This article ran on Thursday, January 26, 2012 in Worcester Magazine, a popular cultural weekly. See it at Worcester Magazine.
A new year can bring inventive resolutions and fresh beginnings. This year, while you resolve to lose 10 pounds, clean out your garage, write your memoir, or get that fractured relationship together, you can also vow to get out and enrich your life by taking in one of Worcester’s emerging musical acts, who, like the new year, bring fresh life to the cultural scene with new sounds, some spun from traditional mores put into new contexts, and some with a conscious abandonment of tradition. We’ve spent the past few weeks seeking out these new groups, visiting local clubs, scouring the web, and consulting club owners as well as the public at large in an attempt to bring you at least part of the emerging picture of where Worcester’s scene is headed and what new zeitgeist is springing up in the form of the area’s performing artists. What follows is a list of some promising artists or acts, which, by no means represent the entire local scene, or even all of the up-and-coming artists, but, rather, a sampling of promising or interesting talent recognized by the Worcester Mag staff, local club owners, or readers. Take it as a primer or starter kit. Get out and see what others you can discover, and keep us in the loop. Your comments and letters really help us to keep abreast of the local happenings!
On a recent Friday night, a text from my friend Jim, an aficionado of folk music of the U.K., alerted me that he’d be over at The Greyhound at Kelley Square seeing a new band. I decided to join up with him, and by the end of the evening, I knew that this 14-month-old duo from Brighton was one I’d want to write about.
On first appearances The Locals (Cormac Marnell and Brian Mooney) might seem like nothing special: an acoustic duet playing mostly Irish songs. The impression that quickly emerges, though, is that of a tight, confident pair of performers with a deep and interesting repertoire that will please fans of barroom drinking songs (“Wild Irish Rover,” “Molly Malone”) as well as those preferring quieter, perhaps lesser known tunes (“Fields of Athenry,” “The Wild Mountain Thyme”).
Armed with the barest essentials (Mooney on vocals and guitar, Marnell on banjo, harmonica, and tin whistle) they craft a serious, authentic vibe that lovers of any roots music will enjoy. Marnell is a powerful and passionate singer in the Irish tradition with a rich tenor voice and brogue. And his tin whistle and harmonica playing, despite his self-deprecation—the tin whistle, he says, is “the bane of [his] existence,” adding, “maybe one day I’ll actually learn to play it”—is refined, with a clear, clean pitch and complex melodic style. Mooney’s acoustic strumming on his pretty and rich-sounding Gibson J-45, which he chose because it was “Woody Guthrie’s guitar of choice” (Jorma Kaukonen’s, too!), is understated, but serves as the critical rhythmic underpinning of their tight sound. And though he prefers to steer clear of the microphone, he too can sing, as evidenced by his spot-on, spontaneous rendition of Ray La Montagne’s “Jolene” to fulfill a request.
The Locals had The Greyhound’s patrons stomping and singing along to “Black Velvet Band,” “Dirty Old Town,” “Town I Knew So Well,” and “The Rising of the Moon.” Both profess themselves servants to the rich traditions of the music they perform, finding the audience’s “collective knowledge of…Irish music…far greater” than their own, and exuding a humility in performance that extends to their musical origins.
Marnell says that he “began learning songs in October 2008 with the desire to simply play a few songs on Paddy’s Day,” but after losing his job in 2009, he decided that he “wanted to pursue music further and so hatched a plan to become an Irish folk group.”
Meanwhile, like a train chugging along the opposite way on the same track, Mooney took a trip to Ireland, where he became enchanted with a music he had long heard, but felt he was hearing for the first time. “We spent more time in the pubs listening to sessions-style play and one-man bands than we did seeing the sights,” he recalls. Already a Boston-area performer of original music, when he came back to Boston and searched for that music locally, he met Marnell for the first time when he “was out having a listen and a few pints.” Soon after, they “crossed paths” again and, it just so happened, Marnell was losing his guitar player so he and Mooney joined up.
“He said he was on a mission to revive this music because it is so relevant to the times of today,” says Mooney of Marnell’s zeal for Irish music.
“Early on I was dead set on just doing old-style folk, but as a compromise…we incorporated more modern songs from The Pogues and The Saw Doctors,” explains Marnell. Finally, he says, he realized that “these modern songs were an important part of the Irish cultural narrative.”
