Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hartford's Music Scene

Grabbed this article from The Hartford Advocate. Many thanks for the shout, Maria!

All the Small Scenes

Hartford's music scene isn't as beat as people might try to tell you it is

It seems Hartford suffers from a touch of middle-child syndrome, twice over. The midpoint between NYC and Boston, and the midpoint between New Haven and Northampton, Hartford often gets jumped, missing out on the touring acts who opt for clubs like Toad's Place or the Calvin Theater. Why, though? Hartford's music scene is diverse and pervasive, and its audience is hungry. There's an impressive community of communities here, all different kinds of music: the up-and-coming, the little-known, soon-to-be-well-known, local DIY stuff.

We're noticing things happening in this city. At the beginning of the year, a group of guys calling themselves the Hartford Party Starters Union started booking shows at different venues downtown, and Rock Yer Socks' indie shows are getting bigger and better. The Webster's got a new owner/booker, Real Art Ways is bringing in more great stuff, Black-eyed Sally's is branching out, Sully's is still happening, and the Warehouse and Parkville are changing the way the city moves at night. We've done a quick round-up below of what everyone's got going on. Check back in with us — big things are about to happen, we think.

Changing of the Guard

You've probably heard by now that the Webster Theater's been sold to the New England booking company MassConcerts. (The same company owns and books shows at the Palladium in Worcester, Mass.)

Head of MassConcerts John Peters spoke to the Advocate by phone and said that he's a fan of WCCC radio.

"The stuff they play tends to do well" at venues like the Webster in markets like Hartford's, he said. But "we definitely want to expand into the jam-band scene. [Jam bands] have been going to New Haven in the past. We want to get them to Hartford. We just gotta see what does well."

If you look at the upcoming shows at the Webster, the schedule's fuller, and varies a little more than it used to. Cake has a show at the end of May, and Henry Rollins is performing spoken word in June. While MassConcerts is widening the Webster Theater's scope a bit, the lineup still looks a lot like it did before the venue was sold, though bulkier.

But Peters says it's slow in the summer, and come fall there's a bunch of stuff coming. And the Webster Underground will continue to house local shows.

"Hartford has a decent local-music scene," he said. "The trick is to make it so all those local bands can come play. As long as we can get 100-plus people into the Underground, we'll cover our costs."

Killer Parties

The Grady Tavern in Manchester and the Charter Oak Cultural Center here in Hartford have been host to monthly indie-rock shows for the past few years. Started by three roommates in 2006, Rock Yer Socks is a now-bigger DIY agency of indie-rock fans from Hartford and Manchester who "were sick of going to New London or New Haven or Northampton" to see the bands they wanted to, according to Maria Yates, one of the RYS founders.

Now RYS has a following, loyal in the way indie kids tend to be. "Any show we do is gonna have local bands in it," Yates said. "But we also get bands that are coming from Chicago, California, the South, the Midwest." They even had a band from South Wales play a show.

The group doesn't make any profit, turning over the $5 ($4 with a canned good) ticket prices to the bands playing the shows. And these shows are primarily all-ages.

In the future, RYS plans to book more Hartford people and bands (they're looking to work with the Warehouse in Parkville) and find another all-ages venue. And they plan to book more indie, working with the Connecticut promotional group CT Indie.

"We book everything indie," Yates said. "Punk, pop, noise ... we each have our own niches. That's why we do these shows."

The Hartford Party Starters Union has also been mining the underground indie scene, as well as the hip-hop and, well, everything scene. The three dudes comprising HPSU are Neil Brewer, Patrick Kennedy (PK Partytime) and Benjamin Grippo (Benn Grim). What these guys are after is making Hartford fun, reviving downtown, listening to good music and basically just partying. The trio forwards all profits from the shows to the next event. And there are many more parties in the making, Brewer tells the Advocate.

While on the subject of DJs and dance parties, Dawn Migliore, aka "DJ Breakadawn" champions house music and says it's recently gained a lot of popularity. Migliore works with Underground Sound Productions, a Hartford-based booking and promotions group that puts on shows at the Warehouse.

