“For the Record” is a periodic feature in which musicians discuss what they’ve been listening to lately.
The electric charge of Grace Vonderkuhn is spreading wildly, and with her first full-length album Reveries out Feb. 23, she’s already been featured by NPR, WXPN’s The Key, and a half dozen other media.
The album, put out by EggHunt Records, is a gritty, mad dash of noisy garage rock plunging into melodic catharsis, backed up by bassist Brian Bartling and Dave Mcgrory on drums.
Reveries is available on vinyl, cassette and digitally on iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, Spotify and more.
In March, Vonderkuhn and her band will tour the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond, most notably playing at South By Southwest in Austin as official showcase performers (March 9-16). Locally, catch her at Wilmington’s 1984 on Thursday, March 29.
O&A caught up with Vonderkuhn before her spring tour, and she shared her music career’s five most formative, influential albums.
T. Rex — Electric Warrior
One album that really influenced me in my late teens is Electric Warrior. I remember the first time hearing the song “Cosmic Dancer.” I was waiting tables on a slow day and it came on. I thought it was Bowie at first, but I soon found out that it was Marc Bolan serenading me. I felt like I was transported into another reality. After that I delved into the whole album and fell in love with the sound. It’s true glam rock with dashes of psychedelic riffs and it’s all tied together with Bolan’s vibrato and spacey lyrics. It just grooves.
Pixies — Doolittle
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to people that have heard my music that the Pixies are one of my favorite bands. Although I enjoy most of their discography, I wanted to highlight their album Doolittle because it was my gateway drug into late ‘80s/early ‘90s alternative rock. This album is stacked with hits and there are so many mood changes, it’s no wonder it’s hailed as some of their greatest work. I really could sing their praises all day, but I’ll probably just listen to Doolittle again instead.
Autolux — Future Perfect
Here’s another life-changing album for me. Autolux redefined what a three-member rock band could be. It comes down to their dynamics and the ability to use quiet and space to build up heavy parts into lethal rock. Plus, there are some deeply satisfying guitar and bass tones and entrancing vocal harmonies. I highly recommend listening to Autolux.
Elliott Smith — Either/Or
I’ve never heard an Elliott Smith song I didn’t like, but this particular album is close to my heart. This is deeply introspective and, well, sad music. Smith was a master wordsmith and one could write a dissertation on the meaning of his lyrics. He was also heavily influenced by the Beatles and I love the juxtaposition of his pop chords and heartbroken content. If you must explore your darkness, Either/Or is an ideal soundtrack.
Sex Pistols — Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
Sex Pistols opened up a new world for me when I was a teenager. Along with The Clash, they sparked my interest in ‘70s U.K. punk and led me to bands like Buzzcocks and Generation X and later post punk bands like Public Image, LTD., Joy Division, and Magazine. Loud, fast, angsty music is truly cathartic and energizing.
The usual powerhouse lineup will play the music of half a century ago in the annual concert to support the Light Up the Queen Foundation
When it comes to music, yesteryear can seem like yesterday, and that’s the feeling the annual Shine a Light concert will aim for by rolling back the clock to 1968 to create warm memories for those lucky enough to secure a ticket. Sponsored by the Light Up the Queen Foundation, the concert is set for Saturday, March 3, at The Queen in Wilmington. Tickets for the annual event have always sold out, but there’s still time to purchase general admission or the highly-sought-after VIP tickets, which include a Celebrity Chef menu executed by The CROP Foundation, open bar featuring Tito’s specialty cocktails and Twin Lakes craft beer, exclusive balcony seating, front pit access and more. This year’s concert will once again bring together an all-star lineup of scores of the most popular and revered musical performers in the Wilmington area. For many, 1968 was a year of turmoil, but from that chaos arose some of the best music of the 20th century, and it’s reflected in the set list for this year’s concert. “We have rock, country, jazz, blues, Top-40, and more,” says “Harmonica” Pete Cogan, a veteran of the concert series. “The magic of the show is that it takes everyone out of their own bands and puts you with other people you’ve never played with before. You get to meet other band members and their followers and that really opens up a lot of doors for you as a performer.” “The Light Up The Queen Foundation began in 2008 with a single arts education program and has developed and diversified over the years,” says Tina Betz, the foundation’s executive director. “The concert is by far our biggest fundraiser, pulling in well over a half million dollars in its seven-year run. The money raised allows us to serve about 3,600 children and young adults a year—well over 10,000 in total—through our programs. And we are just picking up speed.” After tackling the Rolling Stones’ catalog for the first few years of the event, organizers decided to fete all styles of music of 1975 three years ago and followed that by celebrating 1976 and 1977 in subsequent years. This year, the decision was made to step back even farther, to 1968, in a salute to a golden year of music.
