Best Music Poll 2007 :: PROVIDENCE
CONGRATS: Zox wins best in "No Longer Local Act" category.
No Longer Local Act
“We think the ‘No Longer Local’ award is something of a dubious distinction,” says Zox’s Eli Miller. “We still really connect with Providence and we call Rhode Island home. It’s still where our biggest fan base is, so it’s a little strange to say we’re not local — not that we aren’t appreciative of it!”
Over the last year or so, the band has released its major indie debut, The Wait, and is playing ever-larger venues in front of growing audiences. Not long ago, one of those venues was the Ryan Center, not exactly the kind of place a typical local rock band would play, let alone headline.
“I stood in the room while John was sound checking, his drums making this enormous sound on this enormous stage, and I felt this sense of wonderment and appreciation. ‘This is cool,’ I thought. It’s always been my dream. Wherever it leads, I don’t know.”
Zox is currently at work on its next disc. “We’re trying a lot of different stuff,” says Miller. “The songs are definitely more sophisticated, more mature, which I realize is sort of a loaded adjective. Let’s just say we’re trying to expand our palette.”
The band has the luxury of time as they set out to create that critically important second album. Their first opened the door. Now this one must march through it. “We’re taking it one record at a time and we want to making this one the best it can be. But I have to say that it’s exciting to see everyone lining up behind it.”
Local Breakthrough Act
The ass-kicking quartet formerly known as Slik Willy (2005 BMP Local Act champs) remains intact under the new moniker Arcadia Landing. If the Slik Willy era was balls-out fun, the new incarnation known is serious business Their debut disc Bottom of the Ocean dropped in late ’06 (available for $7 at cdbaby.com) to local acclaim, but for these guys are on the verge of busting loose. Catchy standout tracks such as “Time to Breathe” and “If I Asked You” are radio-ready. The chugging, swirling guitars and dueling vocals (both duties still shared by Nate Powers and Seth Printer) on “Slowly Turn Around” cascade around a big pogo-inducing hook. Break out the lighters for the delicate “Pangea” and protect your neck when jacking up the volume on the closing title track (with drummer Chris Benson beating the hell out of his drum kit), with the foursome channeling Sparta and Taking Back Sunday. So while the original Coventry-bred lineup hasn’t changed, the decidedly brasher, more indie-rockin’ sound delivered on Bottom of the Ocean (something between Incubus and a super-charged Chevelle) is the direct result of a reinvigorated, tightly-knit crew, having played together for more than seven years, yet barely old enough to buy beer.
Local Male Vocalist
Purposefully focusing his attention on the Boston and Providence markets hasn’t spread Ryan Fitzsimmons too thin. It’s actually worked pretty well for him, as he has enhanced his standing in both places without losing track of what’s happening in either.
Providence-wise, this year’s Best Male Vocalist is in his fourth year at the helm of the Rhode Island Songwriters Association “Songwriters In the Round” events, one of the principal ways he’s been able to stay in touch with his ever-expanding local audience. “It really has been fantastic,” he says. “People are cycling through, and we’re about to release a second CD for the series within the next year.”
Fitzsimmons is also splitting time between performing solo acoustic and with a full acoustic band. Fitzsimmons began his music career in upstate New York as lead guitarist in a rock band. “I love the solo acoustic thing because it’s so open and intimate,” he says. “Playing acoustic in front of a crowd paying attention to the songs is a unique experience. But I love playing in a band also, so it’s nice to be able to do both.”
Right now, the Ryan Fitzsimmons’ Band gigs come only once a month. But it’s shaping up. “I like being loud,” he admits. “I’m influenced by artists Ani DiFranco and Peter Mulvey, who can sound like a band with one guitar. There were some venues I wanted to try, but I needed a band, so I put one together.” The lineup includes drums bass, mandolin, and fiddle. “I envision always being able to do both. A lot of the inspiration comes from Jeff Tweedy, Lucinda, Richard Thompson, Ryan Adams, singer-songwriters that almost always perform with a band. These are people that inspire me and that’s where I’m coming from.”
