Local Heroes 

The year's local music highlights were many and diverse

The year's local music highlights were many and diverse

It’s been a while since the national media latched onto any particular city as the breeding ground for “the next big music scene,” and indeed it may be that in the year 2000 such distinctions are no longer useful. But whether a community breaks through as a brand-name or not, part of the quality of life in any metropolitan area should be a network of busy nightclubs and intriguing local musicians. In the past, Nashville has had minor flowerings of both. This year, we practically had a garden in full bloom.

The continued strengthening of Jack Legs’ and Springwater alongside such stalwart clubs as Exit/In and a newly vibrant 12th & Porter provided a comfortable home for both national and local acts to play. Add to that a revamped 328 Performance Hall, periodic shows at the Belcourt Theatre, the proliferation of warm-weather outdoor concerts, venerable venues like 3rd & Lindsley, and sizable arenas, and the result is that some weeks this year seemed to have a decent show almost every night.

The question is, is anyone going to see them? Nashville’s reputation as a tough place to draw an audience may be overstated—if no one’s coming out to shows, why is there more live music than ever?—but surely the difficulty that local bands encounter building up momentum at home is more than just anecdotal. Several Nashville acts are better known overseas than they are in their own backyard. And if you ask certain club owners, promoters, or players, they might well tell you that on nights when the crowds are capacity, the majority of fans are coming from Murfreesboro, not Metro-Davidson. That may help explain why the new paradigm for Middle Tennessee artists is to work well-paying day jobs, record on the weekends, and save their live performances for short tours taken during two-week vacations from work.

It may also explain why a city that’s full of fantastic musicians assaying every known genre still has nothing like a real network of artists. By and large, even the best bands in town don’t know much about their equally fine peers. Almost weekly, we get a press pitch here at the Scene wherein some fledgling act claims that they have the hot new sound, or that they’re the only exciting non-country band in Nashville. Before we get another one of those, we’d ask that the eager beavers look at the list below, and realize that all of the songs, albums, shows, and what-have-you listed below emerged from this town, just this year. Get out of your home studios, folks, and check out the action. Nashville is a happening place.

Following are our local picks of the year, compiled by Todd Anderson, Chris Davis, Bill Friskics-Warren, Noel Murray, Jim Ridley, and William Tyler.

Bathtub Heroes, “Technically Speaking,” from Songs to Break Up By One of the Heroes’ fresh, engaging “songs to break up by,” this deceptively cheerful piece of guitar-pop classicism tells the story of a boy who can’t stop thinking about the fairer sex and can’t stop savoring those thoughts while indulging in self-pleasure. Bathtub Heroes are themselves not quite so onanistic—their tuneful rock is open and generous. N.M.

The Belcourt Theatre The reopened Belcourt established itself as the city’s coolest and most promising new venue with the jaw-dropping turnout for Yo La Tengo in March. The multimedia possibilities for the place have only begun to be explored: Experiments like the Asylum Street Spankers’ delightful backing of the Charlie Chaplin silent film The Gold Rush need to be followed up soon, and often. And in the historic theater, Nashville may finally have the right venue for a regular lineup of touring jazz heavyweights. Just imagine a Belcourt jazz series—intimate evenings with Sonny Rollins, say, or David Murray, David S. Ware, Cassandra Wilson, or Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos paired with hot local players on that proscenium stage. J.R.

The British music press Did you know that the new albums this year from local artists Josh Rouse, Lambchop, The Shazam!, and Swan Dive were a big deal? You wouldn’t have from reading our city’s own music press. But if you’d picked up a glossy British music mag such as Mojo, Melody Maker, or NME, you’d have seen these acts name-checked with heartening regularity. The big winner may have been The Shazam!, who parlayed an opening gig overseas for Cotton Mather and a chance encounter with Oasis’ Liam Gallagher into a yearlong groundswell of popularity—climaxing with a Paul Weller festival gig at London’s Earl’s Court in November before 20,000 listeners. Then they come back and try to scratch up an audience at 12th & Porter. At least somewhere Mojo is working—just not here. J.R.

Cachao So there’s no audience here to support jazz and world-music acts, eh? Nobody told the throng that turned out Labor Day weekend for the Franklin Jazz Festival, especially for the torrid set by Cuban bandleader Cachao and his blazing 14-piece orchestra. Not only did the group shake Middle Tennessee listeners out of their usual stasis, creating the first mambo pit seen in this area since the late Tito Puente torched Caffè Milano, it showed how starved local audiences are for the touring Cuban and Afro-jazz acts that routinely play Atlanta and parts nearby. J.R.