John Cassidy, multi-instrumentalist for Kategory 5, likes the idea of celebrating 1968, but says slyly, “I hope we don’t go back to 1959 next year.” When horn player Alan Yandziak jokingly frets they might eventually run out of years and songs, Shine A Light Executive Committee member Tom Williams laughs and says, “Don’t worry, we still have a lot of quality songs from which to choose in coming years.” Guitarist Nick Bucci, regarded reverently by many area musicians, says that 1968 is right in his wheelhouse. “I had the opportunity to play on some Steely Dan songs during previous years’ shows,” he says, “but having a chance to emulate Jimi Hendrix [this year] is a challenge I’m looking forward to.” Bucci’s exalted standing in the musical community contrasts with Cole Petrillo, who will make his debut in the concert series this year. “I used to sneak into practices when my dad (Mike “Pops” Petrillo) would be rehearsing for past shows,” he says. “I hope to get to play on a song with him and also with Pat Kane (guitar),” who played his first Shine a Light show last year. This constant infusion of new performers helps keep the show fresh year after year. Singer Nihkee Bleu also made her debut last year and says her experience was “fun and awesome.” It reinforced in her that “people really love music from 40-50 years ago,” she says. “I spoke to people who could not make it to last year’s show and they were very disappointed. I wasn’t even born in the 1960s, but I think music from that era is more relevant today than it ever was.” Drummer John DiGiovanni, of Steal Your Peach, can relate. “This is my music, the music I grew up on. I was in high school in 1968.” He considers it an honor to be included, especially since a scheduling conflict prevented him from performing at last year’s show. Kat Pigliacampi, lead singer for Kategory 5, has her hair color (sort of) to thank for her first invitation to perform at the show, back when it featured The Rolling Stones’ music. “(Shine A Light Planning Committee member Rob Grant) called me up and said they needed another backup singer,” says Pagliacampi. “He told me they have a blonde, a redhead and needed a brunette, so that was how I first got involved.” She says that back then, “it was a lot more rogue, but still well organized.” Since The Stones don’t feature female lead singers, it was more “guy-oriented,” but she says she will miss the chance to do more disco and prog rock by not continuing on to 1978. Like everyone else, Pigliacampi is looking forward to this year’s show, citing “the spirit of unity. It’s all about the music.” While everyone involved tries to make each show better than the previous year, they also recognize the true focus of the event—the Light Up the Queen Foundation. Kathleen Ford, co-chair of the Shine A Light Committee, says, “The focus on arts education has resulted in even more—and larger—sponsors than ever this year, which allows us to serve more children than before.” With this year’s show offering an enhanced video production with some surprises, tickets are—as usual—going fast to this local musical event of the year. Check availability at LightUpTheQueen.Org/ShineALight.
“For the Record” is a periodic feature in which musicians discuss what they’ve been listening to lately.
If you talk to Montana Wildaxe lead guitarist and co-founder Kurt Houff about music, it’s surprising how much of the conversation focuses not only on sound, but also on sight and feel.
“Your influences are not always directly related to music,” Houff says. “Visual, auditory, anything that you process can be an influence to your music. It comes out in what you do.
“I have people come up to me and ask, ‘What do you see when you are building a solo?’ And honestly, I think of it more as a painting than an auditory thing. It’s more of a visual thing.”
It’s an interesting observation from a musician who has been long celebrated locally for his ambitious guitar solos—rollicking, circuitous sonic monologues that somehow counter a laid-back, almost instinctual style of play.
However, if Houff makes it all look easy, it’s an illusion of sorts. There is work to it, after all.
“I’ve done a fair share of studying [but I] apply it to the point where, when I go to perform, it’s not obvious that I tried to study something,” the guitarist says. “I assimilate it with what I do from a day-to-day perspective so that it really becomes another tool or another set of colors to put on [my] palette.”
With more than three decades with Montana Wildaxe, Houff has had time to collect a wide array of musical tools and colors. Along with the other members of Delaware’s most legendary jam band, Houff will be displaying that onstage artistry the night of Saturday, Dec. 23, at The Queen in the annual holiday show that has become a local tradition, attracting both longtime fans and inquisitive newbies looking to discover what the fuss is all about.
Houff himself remains somewhat curious about the popularity of the yearly event.
“I can’t put my finger on exactly why people continue to come out,” he says. “I’m assuming the music’s good because I enjoy it. But I think it also has to do with the camaraderie amongst the people who have come to see us [all these years]. They come out to see their friends who they haven’t seen in a while, and we’re a part of those friends. We’re kind of the catalyst for getting together.”
