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Matt Sullivan’s Audio Trek - Day One, Wednesday, September 5

I've been a Nashville resident for nearly three years now and spent a lengthy stint in nearby Murfreesboro before that. All the while, I've played in a number of rock bands in and around town and have watched the city transform from the home of a select few non-country bands to a more all-encompassing definition of the term Music City. The growth of the Next Big Nashville festival, which is only in its second year, is a testament to the wealth of new acts the city has generated in the past few years. What began as a few shows over the course of last year's Memorial Day weekend has swelled into the 5 day/12 venue showcase that is this year's Next Big Nashville, boasting a roster of over 130 local bands.

The whole thing kicked off at the Belcourt Theatre, down in the Hillsboro Village district of Nashville. I missed the documentary screenings that opened the festival, but walked into the dark, quiet theatre to catch local baroque-pop band LYLAS in mid-set. I can't imagine a more perfect pairing of venue and band than LYLAS and the Belcourt. The 5-piece band, which features banjo, upright bass, and even an occasional saw, looked and sounded right at home on the Belcourt's ornate stage, playing calming, whimsical pop in the vein of Belle and Sebastion. Though the band has been a local fixture for a couple of years now, band leader Kyle Hamlett stated that playing the Belcourt was a dream come true.

The second band signaled a drastic shift in mood for the rest of the evening. Turbo Fruits is a relatively new band featuring two members of Be Your Own Pet, whose self-titled debut has received national praise over the course of the past year. Whereas BYOP plays a hyper-active and youthful brand of spunky punk rock (their first album come out while the band members were still in high school), the Turbo Fruits keeps things a little more groovy. Singer and guitarist Jonas Stein tears through bluesy riffs and lays a raspy croon over the top while the rhythm section lays a solid foundation despite their spasticity. All in all, Turbo Fruits is a good side project for a pretty great band.

A band known as Eaglebreeze rounded out the night. I bumped into their lead singer after the show, and he explained the band's name; it's a direct reference to the band's main influence, 70s space rockers Hawkwind. The template is pretty obvious – write a heavy riff, play it for a really long time until it falls apart, then bring it back again. The problem with Eaglebreeze is that the last part doesn't actually happen. Without any semblance of resolution, the song lengths can be pretty exhausting for a listener, which is largely why I ducked out early.

Matt Sullivan’s Audio Trek - Day Two, Thursday, September 6

Lucky for me, the two venues hosting the majority of the bands I wanted to see are located within a block of my apartment. Tonight was largely spent at a smaller venue called The End, which was hosting a showcase for a small label based in Murfreesboro, TN called Grand Palace Records. The lineup consisted of the bulk of their roster, the highlight of which was most certainly the Kindergarten Circus, a group of barely teenagers who play with the conviction of a weathered bluesman. Frontkid Dillon Watson's guitar skill competes with players twice, even triple his age. These whippersnappers have been raised on a fair bit of blues and garage rock, and they've absorbed every last nuance – think of the Sonics or even the White Stripes.

Another band that the Kindergarten Circus openly admires and, to a degree, imitates, is the Clutters, who played across the street at the much larger Exit/In. The two bands share much of the same garage band aesthetic, but in the past year or so the Clutters have progressively smoothed some of their rougher edges for a more sleek pop sound. Such wasn't the case on this night as the band performed as a trio without their longtime keyboard player. The barebones arrangement seemed to naturally lead the band back to its rowdier early incarnation, which doesn't bother me a bit. After their set, I crossed the street for the second of many more times before the night was over. Back at the End was country traditionalists Those Darlins, a female three-piece consisting of acoustic guitar, bass, ukulele, three part harmonies, and occasionally a bit of clogging. The band's set largely culled old traditional tunes, including a couple of Carter Family songs. The original numbers tend to fall into the badgirl realm of old country music, songs that I wouldn't have been surprised to have heard Loretta Lynn sing.