The Cheeksters, “Count the Cost,” from Skating on the Cusp The best song on a very good album, this extended reverie is softened by a lugubrious rhythm, brittle autoharp, barely audible trumpet, and Mark Casson’s expressively high-pitched British croon. The song cements the band’s pleasant, backward-focused filtering of modern life. Almost as good: the very next song on the disc, “Beautiful Lie.” N.M.

Dash Crofts, Today A Nashvillian for a couple of years now, this partner of Jim Seals applies his indelible voice to a lively collection of lithe songs set by longtime producer Louie Shelton in a bed of acoustic instruments, synths, and horns. The result is an eccentric and personal take on the lighter side of jazz and folk, more beachy than cornfed. N.M.

Glossary This Murfreesboro band’s second album, This Is All We’ve Learned About Living (self-released on bassist Bingham Barnes’ label, Champ), was a gem: endless pop hooks recalling Butterglory, Creedence, and Built to Spill in one breath, all held together by the kind of organic production that would make most bands green with envy. Live, their ability to shift from a gorgeous K Records ballad into a Stones-style rave-up could make a believer out of anyone. Yet in the end, it’s these guys’ total lack of contrivance that makes them so refreshing in the stilted indie rock world. Thankfully, it looks like this won’t be just another under-the-radar record: Glossary received a good deal of attention at this year’s CMJ festival in New York, and they’ve gotten favorable reviews nationally. W.T.

Gran Torino, Two Yes, this smooth and soulful jazz-pop nonet hails from Knoxville, but they play Music City often enough that they might as well be local. They’re one of the new-millennium rock acts that makes a living through constant regional touring and a loyal fan base that follows the band online (and buys plenty of merch). This sophomore effort is the pride of their catalog—a polished vehicle for their inspired arrangements and danceable groove. N.M.

Great Big Shows If you saw a club show in Y2K that struck you as being unusually well-chosen, adventurous, or just long overdue, chances are good that its point of origin was promoter Rick Whetsel and his Great Big Shows. His track record this year included Yo La Tengo/Lambchop, The Sea and Cake/Broadcast, Low/Shannon Wright, Marshall Crenshaw, Ron Sexsmith, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore at The Belcourt; Flaming Lips/Looper and George Clinton at 328 Performance Hall; and maybe the single best show I saw all year, Patti Smith’s triumphant, incantatory performance at Uptown Mix. Other bookers fought the good fight all year, including John Bruton at 12th & Porter and Bruce Fitzpatrick at The End, and we’re thrilled that Kim Webber is back in bidness at The Sutler, which suffered mightily in her absence. But this year Great Big Shows raised the bar for everyone—and audiences are responding. J.R.

The Great Stereolab/Sleater-Kinney Showdown For a long while, music fans had been clamoring for Stereolab and Sleater-Kinney, two of the most influential bands of recent years, to make their long-overdue Nashville debuts. So what happens? Both bands show up on the same night, May 30, at different clubs: Stereolab at 328, Sleater-Kinney at The End. Both shows drew enormous crowds on a weeknight, proving to Nashville promoters that the city’s notoriously sluggish club base will indeed support name touring acts—even more than one at a time. J.R.

Haystak, Car Fulla White Boys When this burly rapper growls through rhymes about packin’ heat and crackin’ skulls, he sounds like any other assembly-line player. When he adds in personal details about his friends and family and about cruisin’ Waffle House—and when his Sonny Paradise-led production team brings in the strings and piano—the ’Stak sounds like an original, and one worth keeping an eye on. N.M.

Joe, Marc’s Brother They’ve been a fixture on the Nashville music scene for ages, but this was the year when Joe, Marc’s Brother took the great leap forward. Their self-released album, Around the Year With... is a perfect pop moment: a symphony of psychedelic guitars, bizarre orchestration, and angelic harmonies. The boys have finally taken their show on the road, and not surprisingly, the response has been heartening. It’s high time for this band to make a breakthrough, and 2000 was a step in the right direction. W.T.

Brad Jones The producers who get all the glory around town are the pros who crank out the product that pays for all the steel and glass lining Music Row. Then there are the musos who labor in the relative obscurity of their basements, garages, and outlying squats—gifted guys like Ray Kennedy, R.S. Field, Roger Moutenot, Buddy Miller, George Bradfute...and Brad Jones. Whether flying solo or teaming up with partner Robin Eaton, Jones has produced records that snap, crackle, and pop for everyone from Marshall Crenshaw to Steve Forbert to Swan Dive. Among the small wonders to come from his Alex the Great studio in Berry Hill this year were tart, punchy—and predictably unsung—albums by Amy Rigby and Tommy Womack. Capping both of those achievements was one for the ages, the Ass Ponys’ Some Stupid With a Flare Gun, a sonically expansive marvel in which Jones recasts Chuck Cleaver’s misfit populism as the aural equivalent of a post-punk Leaves of Grass—in other words, the sort of record Tony Brown can only dream of making. B.F.W.