In addition to their revered renditions of songs by the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Little Feat and other classic jam bands, Montana Wildaxe’s connection with its audience certainly has helped fuel its success. Houff recalls a time, not so long ago, when the band played back-to-back weekend nights every month at Kelly’s Logan House.
“We’d get a lot of crap for it, but we’d do the first set then we’d take that seemingly endless half-hour break and hang out with everybody,” Houff recalls, chuckling. “Throw back a couple of beers or whatever and then head up on stage. They’re working their tails off having a good time in the crowd, and we’re up there sweating everything out for them.”
If you plan to get wild and festive with the Wildaxe crew this month—whether for the first or for the umpteenth time— you may be interested in the influences that have colored the sensibilities of one of the local music scene’s most colorful musicians. Here’s Kurt Houff on those influences:
Artist Unknown – Autumn Leaves
My first exposure to recorded music in album form—I don’t even know what the album was called—but I believe it was a collection of jazz standards with the first cut on the record being an instrumental version of “Autumn Leaves.”
My mom used to tell me that, as a 3-year-old child, I would pull that album off the stack because I recognized the picture on the cover, a beautiful autumn landscape, and then I would put it on. I would play the first cut, walk over, jerk the stylus off the record player and start it again. I would play it for hours, the same song, over and over again.
I’m pretty sure it was a piano trio. And to this day, piano trios are my favorite jazz vehicles.
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
When I was 8 or so, my sister and her friends were just absolute Beatles freaks, for lack of a better term, and so Sgt. Pepper’s would probably be the next record. Paul McCartney basically indicated that this album was the Beatles’ response to the Beach Boys and [what they were doing in the studio at that time]. Hearing that later made perfect sense to me. But back to wh
en I was first listening to it, that wasn’t even a thought in my head. I was just floored by sounds of that record: the
guitar tones, some of the tape loop stuff, and McCartney’s bass lines throughout the entire album.
Part of [what was going on at that time] was that artists were exposed to new and different things and were asking, “How do I get at this sound that I hear in my head?” In today’s music, that childlike sense of discovery doesn’t seem to exist much anymore. Everybody’s jaded. Nobody’s going “How do I do this differently?”
Jeff Beck – Wired
The next step in my thought process was probably Jeff Beck. The hit song off that record was “Blue Wind,” and it [featured] the guitar carrying these quite different melodies that I was not used to hearing a guitar carry. That’s what struck me about it.
I had listened to some Yardbirds stuff and Jeff Beck Group’s “Shapes of Things.” Then I listened to Yardbirds without Jeff Beck, but those guitarists didn’t speak to me as much as the Jeff Beck stuff. So as soon as Wired came out, I was like, “I gotta listen to this!”
I didn’t know how he was getting those sounds back then. It was not like I’d seen tapes of him, or video footage, or any of the stuff you can Google now. So I just listened to it and said, “That’s cool. How does he get the guitar to do that?”
Rory Gallagher – Tattoo
I was watching TV and saw Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and they had a Rory Gallagher bit. There he is in this really worn flannel shirt playing this beat-up Stratocaster with a tone that was pretty much guitar-to-amp. Some of the stuff that he did with guitar just absolutely blew my mind. It was probably the first time I saw somebody doing that with guitar.
This would have been ’74 or ’75 and I would have been 11 or 12. I think I’d just recently bought my first copy of Guitar Player magazine. [I was] just really starting to wrap my head around it all.
So I went to the record store at the Concord Mall—Village Records or something like that—and went in there and saw the record. The album cover is a picture of Rory done up like a tattoo. Same flannel shirt he was wearing on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.
His playing was pre-Stevie Ray Vaughan “Stevie Ray-ism.” Somebody who kind of channeled stuff. And once he got into an extended jam, he was somewhere else.
The Kinks – Arthur
I think it was the political commentary. I didn’t quite grasp it as I would today: songs like “Mr. Churchill Says” and songs about the prudishness of the Victorian era.
It’s rock ’n’ roll. I mean rock ’n’ roll really is a rebellious voice back to its origin. It’s a distaste for authority, just beating the man down.
Dave Davies played a significant amount of Stratocaster on that record and the tone of those guitars always speaks to me.
Houff and the rest of Montana Wildaxe perform their annual holiday show on Saturday, Dec. 23, at The Queen. For tickets and more information go to TheQueenWilmington.com.
Major changes, close-knit friendships and an energetic sound contribute to newest Musikarmageddon victors Rusty Blue
When Rusty Blue was announced as the victorious band at the Musikarmageddon competition on Oct. 14 at the baby grand, members of the group began laughing uncontrollably.
Says bassist Joey Heins: “It was just pure joy. I was trying to stop myself from laughing but I just couldn’t.”