The Locals play regularly on the Boston scene and have begun forays into Central Mass., playing The Old Timer, in Clinton, and debuting at The Greyhound the night that Jim and I went to see them. They also have plans to appear at Fiddler’s Green.
Check them out at the Greyhound on Feb. 3, The Olde Timer in Clinton, Mass., on Sunday, Feb. 12, and Sunday, March 11; look for their soon-tobe- released CD within the next few months; or friend them on Facebook or ReverbNation.com.
Getting a handle on Worcester’s Miars, who, though formed in 2007, didn’t take on the current lineup until 2009, can be tough. Writers before me have heaped praise on them for their attractive, unique music as well as for their hard-to-pin-down concoction that sounds to me—if you squint a little—a bit like Macy Gray backed by Rush. The songs are rootsy at heart and warmed considerably by vocalist Kayla Daly’s mellifluous tone that cuts right through the hyper, synchronized, syncopated backing band.
Drummer and Open Road Festival producer Marcus Ohanesian says that Miar’s (Daly – vocals and guitar, Imer Diaz – bass, and Ohanesian – drums) aim is for audiences “to enjoy themselves,” which the band hopes to do by allowing each person to “find a groove or pocket that they can move to and feel something deeper than just one genre or vibe.” Miars is successful in their quest to produce a music that is “temporal in the sense that it moves and grooves in different ways.”
Their eclectic, label-evading sound seems the result of diverse influences, which range among band members as disparately as Daly’s taste for Jeff Buckley, Motown, and soul singer Dorothy Moore; Ohanesian’s love of Lettuce, Soulive, Tycho and the Deftones; and Diaz’s jazz background with Tower of Power, Marcus Miller, and Herbie Hancock.
Holy marketing niche problems, Batman!
Miars speaks to the sensibilities of the late ’60s and early ’70s when breaking barriers and broadening listening tastes was common. Simon Cowell would have a conniption over these guys. Despite their possibly limited “X factor” potential, though, Miars intends to continue seeking open-minded music fans and to “move forward with touring, writing, recording new songs, and pushing our abilities and talents to new heights.”
Check out Miars’ July 2011 foursong EP “Sound of Tremors” online at Myspace, Facebook, or Reverb Nation, where you can access free downloads, and live at Tammany Hall, in Worcester on Saturday, Feb. 11.
This band, recently renamed from The Silence, came recommended by Lucky Dog Music Hall owner and promoter Erick Godin, who has hired the group for his Wednesday-night new music series.
Manitoba began with local guitarist/vocalist Matt Marcel, who had been teaching his original songs to bassist Andy Belanger in their “spare time.” As with most musicians, the “desire to play live” reared its head and the duo began seeking other players to get the band together, eventually hooking up with and playing a few preliminary gigs with guitarist Nick Van Someren, before eventually adding drummer Jay Contonio and cementing the present lineup.
The tracks from Manitoba’s self-recorded new release “The Silence EP” (Alazair Studio) are a polished collection of tension-filled, high-energy hard-rock/prog-rock tunes, like “Remission,” with its frenetic pace, liquid-clean guitar tones and pounding drums, reminiscent of The Mars Volta, complete with a sophisticated harmonized guitar solo. This tune, like “A Lasting Cure,” reflect Manitoba’s solo songwriter origins, as, despite the big rock arrangements, at the core, sound like good songs that could be strummed out on an acoustic guitar. They’re melodic and vocal based, yet contain utterly modern elements of melody and structure, and detached, introspective lyrics and vocals, enhanced by tight harmony lines.
Manitoba hopes to continue recording and release an eventual full-length recording, but mostly, says Marcel, they want to write music that pleases them and to have fun.
Look for Manitoba at their CD release show at Ralph’s on March 2, on Facebook at facebook.com/wearemanitoba, and check out their new EP at Bandcamp.com.
PRO RE NATA
Pro Re Nata, featured in these pages a few months ago, is a young postmodern band from south of Worcester, in Sutton, where they have been honing a sound in their transmissionshop turned practice space. In two short years (they began in January 2010), they have sharpened their approach and developed a sound that should put them right at home with the hordes of independent bands touring the United States and routinely filling The Palladium.
