"I feel like such an asshole," joked Rilo Kiley guitarist Blake Sennett to appreciative hoots from the packed audience at Churchill's. Stepping back from the microphone, he stared incredulously at his broken guitar strap -- which had come apart for the fourth time in just as many tunes. It's hard enough playing the soaring arpeggios that motor through the songbook of the Los Angeles-based Rilo Kiley. But to do so while simultaneously balancing your guitar on one knee? This is so unprofessional, Sennett quipped: "This would never happen to Jimmy Eat World."
And thank God for that. Rilo Kiley has already beat the prefabricated popsters of Jimmy Eat World at their own game, crafting music that's as instantly accessible as any of the rock acts currently on the charts (or the Archies, for that matter), yet still resonates with emotional depth. It's surprising enough that Rilo Kiley is but one of a wave of groups breathing new life into the seemingly moribund aesthetic of rock and roll, but that the cream of this nascent movement is now regularly performing in South Florida -- to full houses no less -- is downright jarring.
We've endured a good decade's worth of whining from local Anglos who, apparently oblivious to the unique cultural landscape that separates Miami from, say, Minneapolis, have bemoaned the absence of a rock "scene."
In truth Miami has never been at a loss for local venues in which to perform, which has been the chief complaint from the troupes of amplifier-toting sad sacks who still regularly parade on- and offstage at Churchill's, Finnegan's 2, the Hard Rock Cafe, Kaffe Krystal, the Sandbar Lounge, Señor Frog's, Titanic Brewery, Tobacco Road, or the painfully embarrassing New Times-sponsored showcases at Billboardlive. And as for media coverage -- another gripe from this contingent -- New Times has spent year after year expending inch after inch of newsprint on these same acts, usually in inverse proportion to their actual talent.
Instead what's been notably absent from Miami are rock bands -- local or out-of-town -- that actually merit leaving one's home to go see.
Until now. The past few months have seen Rilo Kiley hit town alongside a slew of notable outfits, most impressively New York City's the Strokes and the Walkmen, Chicago's Wilco, and Omaha's Bright Eyes. This change is hardly accidental. It came about because a fresh crop of promoters -- including figures such as Ed Artigas, Josh Menendez of the weekly Revolver party (and former New Times employee), Ray Milian of the weekly Poplife party, and J.C. Moya -- all stopped bitching and started booking. Taking a business cue from the rave promoters locked out of South Beach's nightclubs, they scouted previously untested sites such as Little Havana's Manuel Artime Theater and the Polish American Club along the Miami River, or the Design District's Soho Lounge. Though they still encounter often-prohibitive booking fees, as well as resistance from established talent agencies, they've also been rewarded with audiences that rival in size those that turn out in the northern cities our peevish rocker pals have traditionally pined for.
The delicious irony here is that far from persuading a mass of Anglos to abandon the Beach's clubland (or its downmarket emulators in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach), this evergreen local rock following is largely brand-new to nightlife and is significantly Latino. According to the careful marketing plans of the music industry, as well as reams of stories from sympathetic activists-cum-critics, this newly Americanized generation was supposed to embrace rock en español, not its Yanqui parent.
However, while ethnic cheerleading may work in Latin America -- and among that continent's recent arrivals here -- it's hard to imagine anyone who's actually heard the Police, U2, or even Jimmy Eat World settling for their Spanish-lyric knockoffs in the form of Maná, Juanes, or Hialeah's own ridiculously overhyped Jorge Moreno. Certainly the lackluster U.S. sales of these so-called cutting-edge rock en español artists bears this out. Why settle for a watered-down version if you can hear the real deal?
Even more encouraging are the bold directions in which the new crop of truly exciting rock acts are heading. At Bright Eyes's show here last month, that group's 21-year-old singer Conor Oberst made it clear the Nineties' creative ghetto of indie-rock was long gone. "They say they don't know when, but a day is gonna come," Oberst crooned, "when there won't be a moon and there won't be a sun. It will just go black." Backed by a twelve-piece band, whose barely post-adolescent members thundered away on cello, glockenspiel, trumpet, violin, and a brace of drums, the net effect was that of the Little Rascals orchestra come to life and gloriously thrashing their way toward some hitherto unrevealed truth.
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The 500-strong crowd inside the Manuel Artime Theater sat spellbound until suddenly it was just Oberst strumming his guitar. His neck strained upward and his voice built in intensity -- almost cracking -- as his band looked on expectantly. With the room hanging on each word, Oberst continued: "Now men with purple hearts carry silver guns, and they'll kill a man for what his father's done.... They say we must defend ourselves and fight on foreign soil, against the infidels with the oil wells. God save gas prices."
Oberst paused. Then the entire theater erupted in raucous cheers, making it difficult to decide which was more surprising: that the newly crowned standard-bearer of a genre previously known for its apoliticism could produce such a fierce attack, or that his fans -- previously defined by their own navel-gazing -- would respond so rapturously to it.
Where all this energy might go is still unclear. None of the emerging acts has fashioned a distinctly Miami sound, one that speaks to and about the South Florida experience in the way that the Strokes's lived-in jadedness could only have emerged from New York City, or Bright Eyes's wounded innocence could only hail from the placid Midwest outpost of Omaha. We have yet to hear anything as striking as Nil Lara's eponymous 1996 album, or as original as the son steeped in Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison laid down by Cuban-exile Juan-Carlos Formell on this past summer's Las Calles del Paraíso.
But it's still early. Being continuously exposed to so much inspired music can only heighten the percolation in our own back yard. In the meantime, keeping one's ears peeled to Miami's frisson has rarely been more exciting.