The four-man band received an average score of 93 out of 100 from judges and got nearly half of the audience votes. The remaining three bands—Cologne, TreeWalker and Carrier—were much closer in their scores, with Cologne taking the runner-up spots thanks to a solid fan base. There were approximately 160 people in attendance, one of the largest Musikarmageddon finale crowds.
Judges’ comments about Rusty Blue brimmed with praise: “Solid. Full of energy. An eclectic mix. You’re on the fast track to amazing things,” from Jim Pennington, guitarist of local band The Collingwood; “Who needs an intro with a start like that? Killer. Catchy, interesting, nostalgic,” from Zach Crouch, lead guitarist of last year’s winners Susquehanna Floods; “Great interaction, amazing energy, fun to watch. I’m an instant fan. Classic but innovative,” from area music mainstay Angela Sheik.
The Wilmington alternative rock band has come a long way since forming in 2014 as Over Ripe Banana. Most members hadn’t even reached high school then.
Between then and now, the original line up has shifted—members left, others switched instruments—and the group now consists of Greg Stanard on rhythm guitar and vocals, Joey Heins on bass, Clayton Milano on lead guitar and Damien Pace on drums. The band name first appeared as the title of a song, which, Heins says in retrospect, was “a pretty bad piece of music, but we needed to get rid of Over Ripe Banana if we had any chance of getting a real show.”
At the time, the group did covers, something remembered by Gayle Dillman of Gable Music Ventures, the local event company that promotes original music and runs events like downtown’s Ladybug Music Festival.
“Every month for six months Joey emailed me,” Dillman says. He also sent videos of the band playing—and growth and improvement were immediately palpable. When Rusty Blue shifted to playing original music, Dillman got them a handful of Gable gigs.
“Each time they got better,” she says. “What Joey demonstrated is something many bands have trouble with: patience, perseverance and persistence. Did I mention that Joey was 14 when he started emailing? Who does that? Usually it’s a parent, not a young teen. We knew there was something there.”
Songwriting became Stanard’s job, though over time that role has become more collaborative. Someone will write a chorus or verse, someone else will come in with a riff, and everyone discusses the song’s outcome from there.
The band has released one album, Life’s Good. The Musikarmageddon prize package includes a recording session with TribeSound Records (along with 20 custom band t-shirts from Spaceboy Clothing, a photoshoot with Moonloop Photography, and more) so Heins says they’ll definitely be utilizing that studio time to work on their second album in the near future.
Most of Rusty Blue’s songs are rooted in experience, whether about day-to-day life like bike riding adventures or the more abstract, like dreams. But one thing all the songs have in common is that they’re deeply personal.
“I think that’s what makes them so special,” Heins says.
Band members’ chemistry doesn’t stop with collaborative songwriting.
“Our music is complex and we really try our best to play together,” says Heins. “We never let a musical moment go unrecognized if we can help it and I think we all know where everyone’s moments are. We complement each other.”
In the meantime, finding a band-life balance is no easy task. All members, between the ages of 16 and 17, are juniors or seniors at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington. They also have jobs, so finding time to practice can be challenging, but it’s a priority—as is building friendships.
“All of us hang out all of the time,” says Heins. “We love to listen to music, ride bikes, take walks, explore interesting places, pretty much anything.”
While graduation is around the corner, Heins says the band is excited for their future of playing together. “This is my first chance to pursue music in a big way and I love that I’m getting this chance with my best friends,” he says. “Our shared musical and personal chemistry is what makes continuing as a band worthwhile to me.”
Heins says Rusty Blue wants to go on tour soon, which he says seems more feasible now than it did even a month ago. With the adrenaline of the Musikarmageddon win, plus the fact that the band has been expanding its show base beyond Wilmington and Philadelphia, things are looking up.
“Rusty Blue’s evolution is everything that Gable wants as a business,” says Dillman. “We started Gable to provide a platform for all ages. The young men have matured, sharpened their skills and have written some amazing original music. And they are all 16 or 17—kind of reminds me of The Districts.”
This year’s Musikarmageddon brings together musical veterans, new bands, and long-time pals
Diversity reigns in the 11th annual Musikarmageddon battle of the bands, which features groups Carrier, Cologne, TreeWalker and Rusty Blue. The final face-off for the four bands will be Saturday, Oct. 14, live at the baby grand at 8 p.m. One band will leave as the victor.
Perhaps the most seasoned group to take the stage is Newark-based post-hardcore Carrier, made up of singer/guitarist Jordan Maguire, bassist Chris Heider and drummer Tim Heider. Veteran singer/guitarist Maguire took part in one of the first Musikarmageddon competitions almost a decade ago. Meanwhile, this is the very first competition for Cologne. In fact, the group has only been playing shows since June. That’s not to say they should be underestimated—members of the band all come from different musical backgrounds and tastes, but unite with melodic guitar work, rhythmic bass and drum patterns, sweeping ambient synthesizers and emotional yet catchy vocal melodies.