Local Hip-hop Act
Don’t sleep on the duo collectively known as Lorna Doom, kings of a hotly contested Hip-Hop Act category in this year’s BMP. With longtime friends A.J. Barillaro working the mic and Pawtucket resident Lee Buford behind the boards, the duo established themselves last year with The Diabolical EP (Corleone Records), booming with bristling, lo-fi drum tracks (as if DJ Shadow chopped up Check Your Head) atop rapid-fire rhymes. Buford serves up a nice bowl of flute loops on “How Cool Can Two White Kids Be?,” while Barillaro coolly exemplifies the classic art of hip-hop braggadocio. Named for the legendary Germs bassist, LD was recently heard on Mike Watt’s Web radio show, airing “A Political Song for Beyonce to Sing.” That one is worth the $10 alone. Following a successful East Coast jaunt last summer, Lorna Doom is currently holed up in their Sparkle City studio working on the debut full-length, according to Barillaro, expected out by the end of the year. In the meantime, stop by Corleonerecords. com and Lornadoom.com for more info.
Local Jazz Act
Hal Crook’s UM outfit, a perennial jazz powerhouse in town, has been holding forth at AS220 for around a dozen years. The residency has given the group, also including Bob Gulotti (drums), Leo Genovese (keys), and David Zinno (bass), a chance to lay down some serious roots, not to mention fierce riffs, at the art space.
“The great thing about playing AS220 has always been that we can play anything and everything we want,” says Crook. “We have total freedom, including screwing up, which we do plenty of that, too. But that’s how you find out what works.”
Crook has been finding out what works since picking up music in the ’50s. He began learning to play and write as a child, and started playing his vaunted trombone at 12. Since then he has worked with some of jazz’s giants, including Phil Woods, Paul Motian, and Zoot Sims. He played in The Tonight Show orchestra in the Johnny Carson era, and has appeared on more than 40 jazz platters. As a sideman on Woods’s 1998 disc Celebration, he was part of a group nominated for a Grammy. Considering all of these accolades and accomplishments, locals should consider it a real treat to have Crook within arm’s reach. These days, musicians and young ’uns that know where it’s at show up to watch the masters at work.
“There’s a good mixture of players and college kids who come down for the energy. Leo’s synth is electronic so he can do a lot with that. David teaches at URI in the jazz program so he has his students who show, and we get some Berklee kids who drive down from Boston to catch us, too.”
So, what makes a night with UM so unique?
“We always ask ourselves, ‘Is there anything beyond the conventional approach?’ That’s basically where I’m at now, exploring all approaches and options. For UM, it’s evolved into a pretty unique approach. It’s about being on the form and off the form, which takes a lot of guts, because you never know where you’ll end up.”
Local Punk/Garage Act
Senior Discount churns out some scorching punk rock. The band, from the Bristol/ Warren area, recently released There Were Four Who Tried. . ., which is chock-full of frenetic auditory antics, led by the throaty growls and hook-laden howls of alternating crooners Kevin Silva (bass) and Chuck Staton (rhythm guitar). Lead guitarist Tom Wells and drummer/cousin Christian Staton round out the ska-influenced rhythms (stalwarts such as NOFX and Less Than Jake are recognized as influences) and thrashing punk fun. You can also hear vintage Mark Hoppus on Blink-182ish cuts like “Rela¬tionships Must Die” and “That Bitch Not So Bad.” Other standouts include old-school punk cuts “Ataxia”and the bass-heavy, excellent closing track “We All Fall Down.” But it’s all about “Explode RI,” complete with a catchy hook celebrating their Ocean State roots.
“We consider ourselves really proud to be from Rhode Island,” says frontman Chuck Staton. “The scene here is awesome, and we think it’s really important to have a strong fan base where you’re from before you go out into the world. “We’re graduating [from RIC and Roger Williams] this summer and leaving the day after class ends for our first East Coast tour, and we just won the Providence Phoenix Best Music Poll for Best Punk Band. I’d say the plan’s going pretty well.”
Storm Davis, Kegstand Poetry for the Recovering Alcoholic
“I’m grateful that the album has done what it’s done for me,” says literate rapper Storm Davis about the attention Kegstand Poetry for the Recovering Alcoholic has received since its release last year. “While I greatly appreciate the praise, I look at it now as if it’s not that good. I could do so much better.”