Lotushalo This Mufreesboro trio possess something dearly lacking in most postmodern music: perspective. In their few short months together as a band, they’ve proven that observation and calculation can capture the imagination just as well as (if not better than) ostentation. Stripped to drums and guitars as clean as sheets of glass, Lotushalo make music impressive in its precision and directness. Fully conscious of an audience’s attention span and tolerance for volume, they play short, engaging instrumentals. But rather than being a retread of sounds that the band is clearly inspired by—instrumental post-hardcore groups like Don Caballero, Tortoise, and June of 44—Lotushalo make their music plain and simple and as fresh as the present moment. T.A.

The luvjOi Manifesto Part self-promotion, part self-help patter, luvjOi bandleader/vocalist “Big” Kenny Alphin’s philosophy of pleasure and positivity matches up well with his room-filling rock ’n’ roll, making his balls-out showmanship damn-near irresistible. N.M.

Monsters of Pop For their three-day summit meeting of local, regional, and national pop acts, Lee Swartz and Jason Moon Wilkins assembled their strongest lineup yet, scoring among other coups the Nashville debuts of Luna, The Lilys, and Fountain of Wayne’s Chris Collingwood. For their trouble, they were rewarded with a undeservedly low turnout, thanks to the festival’s unfortunate scheduling on Halloween weekend. If more patrons (and sponsors, and publishers) get behind it next year, this could be a better, more relaxed version of those prefab industry confabs Nashville always attempts with such mixed success. And the winners would be the folks who deserve it most: the people onstage and the people out front watching. J.R.

NXT Generation Performance Hall The pseudo-skater decor is like something out of Full House, but this Brentwood all-ages club has been working hard over the past year to reenergize the under-21 music scene. It’s easy to get lost in the throng of moshing emo-core teens, but there have been some really great shows here, with two local regulars topping the list. Brentwood trio Esposito play a hyper brand of pop-punk with a nod to Perfect From Now On-era Built to Spill and Weezer; these guys are irresistible and startlingly advanced for their years. Then there’s Silent Friction, who do the meaty power chord, Promise Ring/Get Up Kids thing with gusto, offsetting a twin guitar attack with a layer of Moog cheese that would make Self’s Matt Mahaffey proud. Like The Who said, the kids are all right, and they’ll probably be hanging out here, at least until they get fake IDs. W.T.

Off 12th Records Matt McKeever, the proprietor of this small but wonderful Halcyon Ave. record shop, has cultivated a small but growing following that has come to rely on his taste in free jazz, funk, reggae, world music, and the latest in indie punk. And the coolest thing is that if McKeever doesn’t know about a particular genre, he’s bound to have a customer standing nearby who does. With the addition of Angela Messina’s Halcyon Books down the hall, this is becoming ground zero for an increasingly active sect of Nashville intelligentsia—as this coming Saturday’s Neal Pollack book reading shows. J.R.

The Phoenix If Vanderbilt’s WRVU-91 Rock offers a glimpse of what a community radio station could be, WYYB-93.7 FM is quietly paving a new path for commercial radio. Radio Lightning’s mellow sister station may have started with an unerring instinct for the dreariest wimp-rock of decades past, but over the past few years it has developed one of the most unpredictable—and least segregated—playlists in town. As a result, a listener might hear Merle Haggard and blues singer Shemekia Copeland within the same shift. And no commercial station gives indie artists such parity of airtime, or affords such unflagging support to local acts. Thanks to The Phoenix, Nashville artists as diverse as Will Kimbrough, Kathy Mattea, Victor Mecyssne, Jason Ringenberg, Jonell Mosser, Air Parma, and Shari Sweet get regular exposure to radio listeners. And thanks in part to music director Rusty Miller, The Phoenix bears that rarest of commodities on commercial FM radio: the stamp of individual taste and personality. If only there were a local indie-rock station doing the same. J.R.

Rock ’n’ roll as theater Hail, hail the welcome return of production value to club-level shows, and we don’t just mean the sex-show theatrics of Nashville Pussy and the Impotent Sea Snakes. We’re talking about a conceptual extravaganza like The Flaming Lips’ show at 328, which incorporated projection, puppetry, montage, and even individual stereo headsets. And at the local level, Milkshake? and Daniel Tashian drew some of 12th & Porter’s biggest crowds all year with their multimedia musicals, including a Rocky Horror tribute and a tuneful retelling of Jason & the Argonauts cast with local singers and strippers. Such shows were a needed antidote to the empty arena posturing that all too often passes for showmanship in local clubs. J.R.