Their energy reverberates throughout the room, says guitarist Sean Jones. “We feed off the energy of the crowd and want everyone to feel like they can let loose and have a great time,” he says.
Cologne, made up of Jones, Brian Wyatt (bass), Staph Noumbissi (vocals), Jon Crist (drums), and Jon Lee (synth), expects to release their debut EP before the Musikarmageddon finale.
Another Newark-based group, TreeWalker—participants in last year’s competition—is back, bringing a blend of aggressive grooves, seasoned songwriting, and soulful vocals that pair catchy hooks with imaginative storytelling. Says vocalist/guitarist Kirby Moore: “I think one thing we bring to the table is experience. We’ve been in this competition before and we kind of know what to expect this time around. Last year we went into it not really knowing how it was all going to play out.”
Hailing from Wilmington—with all members still in high school—Rusty Blue’s hard rock sound screams “We’re young and we have to be heard,” says bassist Joey Heins. “Our music style brings something youthful and fresh to the competition. We’ve all been in this band for almost three years now and we know that without each other’s support through everything we’ve all been through, we would not be the guys we are today.” In addition to Heins, those “guys” are vocalist and guitarists Gregory Stanard and Clayton Milano, and drummer Damien Pace.
Pam Manocchio, director of community engagement at the Grand, couldn’t be more pleased with this year’s range of styles. “It’s energizing to see and hear the diversity in musical voices that are out there today,” she says. “Whether they are winning this competition or continuing to develop their sound, or getting ready to burst onto the music scene in other ways, they all deserve recognition for creating new music.”
And the bands are the embodiment of friendly competition. Says Heider, Carrier’s bassist: “To us, music is a community and to find out who is ‘the best’ is not something we normally think about. We just hope the competition pushes everyone to give it their all and to play our hearts out. As long as we leave this competition with some new musically-inclined friends we will be happy.”
In this year’s Performing Arts edition, we are launching a new feature, “For the Record,” in which local musicians discuss what they’ve been listening to lately.
Our first entry in this series focuses on Darnell Miller, who, by day, teaches music at Kuumba Academy Charter School in Wilmington. By night, Miller leads his soul and funk band, The Souldaires, at venues like The Nomad Bar, where they play the first Wednesday of every month. This month, Miller will also release his solo five-track EP, Jesus & Jameson, which features the already released single “Bastard.”
“I wanted to make it separate [from The Souldaires],” says Miller. “Sound-wise, it’s two different things: The Souldaires is one thing, and the Darnell Miller thing is a whole other thing.”
In other words, local fans should prepare for the unexpected.
“If I said what it is by genre, I would say funk, rock, soul, gospel,” Miller says. “But that’s too generic. I don’t know how to explain it, so I just call it Jesus & Jameson: a little bit of Heaven and a little bit of Earth.
A self-proclaimed music nerd with a love of liner notes, Miller has an encyclopedic knowledge of the back-stories of the music he likes. Keep reading and you’ll get an idea of what we mean.
Mavis Staples – Your Good Fortune EP
The sound of everything on that album—the song-writing—it’s really one of the most overlooked albums in the last couple of years. It’s a really great album. It was co-produced by Son Little, who is an up-and-coming, amazing guy. I didn’t discover him until later. But he [made his mark] on this Mavis Staples album, totally. Perfect combination.
Gary Clark, Jr. – Live North America, 2016
Oh, my goodness, I love that he can play his ass off! Lately, I’ve been really listening to songs, really listening to what that person is saying, and [paying attention to] black artists moving outside the lines. And he is one of those guys. To me, he’s more than just a blues artist: He’s a little bit of everything. The album, sonically, sounds great. The guitars are nice and dirty. The vibe. Everything sounds great.
CeCe Winans – Let Them Fall in Love
I think of albums that I play over and over again, and this is one of them. I don’t know if you know, but my background as a touring musician and as a professional musician was the gospel world.
[Ed Note: Miller’s career as a gospel vocalist spanned more than seven years and took him on tour across the U.S. and abroad, including England, Spain and Africa.]
When I decided to step back from gospel and transitioned, I stopped listening to anything gospel. I maintained relationships, but I just stopped listening. But then I just happened to see a picture of this album cover. And the picture told me what the album might sound like. So I was like, ‘I should check this out,’ and I was glad I did. For gospel, this album is a game changer. It’s retro. So she’s doing ‘70s country; she’s doing Ray Charles-type stuff; she’s doing Phil Spector-type stuff. It’s really good production-wise. Tommy Sims, who is one of my favorite producers, produced this with CeCe Winans’ son, who I didn’t know had it in him.
Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1
This dude can sing. Some of these songs made me revamp lyrics for Jesus & Jameson because I felt he was saying some of the same things that I wanted to say. So I just kept listening and listening.
I love the drums on this album. I listen to mixes and how stuff sounds sonically and the different sounds that people use. The drums on this album really pop.
Solange – A Seat at the Table
This album will probably be on everyone’s list, but for my last pick I’m going to have to go with this one. By the way, I’ve been a Solange fan for years. I’ve been always hoping that she would get her break. Everything about her is artistic. With Solange, either you love it or you hate it.
Her last album was very ‘80s-sounding. This one is stuff I’ve never heard before. And it features production by two of my most favorite people in the world: Raphael Saadiq and Questlove. Everybody knows I love Questlove. So, when he’s involved, it just has to be good. But for people to like this album was a complete surprise to me, because it’s so different. It’s not mainstream. She decided to tell a different story.
Cover bands, small groups and small venues prevail, but change is in the wind
Music-loving Delawareans old enough to remember can gleefully recount stories of the times Springsteen played Newark’s Stone Balloon back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when national acts were common sights there and at the Talley Ho on Concord Pike. Tony Cappella, a local bassist who plays with several local acts, most notably Montana Wildaxe, remembers the era fondly as a time when packed houses were the rule, not the exception.
“When we played those venues, you typically played Tuesday through Saturday,” says Cappella. “Same went for rooms like Prime Times, Reflections and so many others. Montana Wildaxe used to play at the Logan House the last weekend of every month and pack the place.”
Rob Zinn, a local jazz musician who’s been performing since the early ‘80s, confirms Cappella’s memories of the large venues. “Stone Balloon, 4&1 Club, Prime Times, Tally Ho, Big Kahuna and Garfields all come to mind,” says Zinn. “It was common to be booked at some of these rooms for four or five days in a row, with big bands every night of the week.”
But those times didn’t last. It wasn’t long before that era’s temples of great rock ‘n’ roll started to shut their doors.
Joe Trainor, another major name in the Wilmington music scene, remembers the early ‘90s into the early 2000s, when things started to shift. “In Wilmington alone, we watched bar after bar close due to the waning interest in live music,” he says. “You knew things were concerning when places like The Stone Balloon, The Buggy Tavern and The Barn Door closed.”
That’s one of the big differences between today’s music scene and the period when Cappella, Zinn and Trainor first emerged: large groups used to have plenty of places to showcase their talents. But when venues began to struggle financially, they ditched the traditional cover charge (the thing that made those large acts possible) in an attempt to entice the more casual, curious fan who might stick around for a few drinks.
It worked, in a way. Venues now book at least in part based on bar activity during the act. “I think the hardest thing is finding bands that are not only good, but also good at keeping the crowd at the bar,” says Joe Mujica, who’s been helping to book acts at Logan House since December.
Cover Bands Prevail
On paper and in practice, it makes sense. A restaurant or bar can’t get away with selling tickets.
Their product is the food and drink, and a live band is a draw they use to sell more of both. They can’t afford to be overly experimental and must provide entertainment that won’t alienate anyone.
That means time-tested, crowd-pleasing cover songs. Acts aren’t discouraged from playing their own material, but if a band wants to play, say, the Logan House, they’d be well advised to build a solid base of songs the audience already knows.
“The covers usually keep the people interested,” says Mujica. “Then you throw a few originals in there and the crowd seems to really like it.”
Lee Mikles, owner of Grain, follows much the same formula at his locations (Newark, Summit North Marina and Kennett Square). “We are looking for acts that can bring a mix of originals and covers in the artist’s unique style,” he says. That’s typically the blend that can keep an audience interested enough that they’ll drive the sales Grain needs to keep booking live music.
But, as venues and musicians alike soon found out, getting crowds to stay in one place and buy more drinks didn’t do enough to replace the economic assurance of the cover charge. Talking about the loss of the cover, Zinn says, “I believe that has impacted the ability to bring in bigger and more expensive bands.”
So, even if today’s musicians are playing well-worn songs from popular bands, they’re doing so in significantly smaller groups. “Gigs nowadays are more trio and duo acts,” says Cappella.
Typical of smaller venues is Oddity Bar, on Greenhill Avenue in Wilmington. “We book keeping the space in mind,” says Andrea McCauley, who owns the bar along with Pat McCutcheon. “So it’s all about what’s comfortable for our customers.”