Their sound – as heard on cuts like “Femme Fatale” and “Cages” – is a reckless cacophony of layered guitars, pounding drums, and yelled and growled vocals that brings to mind the post-punk, post-rave sound of early Hot Hot Heat, and, with its pastiche of heavily delayed electric guitar lines, even the psychedelic abandon of Jane’s Addiction. The band cites a few of its influences – Incubus, Brand New, Modest Mouse, Mobb Deep, and At the Drive-In –while its Facebook page also lists Radiohead and Michael Jackson.
With guitarist Neal McLaughlin, bassist Justin Marion, drummer P.J. Guertin, and guitarist/vocalist Brian Montigny, the band has been busy, working up the local club ladder, with appearances at Club Oasis, Hotel Vernon and Leitrim Pub, among other places; completing an EP at Echo Room Studios in Uxbridge with another in the works for a March 2012 release; and beginning writing for a full-length release with a tentative release of January, 2013. Additionally, they plan to broaden their performance schedule, with shows beyond the Massachusetts’ border this spring.
According to Montigny, the band hopes to continue to write and play shows and do short tours, and even tour nationally if the opportunity arises and circumstances are right. “As far as cross-country tours go, we need to make sure our families are taken care of before we spend their college fund on touring,” he says. “It’s a tough industry and [we’ve] seen so many amazing bands never get the recognition they deserve.”
Asked about the prospects for a rock band in 2012, Montigny nevertheless remains optimistic. “The music around Worcester has been good for a lot of genres,” he says, adding that “a lot of places have started to host more live entertainment.”
Pro Re Nata say they have what you need, though they comport the message with an air of humility. “We wouldn’t be doing much if we didn’t have all the support from everyone,” says Montigny.
Look for Pro Re Nata on Facebook or at ReverbNation.com.
Like many of the artists that contribute to nightlife in Worcester, The Twangbusters are not from Worcester. They’re from Lee. But thanks to a small, devoted audience for good-quality roots-based music and a few clubs rife with suitable ambiance for it, bands from across the state like to perform here.
Vincent’s has a “great audience and a great vibe,” says Twangbusters vocalist, pianist, and ukuleleist, Paula Bradley. “We love playing there, and are so grateful that they support live music.” Bradley’s lightly rollicking, back-porch blues sound and Patsy Cline vocal twang make a perfect complement to Vincent’s dark, Depression-era rural feel. “And their meatballs are delish!”
Bradley, of western Mass. honky-tonk group Girl Howdy, says that The Twangbusters, who have played at Vincent’s about three times, rose up out of a group of future Twangbusters—Peter Zarkadas, Billy Nadeau (drums), and Brian Rost (upright bass)—who already performed together in a group called Twin Guitar Swing that played monthly at Vincent’s over about a year. And when their steel player, Rose of Girl Howdy, left to pursue pedal-steel training in Austin, Texas, Bradley stepped in, bringing with her a batch of originals she was “itching to perform.”
Bradley describes their approach as “blues-influenced,” but enthuses that they’re “willing to try a range of stuff,” and so a set can encompass “a Jimmy Yancey piano piece followed by a ukulele number followed by a Patsy Cline country song” or even Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” into what Bradley calls “a musical cocktail of blues, boogie and hillbilly bop – kinda ‘torch and twang!’”
“We have a great time and the crowd seems to as well,” she says, as to why these seasoned players would drive all over southern Massachusetts to play. “Playing with these guys is supremely fun.” That the musicians are “versatile” and “have such a great feel for the music,” and that the group tries “new and different material every time” makes “the drive out I-90…almost inconsequential,” she says.
The spare, rhythm-and-blues chug of “Too Late to Cry,” with its cautionary tale of a love at risk, and its wonderful, authentic country-jazz guitar solo and bluesy piano, will have you staring down to the bottom of your glass, while “Cattin’ Around” evokes dreams of a ’50s dance with poodle-skirted girls being spun and thrown over shoulders.
Check out the Twangbusters at Vincent’s on Feb. 15, or at ReverbNation.com.
Watch a clip of the band performing live:
Cara Brindisi earned her place on this list after I had the opportunity to catch her Thursday-night residency at Vincent’s and an appearance as a guest soloist for Bobby Gadoury’s American Songbook at Nick’s, and after both Nicole Watson and Vincent Hemmeter—of their respective eponymous nightclubs—recommended her as an up-and-coming bright light on the local scene.