The rest of the Grand Palace showcase included some longtime friends. The Turncoats are comprised of two members from my old band. Wherein we used to pride ourselves on volume and velocity, the Turncoats have learned how to temper the two, fusing them into rock and roll gold. They take the big choruses of bands like The Who and Big Star and dress it up in Rolling Stones' swagger. Over the course of the night they turned a lot of heads. Rounding out the End was Glossary, who recently celebrated its 10th anniversary as a band. I've never known a time in Middle Tennessee when this band hasn't been around, and they're perhaps the most consistently good band in the area. On this night, Glossary made a strong case for itself being a great band. Seeing them live has to be what seeing Bruce Springsteen was like in the early days of his career. Glossary has a new album coming out in a few months. Bassist Bingham Barnes tells me it's going to be available online for free.

The story of the night was definitely Wax Fang who played at the Exit/In just before Glossary had taken to the stage. This was what I was hoping would happen over the course of this festival – get blown away by a band I hadn't heard before. Ironically, the band isn't even from Nashville; they're from Louisville, KY. Their connection to the city was explained to me, and it seemed tenuous at best – friend of a friend who lives here sort of stuff. Regardless, the band has played here several times even though this was my first time catching them. Big, thunderous drums played by a guy with superhuman limb speed, and intricately laden guitar lines occasionally interspersed with a theremin (both played by the same guy), and more beard and sweat than three guys should possibly be able to fit on stage. Sonically, the band plays a brand of indie rock that owes much of its sound to early Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, but spices things up with just a splash of Southern rock. They're an indie rock band that Lynyrd Skynyrd fans can appreciate.

Matt Sullivan’s Audio Trek - Day Three, Friday, September 7

Once again I hopped back forth between the End and Exit/In for the duration of the night, but day three wasn't quite as cram-packed as the night before. Another local label hosted a showcase at the End, this time Nashville-based Infinity Cat (they released the first few Be Your Own Pet singles before the band was snatched up by a bigger label). I was only able to catch three of the five bands this time around, one of which was my first real disappointment of the festival. “Songs about Teeth” by Cake Bake Betty is a great album that shifts from being adorable one minute to foreboding the next. Largely the brainchild of Lindsey Powell, most of the set simply consisted of her and a keyboard. She stopped in mid-song at one point to ask the sound guy to cut the reverb from her vocals in not exactly the most endearing way possible. When joined by a band, the group didn't seem to exactly have it together. I'm going to go ahead and give them the benefit of the doubt, though; Powell now lives in Brooklyn, NY and drove to Nashville for the event just the day before. That doesn't leave much time for practicing.

Be Your Own Pet is going to be a pretty consistent reference point from here on out; they pretty much anchor a web of bands that are fairly incestuous in their share of membership. The first band of the night was called Deluxin, which is a three-piece that features two members of BYOP and two members of Turbo Fruits (do the math). Deluxin is spastic, energetic, aggressive, and often times dissonant. I mostly love them. They aren't everyone's cup of tea, and they certainly aren't aspiring for that anytime soon. What gets me is how often the band shifts gears from experimental noodling to a full blast of punk rock. Across the street at the Exit/In, the sounds were far less confrontational. The States played a pleasant blend of 60s pop and 80s new wave, and The Privates crafted smart, witty rock gems.

But my night ultimately ended back at the End to see JEFF, comprised of Jake and Jamin Orrall who both at one point or another played in...wait for it -- Be Your Own Pet. Consisting exclusively of drums and a three-string guitar, JEFF's greatest strength is the members' ability to manipulate dynamics. Most often Jake Orrall will quip tongue-in-cheek lyrics during the songs' quieter moments before plunging into big heavy riffs that typically serve as the hook of the song. By the end of the night, the crowd was just as exhausted as the band on stage; the audience's enthusiasm left those closest to the stage on the cusp of an ensuing mosh pit for the majority of the band's set. I managed to escape unscathed.