She cites the genre that’s most popular at the bar, an alt rock-leaning style, versus her own musical roots, a heavier punk type. She’d like to book more punk shows, but those are better suited to bars where crowds have room to spread out and dance, as opposed to the more intimate setting of Oddity Bar.
Cappella and Trainor adapted well to the new prevalence of smaller places and smaller groups. “I play several styles of music, so some bands I play with can play large electric type venues like the Queen,” Cappella says. “Other acts are trios and duos that work smaller rooms like the Bellefonte Cafe, Kid Shelleen’s and Tonic.”
Trainor created his own solution by founding The Joe Trainor Trio and streamlining the group’s songwriting style, eventually building a larger audience than what his earlier, more experimental groups played to.
Zinn, on the other hand, is a musician who is at a bit of a disadvantage in a scene that favors smaller groups. Certain instruments, like, say, Zinn’s trumpet, don’t adapt well to duos and trios. “Being a trumpet player, I’m shut out from any of these types of [smaller] venues, unless I want to play along with tracks,” he says. “As for the new Queen, I’d love to be a part of any show with [the Rob Zinn Group], but I’m not sure if they are interested in original jazz/funk type bands.”
Despite this, Zinn hasn’t lacked for success—which he finds a little surprising. Plenty of the local spots support his preferred style of music. Says Zinn, “The Nomad, Ubon Thai Cuisine, World Cafe Live [now The Queen] and Tonic bring me in regularly; more recently, Kennett Brewing Co.”
So it seems that, even if there is a preference for cover songs, Wilmington isn’t devoid of emerging styles and opportunities to play original work. The fact that Zinn is getting consistent gigs hints that the city is ready for new music.
He also is getting support from other musicians. “I happen to love jazz,” says Cappella. “Thanks to people like Rob Zinn, Tony Cimorrossi and the Nomad bar, because they are putting it back in Delaware again.”
One group that has successfully transitioned is The Susquehanna Floods. It started as a cover band, but the group didn’t find widespread success until they switched to original music. “After almost five years of being in a cover band, I think we’d all gotten a bit burnt out,” says Zachary Crouch, Floods lead guitarist. “We all showed up to rehearse and agreed the only way we’d want to continue making music is if we focused on writing our own.”
Since their switch, the band’s amount of Facebook exposure has doubled, it won the 10th Musikarmageddon, got better treatment in venues, and attracted crowds that were much more receptive to and supportive of their original creations. “The crowds at these venues are super responsive and it’s clear that they bring out fans that are active in the original music scene,” says Crouch. Cover bands may have ruled the scene in the early 2000s, but the Floods are proof that the city is ready for more original tunes.
Some musicians and venue bookers even see opportunities that aren’t being fully developed. “I think there’s a market out there for good hip-hop, especially in Wilmington,” says Trainor. “Richard Raw seems to be the only artist making a real name for himself, and you’d think hip-hop would have a stronger voice in the city than it does.”
Rob Matera, who’s been booking in Arden since 2011, says it’s time to expand a different genre. “In North Wilmington, there’s a strong roots and Americana fan base that not many local original bands have exploited,” he says.
New Acts at Shady Grove
Matera makes sure his bookings at Shady Grove reflect his desire for more original music. “I personally like bringing new acts to our audience,” he says. “I think it has become something of an expectation that when you come to Shady Grove, you’re going to see new bands.” This year, of the nine shows planned for Shady Grove, eight are acts appearing there for the first time.
Another place original music comes first is, not surprisingly, also in Arden—Gild Hall. “We actually prefer not to repeat acts very often,” says Ron Ozer, the man in charge of bookings. There are some crowd- and venue-favorite musicians who return every so often, but for the most part, Gild Hall acts are fresh, original bands.
Both Arden venues provide plenty of bookings, with Gild Hall hosting close to 20 shows a year, along with Shady Grove’s nine. For volunteer-run venues, 30 shows represent an admirable offering.
If any organization is plugged into the opportunities for every genre, it’s Gable Music Ventures. To Gable, that soft reliance on cover songs is finally starting to give way, allowing local, original acts, like those from the ‘70s and ‘80s, to retake the scene. Says Gayle Dillman, who, along with Jeremy Hebbel, owns Gable: “We are thankfully seeing more of a trend towards original music, something we’ve been encouraging since we started.”
Through Gable’s efforts, original music is reclaiming large venues. Attendance for The Ladybug Festival, the all-female-led music event in Wilmington, has skyrocketed, allowing Gable to experiment with lineups. “We are able to focus less on how many people an artist can bring to the event,” says Dillman. “[Instead, we] can focus more on achieving our goal of having a diverse lineup of tremendous artists covering as many genres as we can.”