Three years in the making, Davis sacrificed literally everything to get the record done — quitting his job, moving out of his apartment, and sleeping on his producer Entity’s couch from the fall of 2003 to the spring of 2006. “It became such a process,” says Davis. “I’d been making excuses to not make my own record for years and I just needed to get down to it.”
But that was then. Davis has risen to a position of prominence in the local hip-hop community, with a brilliantly lyrical rapping style and some lush beats concocted by a handful of producers. The creation of his new album, produced by the talented beat-machine known as Dox (Symmetry), is fully in the works, and anticipation is high.
“I’m describing it to my producer that lyrically and thematically the new album is more a call to action, compared to the last one, which was more introspective and a compilation of a experiences from a period in my life. This one is more like, ‘Hey, everybody. I know life sucks, but whatever you feel is wrong, you can do something about it!’ ”
Davis, who tried his hand at the rock world in ’90s before turning to rap, succeeds in part because he exudes confidence and has facility with the spoken word. “Above anything I find myself in leadership situations a lot in my life and I’m told that people will listen to me,” he says. “I feel like I can make an impression on people. I started rapping because I felt I had something to say and I’d rather say it to 5000 people than 5.”
What Cheer? Brigade
“This whole honor feels out of the blue for us,” says Dan Schliefe¬man, tuba player and part-time spokesperson for the What Cheer Brigade. The Brigade, comprised of up to 18 members on any given night, just celebrated its second year as a unit — a very loud, very big brass and percussion unit. “What appealed to me initially,” says Schliefeman, “was the idea of making really loud music without plugging in. I also liked the idea that it was music that was portable and therefore easy to make available to a whole array of listeners.”
After the ragtag Brigade’s first few performances, it was plain to see: the reaction of the people watching, the exhilaration of the band mingling at eye level with those people, and the whole mass sweating and dancing it up. Clearly, there was joy in the air to hear all that noise. “It’s that we’re loud and when we’re playing to people right there next to us,” he says. “There’s no disconnect between the band and the audience. We’re dancing as much as everybody else and they feed us with their energy. The people I see dancing in front of me all lit up create permanent images in my head.”
And the sound coming from the horns and drums of WCB rings in the minds (and ears) of all within range. “We owe a lot to the support of our hometown,” Schliefeman says. “We’ve made a lot of friends, and it’s enabled us to get to Europe, and do some incredible things. The amazing thing is, it feels like we’re just getting started.”
“To be honest with you,” says Trevor Bowman, the creative psyche behind Cadence Green, “I don’t like to join contests or fight in battles because I’m afraid of the outcome, that I’ll lose.” So, while his nomination in this year’s poll was appreciated, he didn’t anticipate winning, or even coming close. But then the unlikely happened. “It was very surprising. I have a lot of friends that are musicians that I feel deserve the recognition more than I do. I mean, I’m always surprised when people tell me they’re actually interested in the music I make.”
An audio/video major at a local technical college, Bowman has been in the area for three-plus years. Creative in a productive kind of way, he started strumming his songs alone, and then with a close friend: his mother. “We would write and play some shows and she’d sing with me, but then she got scared to play after a while and I started doing it by myself again.”
Bowman was just messing about with music while studying, playing shows on the weekend. He added drummer Danny Kern and guitarist Matt Turgeon to flesh out his live show, which sounds like the Jay Farrar side of Uncle Tupelo. He made a record in Florida with an uncle who had a studio and, thanks to his facility in film, made a slew of music videos as accompaniment. The tunes and footage meshed and people started noticing. Now, the choice between his audio background and video education has him a little confused. “I like making music videos. I started going to school for video, but it became a job and wasn’t as fun because I was being forced to do it.” At the same time, Bowman’s songwriting started taking off, leaving him with a decision, one that still hasn’t been made. “I don’t know,” he laughs, “Maybe I’ll be a rock star!”
The Best Local Act award came at the perfect time for Someday Providence. They’re hard at work on the follow-up to their debut, The Hidden Vibe, and the validation that comes along with an award like this has given them a huge boost.