Lorie Hollabaugh’s Musical Mania - Day 3, Friday, September 7

The lineup for Combustion Music’s Next Big Nashville Friday night showcase at 12th and Porter was juggled a bit with a few last minute substitutions, so it took me a minute to get my bearings when I arrived at the club to check out producer/writer Chris Farren’s latest discoveries. Though I was looking forward to seeing Brent Keith, the artist connected with the recent hit CMT movie “Dale,” Eric Wilson was already onstage instead, warming up the growing crowd. Seeming somewhat unassuming onstage in his white button-down and tie, he performed a solid set of mostly mellow ballads, and seemed more at ease when cutting loose on guitar with the band than during his vocals. No formal word on what happened to Keith, but I’m assuming scheduling problems kept him from appearing with his co-writers in front of the Nashville crowd.

Next up was Brandon Young, looking every inch the rock star in a sleeveless vest and mohawked jet hair and jeans. His angelically androgynous looks are matched perfectly to his gorgeously pure voice, and I was struck by the quiet strength and poise he exhibited onstage throughout his set. The melodic pop leanings of tunes like “I Adore You,” suited his vocals, and the quality of his voice somehow reminded me of Michael Buble’ once or twice throughout his show. Apparently Canadian writer Gordie Sampson, who was on the original lineup and has penned some major country hits, had to be out of town and couldn’t make the showcase either.

After a solid, acoustic set of vibey, radio ready rock by singer/songwriter Michael Logen, Josh Hoge took the stage and immediate command of the crowd with his irreverent wit and impressive chops. The little brother of Will Hoge, Josh announced he was wearing the exact same clothes as the day before – including his underwear -- then rolled effortlessly through a soulful, gritty, R&B-soaked set that would give Justin Timberlake pause. Joking about the irony of being tapped as one of the “next big things” two years in a row, he performed a single he had out on Epic Records last year, “360,” then treated the crowd to covers of “Crazy Love,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the latter of which showed why this guy should already be a major star and somebody is missing the boat. Touring with Elliott Yamin through the end of the year, Hoge will make another appearance in Nashville on October 26th with Yamin at Rocketown and is worth checking out.

I only caught one song from the Hat Trick Heroes before heading over to the Exit/In for some full-tilt rock from The Privates and The Pink Spiders. The Privates look more like frat boys than rock stars with their T-s, jeans, flannels, and short haircuts, but pooling their collective talents from their other bands (De Novo Dahl, The Features, and several others), seems to give them rock superpowers. They tore through a guitar-driven set of dance punk tunes that definitely got the crowd on their feet and bouncing, if not thrashing. At any rate, lead singer Dave Paulson’s frenetic energy had the eager crowd engaged throughout the entire show.

My energy level was definitely a little low by this point in the night, so I couldn’t fully appreciate the Pink Spiders’ brand of pop punk, although I do love their sense of theatrics and proclivity for cussing onstage. Lead singer Matt Friction’s Johnny Depp-as-Willie Wonka-sunglasses and heroin arms are tough to take your eyes off, as was most of the crowd. I kept getting distracted from the music by the hugely interesting, diverse, tatted-up crowd. I must say I love seeing this side of Nashville and wish this rock crowd would routinely shop at the Belle Meade Kroger or a Brentwood boutique just to scare some of the more sedate natives and keep things interesting! Anyway, as I headed out the door to end my first evening of Next Big Nashville, I heard the Spiders arguing onstage about their bet on who was more hungover from the night before and would hurl first onstage. Aaahhhh… I love rock ‘n’ roll!

Matt Sullivan’s Audio Trek - Day Four, Saturday, September 8

By Saturday I was starting to feel a little worn down, but still ventured out to the Cannery Ballroom/Mercy Lounge area off of 8th Ave, just south of downtown. The two venues are actually adjoined, contained within the same building, and concert goers were allowed to traverse between the two with one stage upstairs and the other on the lower level. Downstairs is the Cannery Ballroom, which regularly hosts bigger name touring bands. This was my first time visiting the venue and was disappointed in most every aspect. The sound was bad, rendering the bands almost indiscernible, and the support beams lining the Ballroom serve as a hefty visual obstacle. Nonetheless I was able to catch one of the bands I was most excited about seeing, Skyblazer.