Besides Ladybug, Gable is bringing diversification to Smyrna at Night, events for the City of Newark, Wilmington University, The Sugar Bowl Series, Grainfest and the New Castle County Ice Cream Festival. That’s in addition to the daily gigs the company plans.
Similarly, McCauley and McCutcheon are using the popularity of Oddity Bar and its regular acts to introduce new groups to the scene. McCauley says they like to use a few slots in their Friday and Saturday night lineups to mix in new bands with the more consistently popular acts. Says McCauley, “Some bands we know well will get the [other] bands who play the whole night.” In other words, McCauley and McCutcheon will occasionally trust Oddity’s regular bands to fill Friday and Saturday nights with unknown acts that the regulars think will fit in well. It’s rare that it happens, but when it does, it’s a great opportunity for the older players to pull acts they enjoy out of obscurity.
Ultimately, the Wilmington music scene is one in recovery, but it’s recovering well. Coming off the glut of cover bands, venues are slowly beginning to experiment with original acts again, and they’re finding crowds that are receptive. There are still hurdles, but there is an ever-increasing number of capable people and companies to overcome them.
The Rock Orchestra, Wilmington’s newest tribute group, will start with The Beatles Sept. 16. Tributes to Springsteen and Peter Gabriel’s solo work will follow.
Formed by leading local musicians Joe Trainor and Matt Urban, a new tribute group known as The Rock Orchestra will take the stage this fall, flanked by a full horn section and string quartet.
Housed at The Queen on Market Street, the group will kick off their inaugural season on Saturday, Sept. 16, with a retrospective of The Beatles’ greatest hits. The performance will feature more than 14 artists on stage, covering the Fab Four’s unmatched discography from “Love Me Do” to “Let it Be.”
“It is essentially a tribute group like no other,” says co-founder Trainor.
For the last five years, Trainor and bandmate Matt Urban have made a name for themselves in the tribute world, performing in the group In The Light, which became known throughout the greater Wilmington area for its large-scale, high-energy performances of classic rock albums.
“It’s not gimmicky; they don’t wear over-the-top costumes or makeup like a lot of other tribute groups do. Instead, they focus on being true to the music,” says Christianna LaBuz, former talent buyer for World Cafe Live, now talent buyer for Live Nation and The Queen.
LaBuz says she booked the group frequently throughout their five-year stint because they almost always sold out shows. “If you closed your eyes at the show, you’d think it was the real deal on stage,” she says.
In addition to a successful run with In The Light, Trainor and Urban had a spinoff known as “Keep it Dark,” for which they focused on the back catalog of Genesis.
“We’re kind of geared toward recreating these recorded works live on stage—it’s something we get a kick out of and that we’ve built an audience for,” Trainor says.
After tackling albums from rock greats like The Who, Led Zeppelin and Queen, Trainor and Urban felt they were ready for more.
“At the end of the last show, Matt and I decided that we wanted to up our game a little bit and do something a little bigger,” Trainor explains. “Do more than one show a year and then open up to be able to play with other people as well.”
Putting In The Light on an indefinite hiatus after its final show in January, Trainor and Urban founded The Rock Orchestra and began piloting their new approach.
“We’ve set our focus more like the Delaware Symphony or a theater company where we pick a season’s worth of shows, cast them, book them, rehearse them, perform them,” Trainor says.
The Rock Orchestra will follow their Beatles retrospective in September by taking on Bruce Springsteen’s first three studio albums in a Saturday, Jan. 20, performance.
The season will conclude on May 12 next year with a run-through of Peter Gabriel’s solo work.
Trainor and Urban say this new approach creates some exciting challenges and allows them an opportunity to concentrate on their craft while working with a number of skilled musicians.
“In The Light was a fixed group of musicians. We had six core members in that band for all those primary shows,” Urban says. “What this new entity lets us do is open up the flexibility so that we can get more faithful to the material that we’re trying to reproduce onstage, rather than having a core group of musicians really having to stretch themselves every time.”
In addition to Trainor and Urban, The Rock Orchestra will feature a number of musicians they have played with throughout their careers.
Trainor, a full-time musician who has music-directed for City Theater Co. for the last five years, and Urban, the CEO of Wilmington advertising firm Mobius New Media, met in 2007. Urban says he was looking to assemble a group of musicians for periodic jam sessions when someone suggested he reach out to Joe Trainor. Trainor, a local music scene mainstay, had begun garnering attention for his original work with The Joe Trainor Trio.
The two connected, solidified a lineup and went on to cover Led Zeppelin’s legendary album Physical Graffiti in 2011.
Ten years later, Trainor and Urban continue to collaborate and push themselves for audiences faithful to the music The Rock Orchestra has set their sights on.
“That’s really the point,” Trainor says, “To enjoy playing music and to make connections with people through music.”