“We thought it was awesome just to be on the ballot with all those great bands,” says frontman Nic Reuter. “We were almost surprised when we won.”
“Our fans are great,” bassist Ed Maher. “We posted something on MySpace and told our immediate fan base to help us out, but people really turned out to support us.”
Most likely it’s the band’s irie vibes and bouncin’, positive messaging that has won so many fans over. Combine stellar musicianship with that groovy sunshine rock and you have a lethal fusion of style and substance. “Every song we write gets a little closer to what we’re aiming for,” says Maher. “We’ve all been writing for a long time and we feel like we’re narrowing in on what we’re after.”
As the band works on a sequel to Vibe, they’re also wrangling bigger and better shows and playing in front of larger and more appreciative audiences. “Right now it seems like new people are coming to see us all the time,” says guitarist Tom Gardner. “We’re not seeing just family and friends every night anymore.”
Not that seeing family and friends is a bad thing, of course. It’s just that it’s nice to see that hard work pay off with new fannies in the seats. A few huge gigs at Lupo’s opening for the immensely popular Badfish have helped the Someday Providence cause tremendously. “Their fans take to us really well,” says Gardner. “They’re even starting to sing our songs.”
Fans of all kinds are beginning to take to the band, which is why they’ve come a long way in a short time. It’s also why they’ve earned the Best Local Band award this year. “We want to make sure not to push it too hard,” says Reuter. “But we’re also really anxious to get our music out there.”
Local Electronica Act + Local Song
Gavin Castleton, "Women's Care in E Flat Major"
“I have my fingers in so many different pies right now it’s hard to keep track,” says Gavin Castleton in what could be one of the year’s most accurate quotes. Voted the year’s Best Electronica Act, Castleton currently plays with the rising Ebu Gogo with Brendan Bell and Justin Abene, “where I indulge in a comical, ridiculous, mutant, selfish musician vibe,” works with his jazz act Club D’Elf (featuring John Medeski and various other jam scene bigwigs), has a hip-hop record titled A Bullet, A Lever, A Key (recorded at Machines with Magnets with Rob Pemberton) to be released worldwide in August, and an album called Home (“This is to be my masterpiece, with big instrumentation, almost a dance record, fusing ’80s horror music, ’70s Afrobeat, and ’60s folk”) — all of which makes speaking with Castleton like dining at an all-you-can-eat buffet. What dish would you like to try this time? Oh, and did we mention the children’s record he’s working on?
“When you have three or four different projects going at all times, it comes at you from all angles,” says Castleton. “I go to great pains to not think about it and just take it day by day.”
As for his Best Song win, it’s all in a day’s work for the artist. It’s a hypnotic chestnut of unexpected beauty, the kind of hyper-sensitive, strangely compelling music that you’d find on a Lisa Germano album. “The song is getting some weird attention right now,” he admits. “The album, Hospital Hymns, released on West Coast label Five One, accidentally hit on something more broadly digestible.”
Castleton’s ability to write for all tastes, in all styles, is what makes him so broadly digestible, and the beehive of productivity known as his mind is the engine for that ability.
“My goal,” he says, “is to reach the point where I’m happy, then jump to another mountain to climb.”
A few years ago, Badman — Andrew States, Tyler Hayden, and Alec Tisdale — moved from Denver to Providence. About a year ago, the trio scattered: Andrew moved to New York City with his girlfriend, Alec headed north to Boston, and Tyler, now married, remained in Providence. Funny thing is, they’re getting as much or more done now spread along the Northeast Corridor as when they were living together in the same house in Providence. “Before we could dick around and not worry about accomplishing anything,” says Andrew. “It’s incredible how easy it is to not get anything done when you think you have all the time in the world.”
Now the band convenes two days a week to rehearse and work out songs, a concentrated period in which they’ve employed a more direct MO. “It used to be just about us being friends,” says Andrew. “But now it becomes more important to have a meaning when you’re together, not just sitting on the couch and watching TV for four hours then picking up our instruments.”