The two gigs provide some insight into this Shrewsbury native’s range. At Vincent’s, Brindisi is the young woman I saw on her website performing Talking Head’s “This Must Be the Place” in a video that could easily pass as an impressive “American Idol” audition tape: a confident and competent performer, singing in a pretty, controlled voice. During her multi-set show at Vincent’s, at which she is armed with only a microphone and an acoustic guitar that mostly provides little more than support for her voice—she is a singer, first and foremost—her repertoire, over three or so hours, darts in and out of the ’90s (Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason,” TLC’s “Waterfalls”) to the ’60s (Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from my Friends”), the ’70s (John Denver’s “Country Roads,” Neil Young’s “Old Man”) to the ’50s (Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight”). Like her guitar accompaniment, the songs become merely vehicles to showcase a classic pop voice that shows hints of Judy Garland, Norah Jones, Nancy Griffith, and, yes, Patsy Cline. In other words, a voice that feels at home in almost any popular American music, perhaps suggesting why the Vincent’s crowd so warmly receives her.
Similarly, at Nick’s, when appearing as guest vocalist for Bobby Gadoury’s American Songbook show, by simply donning an elegant gown, she becomes the pre-rock chanteuse, performing elegant, skilled renditions of standards, like “All of Me,” “Moon River,” “Route 66,” and “Blue Skies.” Brindisi’s voice is the point. Like successful “American Idol” contestants, she makes each song a fitting piece in her own persona. She is a chameleon of sorts, who, because of a diverse range of exposure as a child—she cites Sinatra, The Beatles, CSN&Y (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), The Cars, Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler, Natalie Merchant, and Nat King Cole as some early influences—seems not to see the distinctions among artists and genres, but merely the entirety of it all.
Brindisi says that “music has always been an integral part” of her life, as “music was constantly played throughout” her house. By senior year of high school, “after one campus tour, [Berklee School of Music] was the only thing [she] could think about [during her] senior year.” So, she spent four years at Berklee “soaking it all in” and “breathing, eating, and sleeping” music.
Brindisi says that she loves “raw vocal talent” in her favorite singer-songwriters and catchy hooks with a beat when she’s out and looking to dance, and this is evident in her vocal-strong selections. But she has an appreciation for the practical part of the job, too: “Some gigs it’s more appropriate to showcase what I love to do vocally. Other nights, it’s more appropriate to play music so that an entire bar will sing along. Either way,” she says, “my hope is to evoke some sort of emotion for the listener, be it a moment of peace or a night of fun!”
See Cara Brindisi Thursday nights at Vincent’s, or online at carabrindisi.com.
“We want people to party like George Michael on hallucinogens,” says Herra Terra guitarist Gregg Kusumah-Atmadja. With an energetic and aggressive presence befitting a major arena act, Herra Terra, a self-described “space/electronic/symphonic rock” band that calls both Massachusetts and Rhode Island home, is making waves with an introspective synth pop that consciously avoids traditions of blues, folk and jazz embraced by many alternative and mainstream acts today. They prefer, instead, moody rave rockers – metronome-rigid thumping drums and sixteenth-note bass, wildly fuzzed (and often synthed) guitar lines that seemingly jump right out of King Crimson, and, yes, layer upon layer of ambient and video-game synth, all topped by highly melodic lead vocals that, at times – it’s okay because Kusumah-Atmadja said it! – might evoke George Michael or Duran Duran. Not that these guys sound like Duran Duran. They’re more like a kinder, gentler Ministry. But there’s an undeniable self-consciousness and dignity that bears resemblance.
Herra Terra has been around as an electronic duo since 2008 when they released the threesong EP “Organs for the Afterlife,” but the band has only recently put together the act as it appears today. Founding members, John Paul Tonelli (vocals) and Kusumah-Atmadja (guitar) added drums (Brad Caetano) and, finally, bass (Adrian Bettencourt Andrade). In 2010, they released their first full-length LP, “Quiet Geist.” Their sound today results from those early days as a duo, according to Kusumah-Atmadja, who says, “Our beginnings were very experimental, especially because we lacked the element of live percussion.” And though the addition of a traditional rhythm section has “brought the energy level way up at shows” and “really helps everyone get into it, especially the crowd,” their “inspirations [still] come from free association jam sessions.” Kusumah-Atmadja says that “especially…with the new material we’ll be releasing this year…most of the material is born ‘off the cuff.’”
