likelihood of coming out alive), I have never seen such a throng at the Talkhouse door.
Natural Causes was on stage and the dance floor was a quivering mass of dampened clothing and glistening limbs that radiated enough heat to overpower the usually cool venue's AC. The Causes are a great band and they were in top form, but I wasn't dressed for aerobics class. So, after pausing briefly to take in the spectacle of the nightclub jammed so tight that even the outdoor patio was crowded, I snuck out the back and into Washington Square. If you're gonna overpower your antiperspirant anyway, you may as well sweat where the pros do.
The Square was swarming. As it has been throughout the summer, the temperature inside was a balmy 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Rumors abound that the club actually has an air-conditioning system, but I've never seen or felt any evidence to support the theory.
May all of Miami's bands spend a few months on the road if touring will do for them what it did for Forget the Name, whose Saturday night gig at the Square was their first local performance after six weeks of dates up and down the East Coast. Simply put, the foursome was incendiary. The local heroes have never sounded tighter or more intense. Sure, absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that tommyrot, but there's more to it. These guys were hungry.
It was a night for homecomings. Mary Karlzen, who'd been in Nashville the week before, and Beat Poets drummer Bobby MacIntyre, whose band had just completed a successful sojourn much like Forget the Name's, were also doing the Talkhouse-Square two-step. Karlzen had performed at the birthday party earlier in the evening before crossing the alley to check out FtN. It's a long way from the Bluebird Cafe to the bowels of the Square on a sweltering summer Saturday. The opportunity to share a cup of coffee with Nashville's cream made a big impression, and to hear Karlzen tell it, she's ready to move to the country-music capital at the drop of a Stetson.
MacIntyre was not the least bit surprised that touring helped Forget the Name find a gear they didn't know they had. He says it had the same effect on the Beat Poets, and now swears by the road and the wonders it can do for a band.
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Back at the Talkhouse, Nil Lara was doing his acoustic thing, accompanied only by Albert Menendez on keyboards and percussion, quieting the hard-partying multitude with some of the most evocative ballads this side of "Guantanamera." Lara and his band, Beluga Blue, had ravaged the joint in the course of a full-blown show the night before. Testing the venue's structural integrity is a feat which is becoming commonplace for the enigmatic crooner. Lara is more than just another talented songwriter with a strong voice A he's the progenitor of a new Miami sound, one that melds Afro-Cuban roots with a rock aesthetic. And it's falling on ever-increasing numbers of delighted ears, to say nothing of shimmying hips and jubilant feet. The problem, as with any new art form, lies in trying to describe the sound to the uninitiated. Picture Jon Secada before they airbrushed away his cojones; then throw in some of Bob Marley's heart, Los Lobos's ethnic pride, and Juan Luis Guerra's passion.
Lara's grassroots popularity is fast approaching critical mass. And no one works harder or deserves it more. It's a cliche, but the man treats every show as if it might be his last, as if he knows that someday soon the gift will be taken away. Sometimes he just plays and plays until he flat runs out of material. If either he or the audience is still not sated, he'll go back and rework a song or toss in a cover of anyone from Marley to Pink Floyd. He can, and often will, play anything. Especially after a Cuba Libre or two.
But birthday parties are not about grandstanding. On this night Lara's set was brief and offered but a taste of what he's capable of cooking up with Beluga Blue behind him and a couple hours to kill. It was but one musical highlight among many. The Causes were hot, the Nukes scored big, Johnny Dread and the Monkey Wrench Experience boasted almost as many musicians on-stage as there were dancers skanking about on the floor. And Forget the Name proved their mettle by performing acoustically an hour or so after their dramatic appearance at the Square. By the time they went on at Talkhouse, I was already exhausted and all I'd had to do was listen.
It was an unforgettable night for fans of original music. ("We were floored," is how Mia Johnson, Talkhouse promoter, talent coordinator, and, on this occasion, stage manager, put it.) After a disappointing turnout at Miami Rocks and the staggering, short-sighted, bassackward, chowderbrained, nose-thumbing, bullheaded, feeble-minded, greedy, dickless, unforgivable cancellation of WSHE's local-music show, it was extremely heartening for supporters of the scene to witness so many merrymakers cutting up to homegrown tunes on a humid night in the dead of summer. Stephen Talkhouse celebrated the anniversary, but it might have been the scene at large that marked a real milestone.