The Badman focus now is on getting a new record out — they’ve recorded the basic tracks in Boston with Kevin Micka (Animal Hospital) — and becoming a touring band. They don’t have a lawyer or an agent, so getting those tasks done will come from their own personal devices and advice from friends. Winning in the Best Music Poll will certainly help get the band’s calls taken. “The win was good because we now feel like we have some kind of legitimacy from somewhere,” Andrew says. “It’s a good feeling when anybody outside your circle likes what you do. I don’t trust any of my friends when it comes to that. Our goal is to have people hear us and like us because they actually like us, not because they know us.”
Loud Act champs Soma City sound ripe for the spotlight, judging by “Just My Luck,” the brand-spankin’ new track on their MySpace page. It’s the first offering since last year’s raw yet promising Ties That Bind EP, which included choice original cuts like “Means To an End,” a succinct scorcher aptly titled “2+Change” (with drummer Danny DeMelo certainly earning his pay here), as well as a cover of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” With a full-length debut album expected this fall, “Just My Luck” displays the evolution of a band barely two years old. The expanded range of lead singer Brian Cordeiro is prevalent (we would be remiss not to recall some Sully Erna and Layne Staley here), as well as the tight rhythm section of James Thompson (bass) and DeMelo. Marshall-stacked guitarists John Floriano and Ian Haggerty round out the quintet. The early results sound pretty damn good; imagine Wolfmother hanging out with stoner-rock desert legends Kyuss, complete with chunky riffs and skyrocketing vocals.
Local Blues/R&B Act
Jamestown denizen Ed McGuirl has spent the last 10 years crafting a homegrown blend of roots, folk, and Delta blues while humbly doing his part to help those less fortunate. In 2001, the track “White Shirts/Hungry Children” was chosen for the 1 of 52 Artists Hunger Network compilation CD, and “The Time Is Now” will be on the 2007 Indie Music for Life compilation CD, with all proceeds going to cancer research. McGuirl’s acclaimed 2003 full-length Ides of Blue is a diverse showcase for his seemingly infinite talent (lap steel, mandolin, harmonica, and nimble acoustic noodling — the man does it all). McGuirl covers topics such as substance abuse (“Will the Whiskey Win”), the futility of war (“Yesterday Was Not Too Soon”), and old-time heartache (“The Elevator Song”). The album also includes an excellent cover of Pete Seeger’s "A Little of This ’n’ That."
Summer ’07 should keep McGuirl busy with a few shows tentatively in the works (check www.edmcguirl.org for updates), as well as reuniting with fellow multi-instrumentalist Mike Fischman (collectively known as the Folk Support Group), and working on a remastering of Old Maids Of Galway, a 1981 album of Celtic music by McGuirl’s former Greencastle Band. But in the meantime, expect our 2007 BMP Blues/Rhythm & Blues champ to quietly keep up the good fight.
“I believe very strongly in music being a catalyst for social change,” said McGuirl. “Hunger, homelessness, and lack of affordable health care are domestic issues that cannot be forgotten.If all of us can do just a little something, it makes a world of difference.”
It didn’t take long — Maria Ventura is 15 — but she has already reached a critical crossroads in her life. Taking one direction would mean ditching school and friends to take advantage of a flourishing career as a recording artist and performer. Taking another would mean being more patient, staying in school, and living a kid’s life, but also risk losing her momentum and her ability to capitalize on it.
Those close to her want her to do what her heart tells her but, she says, her heart hasn’t made a decision. “I have to figure out how much I want to push this. I can move on with it at a fast rate and not really have the kid life, but that would be pretty scary leaving my friends behind. People are just telling me to go for it, do it. It’s easy for them to say, but it’s harder for me because I have to give everything up.”
Ventura’s crossroads is real. She’s been a performer and songwriter for most of her life. She played in punk bands (the Prom Bombs, Vitatonics) before recently turning to an alt-acoustic sound reminiscent of acclaimed artists like Laura Viers and Nina Nastasia. “The new songs are more my style,” she says, adding that she has enough material to make a new record. “I wrote them all myself and they’re all from the heart, so they mean more to me.”
Just as her style has evolved, so has her persona as an artist. She’s no longer the talented little kid on stage. She has become a more mature artist capable of captivating an audience all by herself. “It’s not like, ‘See how cute she is’ anymore. It’s more about who I am right now and what kind of artist I’m becoming all on my own.”