Again, Nashville's rock scene is incestuous; Skyblazer is comprised of both members of JEFF and Lindsay Powell of Cake Bake Betty. Joined by a bass player, the band offers long heavy riffs that ebb and flow into big crescendos and dramatic pauses, making for big climaxes. The rest of the night was pure pop. Three of the city's most beloved bands rounded out the bill: De Novo Dahl (recently signed to Roadrunner Records), The Features, and How I Became the Bomb. From my vantage point De Novo Dahl and the Features were hard to decipher, but the throng of people in better locales went nuts. How I Became the Bomb, fresh off a summer of European festivals and high profile events, closed out the night at the Cannery. They cherry-picked tracks from their fantastic debut EP, “Let's Go”, which exhibit the band's playful, wry wit coupled with their synth-laden, dancey brand of brilliantly executed pop. The band used the occasion to debut new material that, according to frontman Jon Burr, will eventually result in a full length album by 2008.

The night ended up at the Mercy Lounge with what was billed as the “New New Wave Afterparty.” I caught part of Plex Plex's set of dark, synth pop. Singer Amanda X is easily the most enigmatic frontperson I saw all week. It was sort of a train wreck ending after that. The last two bands I saw were sorta electro-clash, tongue-in-cheek-but-still-taking-themselves-too-seriously. There was a more low-key show that rounded out Next Big Nashville on Sunday night, but mine and NBN's relationship had already peaked and ran its course. I ended it on Saturday night so we could keep the friendship.

Lorie Hollabaugh’s Musical Mania - Day 4, Saturday, September 8

Saturday night I headed out after a day of SEC football (Vanderbilt vs. Alabama) for the CMT showcase at 3rd and Lindsley. The parking at this club stinks and the area is just not safe at night, so I spent some time driving around trying to find a suitable, safe spot to no avail. I missed Shelly Fairchild’s first couple of songs, but still managed to catch a portion of her show. In her Stevie Nix-ish blouse with the flowing, winged sleeves and her wild, huge, untamed mane, she looked nothing like the country artist I remember from Sony just a few years earlier. Thrusting her vocals like daggers into the hearts of the crowd, she gave a slightly over-the-top performance that at times seemed as though she were on the verge of screaming. No argument she has plenty of talent and blue-eyed soul…it’s just that I would've liked to have seen her reel it in a bit at certain points and let her music do the talking for her instead of theatrics. She obviously still has plenty of fans from her country days, though, as people lined up to take pictures and talk to her after her 30-minute set concluded.

Two artists featured on the FOX network show “Nashville,” Matt Jenkins and Jeff Allen, were next up on the CMT lineup. Jenkins, who was signed to Universal South until the label’s regime change last year, settled in onstage right away with his comfortable presence and deep voice. Tunes like “I Want You Back” showcased his retro country sound perfectly, and the cool John Mayer cover added an interesting layer to his set. Jeff Allen cranked it up full throttle during his turbo-tonk set. His scruffy Texas good looks complement his brand of New Millenium outlaw country, and when he sings lyrics like “When the devil starts dancing, I’m in the band, I’m a whole lot of heartache, and not much of a man,” you believe he knows whereof he speaks. The Tom T. Hall cover of “Me And Jesus” added a nice touch to his rousing set of rebel country, and it was great to actually see a banjo in a country band once again. I was reminded of Aaron Tippin more than once listening to Allen, and if he’s the future of country music, we look to be in pretty good shape.

The next group up was an interesting trio of lead singers called Love And Theft. A totally harmony-driven pop group, the three trade off vocals and each was adept at carrying the music on his own. Though the harmonies were unarguably strong, the group’s music seemed a bit too dependent on them at times, causing their sound to seem formulaic and even overbearing. A little pull back and restraint vocally might have evened out their show and made them seem more interesting, but they are real talents and it will be interesting to hear their debut album since they are reportedly signed to Lyric Street. By the time The Lonely Hearts took the stage I was about out of steam, but their look was intriguing, so I tried to hang for a couple of songs. Difficult to categorize, they have a 50s, retro, throwback feel to both their look and their music. A rocker next to me noted the Rickenbacker one of the guys was playing, and their big guitar sound definitely rocked the house and stirred up plenty of applause from the crowd. I loved the lead singer’s Ramones-esque look, and their attitude and musicianship made them great fun to watch live. I headed for home near the end of their set, thoroughly impressed with all of the music I saw during my two days of Next Big Nashville and feeling good about the diversity of sounds that seem to thrive in Music City, despite its moniker as the country music capital of the world.