The performances are tight and unified and deliver a sonic blow in concert that incites crowds to stomp and cheer and body surf, as a number of videos on their site (filmed at Ralph’s) attest. The band has begun to generate steam and a significant reputation, and enjoyed a busy 2011 performance schedule, being invited to the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, in the spring for which they organized a mini-tour that ran across the southeast, and appearing in Philadelphia, Providence, Boston, Worcester, western Massachusetts, and New Jersey; and as this article goes to print, an all-night show on Jan. 14 at Worcester’s Club Oasis, ending at 10 a.m.
2012 looks to be even busier, according to Kusumah-Atmadja. “We’re currently in the studio recording a six-track EP, which is due for a 2012 summer/fall release,” he says, adding that “booking has begun for a 30-day tour to SXSW during the month of March to promote said release.” And if that’s not enough, Herra Terra also has “a cover-song EP and a split 7” in the works that” they are “super stoked about.”
Check out Herra Terra on Feb. 25, at the Lazy Dog in Marlboro and at herraterra.com.
Danny Fantom’s slo-jam raps are perhaps the most “local” of the local music covered here. His cerebral compositions, like “Reflections,” “More Reflections,” and “Longboards and Reefer (Remix),” teem with references to local streets and destinations. Fantom says that he is “born and raised” in Worcester and hopes to point out better options than hanging around to kids growing up today, though his tunes are also littered with happy memories of smoking weed, drinking beer and causing mischief.
The solo songs listed on his Facebook page and on Sound Cloud—he’s also a member of local act The Grand Arkanum—are very cool, and professional, despite a casual playfulness that permeates them with trippy samples that ping-pong left and right in complex rhythmic patterns, and backing vocals that effect off-mike conversations and small talk, often in hilarious, ironic call and response to crooning vocal samples. Fantom’s tracks are underpinned by deep clear beats and an array of unexpected samples: sped-up old ballads, jazz riffs, crystalclear piano and bouncy synth, as well as his friends chatting along.
“Another Reflection” includes all the typical name dropping found in rap but also takes an unusually complex look at the dilemma of producing music for self-amusement—i.e., “I just want to meet the big faces, get beats from Kanye, and rap with Kweli, give daps with Common, and puff on Whizza’s weed”; and, of course, business—“But none of this comes free. If I don’t try for money, how do I pay the fee?” Fantom’s music is smart, compelling and self-deprecating at times (he calls his music “nerdcore”), all of which makes it a lot of fun to listen to, while not evading the big issues that made rap important in the first place and which is often lost in the mega-commercial hits that populate FM stations and MTV.
Keep an eye out for Fantom or The Grand Arkanum in local listings, or find him on Facebook or SoundCloud.
Places to hear new bands: If you’d like to get out and hear new talent for yourself, a number of opportunities exist. The challenge is that most new acts face the dilemma of proving themselves on off-nights before being given the shot at premiere weekend slots. To catch them, and help them get to the weekends, you’ve first got to take a shot on them during the week. The Lucky Dog Music Hall, on Green Street, hosts new bands “just about every week,” according to owner Erick Godin. Opening slots on Wednesdays, Thursdays (and sometimes even Fridays and Saturdays) often feature newer bands. Check out weeknight slots at places like Nick’s, Vincent’s, Ralph’s, Beatnik’s, The Greyhound, and The Hotel Vernon; and open-mike nights all over Central Mass.
If weekends are your preference, established musicians often appear in new aggregates, which you can find on weekends at The Lucky Dog, Vincent’s, Ralph’s, and even JJ’s in Northboro. Bands like Happy Jack (covering The Who), Heavy Horses (covering ’70s arena rock), Pony for my Birthday and The Pistol Whipped, are all recent groups made of staple musicians on the local scene, while others are made up of new and established talents, like the duo Dan and Dorette (Dan Kirouac and Dorette Weld). Plus Duncan Arsenault’s Thursday night shows at The Dive Bar, on the corner of Green Street and Temple, routinely feature prime-time musicians in a range of formats, performing all kinds of music.
Tell us your favorite local band that we may have missed when you comment.