A couple of years ago, music enthusiast Lee Swartz realized that Nashville had a pop-rock scene packed with promising bands. The only problem was, no one outside of Nashville even knew it existed, and few locals seemed to notice either. An employee of Sony Music’s publishing division, he decided to use his insider knowledge to bring more attention to the young talent that resided here.
His ideaa series of shows billed as the Monsters of Pop Festivalpacked the Exit/In and The End for three consecutive nights last year. His success underscored a Music City maxim: that local music fans are more willing to attend lavishly planned events than they are to show up at a regular club gig.
”I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing last year,“ says Swartz, who co-chaired this year’s event with Ticketmaster employee Angeline Nance, along with valuable assistance from Colleen Cussick. ”I knew this kind of music appealed to people, but I’d been surprised at how small the crowds were for these really good bands playing around town. So I was happy to see fans come out of the woodwork all of a sudden and support the festival.“
That momentum has carried over to this year’s festival, which moves to the bigger 328 Performance Hall. The June 3-5 event combines up-and-coming local bands with a hand-picked selection of acts from other areas. Though each of these bands has a distinct sound, they all share a predilection for guitar-based melodies, straightforward rhythms, and sharply crafted tunes in the tradition of bands ranging from The Beatles to Cheap Trick to current faves Fastball and Semisonic.
This year’s Monsters of Pop lineup is particularly solid, featuring pop veteran Bill Lloyd, whose recently released Standing in the Shadows of Giants has been drawing rave reviews nationally; Swan Dive, whose recent album is a hit in Japan; and new Sire Records act Lifeboy. Out-of-town acts include The Candy Butchers, whose lead singer Mike Viola sang and cowrote the title track from the movie That Thing You Do!, and the critically acclaimed Myracle Brah and Love Nut, both fronted by the prolific writer-singer Andy Bopp.
As Swartz suggests, the talent pool for this style of music is particularly strong in Nashvilleeven if it goes against the trend of what’s selling nationally. ”This is a creative center for music,“ he says, ”not just country music, but rock music too.“
Swartz is also excited about the festival bands who are just beginning to develop a following. They include All Star United, a contemporary Christian group that he says is ”a hidden gem in this town.“ He also touts Sizzling Happy Family. ”If you’re opposed to being entertained by a band, then you’ll hate them,“ he says. ”But if you love laughing and having a good time, you’ll love them.“
The festival comes at a time when Nashville rock and pop bands are starting to get more national recognition. Christian pop group Sixpence None the Richer have a major hit with ”Kiss Me,“ while Bare Jr., Owsley, and Wes Cunningham all continue to gain critical raves and increased support for their recent debut recordings. Then there are artists such as Matthew Ryan, the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies, Self, Fleming & John, Iodine, Stella, the Honeyrods, and the Evinrudes, all Nashville representatives who’ve been building up national audiences in the last few years. And soon, there’ll be more bands to add to that listgroups such as The Katies, the Nevers, and Lifeboy, all of whom have major-label debut recordings due soon. Meanwhile, such veteran Nashville-based iconoclasts as Jason & the Scorchers, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Steve Forbert, and John Hiatt continue to create work that reflects well on the city they call home.
As Swartz points out, however, the rest of the world has yet to recognize the full richness of the Nashville rock scene, perhaps because there hasn’t been that one superstar breakthrough that would attract media attention to the other side of the Music City scene. ”It’s got to happen sooner or later,“ he says. ”There’s too much outstanding talent here for it not too. Once it does...it will totally change how people think about Nashville.“
The city’s first jazz institute has a new home, a new partnership, and a new identity. Nashville Jazz Institute founders Roger Spencer and Lori Mechem have joined forces with the Nashville Percussion Institute and recording engineer/producer Harold Sloss to create Top of the Stairs Studios, a venture that houses the two schools and a 24-track digital studio. The new headquarters had its formal opening May 19; the building at 203 McMillin St. once served as the warden’s home for the former state prison. The building’s 10,000 square feet offer more space for both organizations, along with the 100-seat Mitchell Barnett Theater and exhibit space for area visual artists.
Summer classes began at the Jazz Institute this week, and a full slate of percussion workshops has been scheduled as well. For additional information, call 340-0085.
The Tennessee Jazz & Blues Society’s outdoor summer concert series is under way, and this year’s lineup looks to be the fullest and most diverse ever. The next concert, on June 6, presents bluegrass fiddle legend Vassar Clements, who has won five Grammy nominations and has been featured on more than 2,000 recordings. His landmark release Hillbilly Jazz still stands as arguably the finest record of its type, and his associations range from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to bassists David Holland and Charlie Haden.
Upcoming Jazz & Blues Society dates include Bruce and Sandra Dudley, Al DeLory’s Salsa en Nashville, Pat Coil, Thomas Cain, Kossie Gardner, and the Ladies of Jazz with Benita Hill, Sharon Moore, and Connye Florance. The concert locations alternate between the Belle Meade Plantation, at 5025 Harding Rd., and The Hermitage. The June 6 date will be at Belle Meade Plantation, followed by concerts there on June 20, July 4 and 18, and Aug. 8 and 22. The concerts at The Hermitage take place June 13 and 27, July 11 and 25, and Aug. 15. For additional information, contact the Tennessee Jazz & Blues Society at 386-7500.
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