"[The Warehouse will have] a mix of hippie bands, then they'll have DJs on the side so that when there's a set break people still have music to listen to," Migliore said. "It's brought together a lot of scenes that wouldn't normally socialize together. Even the breakdance scene and the hipster and hippie-jamband scenes and the dance music scene ... it's nice to see people getting out and listening to different music."

Migliore said Shag Frenzy, the collective that used to put on indie-dance nights at Sweet Jane's on Pratt Street (which closed last year), are putting indie nights on at the Warehouse now. She said she also DJs at Koji, on Asylum Street, where there's a big audience for house music.

"House is in random spots all over Hartford," she said. "I think that's really helping the music scene."

The West Indian Social Club gets some really incredible reggae shows, booked by outside promoters and often seriously underpublicized. But you'll find a ton of fliers and postcards all over Hartford, particularly in the North End, near the venue. You can track a lot of this stuff online if you're hooked into the right networks; Sizzla, Buju Banton, Elephant Man and Beenie Man have strong Web presences, and you'll see Hartford is frequently included in their tours.

All that Jazz, Blues, Rock, Reggae ...

Black-eyed Sally's turns 15 this year. And James Varano, who owns the Asylum Street BBQ joint, acknowledges that blues fans tend to be older and that younger people don't seem as drawn to blues as their parents, or parents' parents (and so on). And so jazz nights on Mondays and rock and reggae on the weekends brings in a wider audience than the straight blues shows (which you can still see there).

"We've been moving away from an all-blues format for a few years now. We've been doing a lot of rock acts, anything roots-based. We have music five nights a week. I figure we could please everybody."

Jazz nights are quite popular, Varano says. The Hartt School puts them on, often alternating between more-formal performances and less-formal jams. He said some nights the small restaurant is so packed they've had to move all the tables out. "It's pretty amazing," he said.

"I think you need to have a mix of music in a lot of places, and people doing original music," he continued. "That's what makes a city exciting and sexy."


"You can put Real Art Ways in any city in the world and people would be happy to have it. The music we get here, this is some really amazing-quality stuff," said the Parkville gallery's executive director, Will K. Wilkins.

The Real Art Ways' Creative Cocktail Party is a monthly dance-party-type reception that usually doubles as an exhibit-opening. There are musical and performance acts, which are often arty jazz groups, experimental, hip-hop, reggae, and lots of international music. Last month, at the gallery's yearly blowout party — "The Odd Ball" — Jaleel Bunton, drummer for TV on the Radio, DJed. And a couple of years ago Santogold performed to a jam-packed Creative Cocktail Hour, long before her single "L.E.S. Artistes" premiered on MTV.

But what Wilkins is both most interested in and planning to do more of is jazz, which he says Hartford has tons of.

"I think that people aren't aware of how many really outstanding musicians the area produces."

Wilkins points to the Hartt School, Black-eyed Sally's, and the Artists Collective as being just a few of many schools and venues in the city cultivating and producing great jazz performers. (Not to be overlooked: Vibz Uptown right on Main Street and the Studio@Billings Forge. Both feature a ton of jazz and the Studio even has spoken-word poetry nights.)

Wilkins said starting this summer RAW will be doing more with Stephen Haynes, a Hartford-based jazz trumpet- and cornet-player. Wilkins also recently began working with Ed Fast, who regularly plays Latin jazz at the Firebox restaurant on Broad Street.

"We've got a role to play in building people's awareness," Wilkins said. "And a lot of the artists playing here are really interested in creating a network. ... But there's a lot of music around, and free music in the summer. The Hartford Jazz Society does free jazz nights in Bushnell Park, and Sully's is great and so is Black-eyed Sally's. ...

"People always say Hartford's halfway between New York and Boston. Come on, they're not that close. Hartford's between West Hartford and East Hartford. Get real."


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