Soundtrack attention—the right kind The linkage of country soundtracks to major-studio duds ranging from Where the Heart Is to Fire Down Below has done nothing to cultivate the kind of hip cachet that would make talented filmmakers seek out Nashville artists. That could change with the arrival this month of Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me—both critical favorites with strong commercial prospects. The Coens’ slapstick Depression-era retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey has gotten deserved attention for its soundtrack, which makes songs by Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, and other local artists an integral part of the action. But count on You Can Count on Me, a winning sleeper with Oscar potential, to raise the stock of Steve Earle, the Del McCoury Band, and especially the dearly departed V-Roys. J.R.

Springwater It’s a dive in every sense of the word, but that’s also its charm. Over the past year, jaded locals have received a much-needed dose of good rock due to this long-established West End venue. New manager/booker Kara Nicks had a big hand in turning the club’s reputation around, but at the end of the day it’s the tireless commitment of great local bands and true believers that has made this the rock club in town. There has been a startling array of shows: regular appearances by stalwarts like Dave Cloud, The Hissyfits, The Carter Administration, Trauma Team, and Slipshaft, proving with finality that Nashville’s underground scene is anything but dormant. Perhaps more surprising is the wealth of out-of-town visitors: Argentinean noisemeisters Reynols, Kill Rock Stars’ Deerhoof, Mobile, Ala.’s jaw-dropping XBXRX, and legendary iconoclast Eugene Chadbourne. And that’s just a sampling. W.T.

Swan Dive, The Electronic EP and Headmint, Music for Corporations Vol. 1 Two different approaches to retro-futurism, both coming from talented Nashville-based musicians. Swan Dive’s between-album stopgap continues this duo’s affair with lush, supple pop, kinked-up with overtly artificial synthesizer sounds. Meanwhile, John Mark Painter takes a more exploratory tack with his side project Headmint, seeking beauty in robotic beats and the sterile, muted tones of true elevator music. N.M.

James Talley Hands down, this year’s comeback award goes to Woody Guthrie heir James Talley, who, after nearly two decades of silence, released two epic records this year: Songs of Woody Guthrie and My Oklahoma Home and the aptly titled Nashville City Blues. Talley put out both records himself on his new Cimarron label, but that hasn’t stopped everyone from The New York Times to Amazon.com from noticing, the latter crowning him its Folk Artist of the Year. Those interested in finding out what the fuss is all about can hear for themselves 7:30 p.m. this Friday, when Talley plays an in-store at the Borders on West End. B.F.W.

The Tennessean’s music coverage Hats off to The Tennessean for rescuing the paper’s music coverage from the Roland-de Yampert Dumpster by hiring staffers Peter Cooper and Craig Havighurst, two smart guys who not only know about music, but who can write about it with insight and authority. B.F.W.

Venus Hum This Nashville three-piece made a terrifically solid record that might have deserved a mention on its own merits. But it’s the band’s live presence that really warrants their inclusion in this list. Although Kip Kubin’s and Tony Miracle’s electronic whirs and bleeps may not sound like they’d translate to a live setting, Venus Hum’s music sounds livelier when pumping through a nice, loud sound system. But in truth, it’s singer Annette Strean who steals the show. The joyful abandon in her voice and her blithely nondescript stage movements (which pass for dancing) fill listeners with wonder and warmth—not to mention the fact that she looks unimaginably cool onstage. The combination of pulsing electronic rhythm and gleeful human voice is a unique and welcome addition to our guitar-addled scene. T.A.

Voight-Kampff Voight-Kampff bookers Matt Hamilton and Brady Sharp, who’ve been bringing an incredible roster of avant-garde and improv musicians to ruby green contemporary arts center, made Christmas come early many times over the past year. For me at least. Their solid and consistent bookings presented both well-established musicians (Peter Kowald, Han Bennink, and Eugene Chadbourne) and introduced more unknown artists (Charalambides, Swedish laptoppers Moljebka Pulse and Mikael Stavostrand) to Nashville audiences. Just a couple years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine pretty much any of these performers coming to town. But thanks to Hamilton and Sharp’s efforts, Nashvillians are getting exposed to some of the most adventurous and accomplished music anywhere. If Santa’s listening, I’d like to see the following folks come to town: Arthur Doyle, Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith, Borbetomagus, Sun City Girls, Kidd Jordan, Sandy Bull, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Flaherty/Colbourne.... C.D.

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