Melinda Hudgins Sunday Evening Coming Down - Day 5, Sunday, September 9

Next Big Nashville came to a soothing close on Sunday night. Although the final night’s lineup consisted of only eight performances (compared to at least 40 shows on each of Thursday, Friday and Saturday), the energy and quality levels were far from lacking. The night kicked off at 3rd & Lindsley with a 7 o’clock performance by Audrey Spillman. By 8 p.m., there was a nice-sized crowd cheering for The Silver Seas (formerly The Bees). The all-male quartet sounds like it’s been playing together for years, with a sound that could best be described as Jack Johnson meets The Beatles. Lead singer and guitarist, Daniel Tashian has a smooth, mesmerizing voice. Paired with the sounds of Jason Lehning on the piano and John Deaderick on the bass, Tashian’s voice seemingly becomes one of the instruments. Factor in David Gehrke on the drums and with backup vocals, and these guys create a sound unlike any other.

The Silver Seas does a great job changing its sound from song to song. “We’ll Go Walking” has a sing-songy feel with a hint of sadness, but is actually more of a love ballad. “Ms. November” and “Imaginary Girl” are more upbeat with a pop-music sound and catchy lyrics. The group even performed a song with a bit of twang and southern feel, called “Country Life”. If you missed the show, log onto www.myspace.com/thesilverseas and take a listen. These guys are good. And with their newest album “High Society” due out October 9, they’re sure to appeal to the masses.

Freedy Johnston, a soloist from Kansas, was next to perform at 3rd & Lindsley. After admitting to everyone that he was nervous (which was already evidenced by his shaky first performance), he seemed to relax a little. The crowd was actually extremely supportive while he struggled to get started onstage. Once past the annoying act of tuning his guitar between every song, it was easier to enjoy the music. Don’t be mistaken, this guy’s not bad – he just needs a little polishing, presentation-wise. Johnston is a fabulous guitarist and almost equally good vocalist. He creates some songs that prompt the subconscious to wander – not in a brooding way, but rather in a pondering, thoughtful fashion. Much of his music gives off a rock vibe, sometimes mixing in a little country here and there. Mid-way through the set, Johnston was joined on stage by The Silver Seas, and together, they sounded great. With the spotlight now on everyone, Johnston was able to fully relax and play to the best of his ability. He’s due to release an album of cover songs entitled, “My Favorite Waste of Time,” in 2008.

Johnston may have ended the performances at 3rd & Lindsley, but they’d already begun at The Bar Car. Johnnyswim performed the first of the “LoveNoise” shows. On stage sat three performers: Abner Ramirez, guitarist and vocalist, Amanda Sudano, vocalist, and Will Solomon, guitarist. Together, these three made sweet, sweet music. Abner and Amanda’s voices flow together with great ease, creating a rich, soulful sound. In an interview after their performance, the two vocalists told of how they’d met through mutual friends here in Nashville, and began singing and writing together. Eventually, Johnnyswim was formed, and has been around for about a year. Although this is the group’s first time playing at The Bar Car, and in association with Lovenoise, they play frequently at 12th and Porter. The group is working on an EP to be released around January of next year.

Darnell Levine was next to play at The Bar Car. This MTSU graduate sang while playing his keyboard, John Legend style. His smooth voice complemented the lovely melody of the music very well, creating a nicely mixed jazz and soul sound. To add some variety to his style, Darnell played less and added a bit of spoken word to his performance. His newest release, “We Gon' Use What We Got” was available during the performance.

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 76 - September 2018
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