The Big Break Got A Garage Band And Dreams Of Glory? The Area Offers More Chances Than Ever To Become A Star - And More Competition. Here's The Route The Low Road Is Taking.

Posted: September 14, 1992

Things were already going well for the Low Road when pop mastermind T-Bone Burnett stopped by Third Street Jazz & Rock a few months ago.

The acoustic band had performed live on American Public Radio's World Cafe, produced locally by WXPN-FM, and on National Public Radio's Mountain Stage. It had made a splash at the influential South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. Gigs were coming in steadily and for better pay.

So Low Road drummer Mark Schreiber, who works at the Old City record shop, wasn't looking for a favor when he began talking with Burnett, the esteemed producer of Elvis Costello and others, who was at Third Street to promote his own solo release.

But one thing led to another and soon, the amiable Schreiber had landed

himself and Low Road violinist Rosie McNamara an invitation to play at Penn's Landing the following night with Burnett and venerable session guitarist Marc Ribot.

Then, as if that weren't enough, Burnett and Ribot surprised the five members of Low Road by showing up at their North Star Bar gig a few hours after the Penn's Landing performance, and launched a 10-minute version of ''Wild Thing."

It was just a Saturday night jam. But to Low Road regulars in the house, it was a milestone. The Burnett stamp of approval, they marveled. Suddenly, the Low Road's prospects seemed even brighter: You halfway expected a record executive to walk in and brandish a contract on the spot.

The band, jaded from witnessing too many near-misses, knew better.

"That night was an all-timer as far as excitement goes," recalls singer, songwriter and guitarist Mike Brenner. "And after that, everybody was talking about the band really developing.

"But for myself, and I think the rest of the band, the development is really in the basement. Rehearsal is where you can feel it moving or not moving."

There's prestige in having a guy like Burnett sit in on your set, but that won't land a record deal. Heck, Burnett said later, you can't even rely on talent for that. You need luck, too.

"I'd like to see Mick Jagger get a break these days," Burnett quipped.

*

Getting a break. In the Philadelphia region, hundreds of alternative rock bands play original material, each hoping for the break that will yield a recording contract.

Some, such as the Low Road, Go to Blazes and Dandelion, have been flirting with label scouts for a while. Others toil in the obscurity of home studios. But once upon a time, their game plans would have been basically the same: play live, attract word-of-mouth and shop a demo tape in hopes some genius record exec might take a liking to it and "discover" the band.

Now, with music videos and college radio providing new methods of entree into the business, success seems almost random: A break can come from a video- ready look, a chance encounter or a well-plotted campaign.

Over the last two years, the Low Road has charted a step-by-step course suited to its members' low-key personalities. Theirs is a less aggressive approach than that taken by many bands, but given the crapshoot that is the music industry, just as likely to succeed.

Alternative rock bands here complain that they work without the radio support, boosterish club owners and influential independent record companies that sustain scenes such as Austin's. But they recognize Philadelphia has advantages - artist managers hungry to make deals, a relatively low cost of living and proximity to New York.

Perhaps that explains the staggering competition. Cyndy Drue, host of Street Beat, WMMR-FM's Sunday night program of local music, says she receives tapes from up to 20 area bands each week. Dave Frank, who books the Khyber Pass Pub, an establishment known for showcasing new talent, averages about the same.

From the entire country, only a handful of bands will be signed by the six major labels and affiliates this year. A somewhat larger number will get picked up by the major independent labels.

Still, the Philly bands scramble on, traveling to play 20-minute spots in artist showcases just for the chance to join the Dead Milkmen, Jeffrey Gaines, Cinderella, the Hooters and all the other area artists who, at least, got a shot at finding a national audience.

The Low Road likes to take the long view. "We're enjoying all this as it happens," says harmonica player Palmer Yale. "Whether it ends next week or goes for 10 years, we're making sure it isn't lost on us."

Instead of obsessing about trends and strategies, Yale, Schreiber, Brenner, McNamara and bassist Alan Hewitt have spent the last two years refining their music: folk-pop with a biting, punkish edge.

As Brenner explains it, the concept for the band boils down to a simple idea: "An acoustic guitar doesn't necessarily have to be a pretty thing."

Each song he writes - whether informed by Celtic tradition, salsa, blues, cha-cha or singer-songwriter balladry - asks something different of the band, and each time the musicians, drawing on theoretical knowledge and street smarts, deliver.

It's not the kind of alternative rock currently in vogue: That's grunge, the kind Nirvana and other Seattle bands are currently championing. And it's not the kind of music major-label scouts have associated with Philadelphia the last few years: That's rap and the smooth soul-redux of Boyz II Men.

Michael Hill, a veteran scout - or as it's known in the industry, artist- and repertoire (A&R) man - says he was pleasantly surprised by the Low Road tape he heard. But acoustic pop, he cautions, is a commercial risk.

"It's a tricky area," says Hill, of Warner Bros. Records, who signed Irish nouveau-folkie Luka Bloom. "It can be completely embraced or completely rejected by the alternative audience."

The duo Indigo Girls has been a major success for Epic Records, he points out. Poi Dog Pondering, a Columbia Records band with some similarities to the Low Road, has aimed for the same alternative/college-radio audience and sputtered.

With a limited number of Philadelphia venues that take an interest in original rock by local bands (the Khyber; JC Dobbs; the Barbary; the Chestnut, 23 East and Ambler Cabarets; the North Star; and West Philly's 40th Street Underground), many talents are denied the chance to develop in front of an audience. Each gig becomes a make-or-break affair - there's no time for what Burnett calls "productive sloppiness."

Greg Mountain, who books the Cabaret chain, argues many bands have an attitude problem, or at least a misunderstanding of what it takes to get ahead. Bands must be willing to play weekday nights, he says, and to promote the gigs themselves.

"So many things have to line up just right for a band to move up the food chain from the small, opening spots to the better gigs," says Mountain. For example, their music should be compatible with the opening act's. And the band has to be available when a slot comes open.

The Low Road plays often: It will perform tomorrow night at a Red Cross benefit at the Theater of Living Arts, Sunday as opening act for the Meat Puppets at the Trocadero, and Sept. 26 as opening act for Freedy Johnston at Dobbs.

And increasingly, it commands headliner status. But the group's evolution has been gradual; along the way, it has discovered its sound qualifies it for performance opportunities normally closed to rock bands.

Early on, recalls Brenner, "somebody was asking me what I wanted the band to sound like, and I told them I wanted it to be able to play the Art Museum and the Khyber Pass. A year later, when we did one of those Wednesday night gigs (at the museum), I realized it had happened."

Brenner also set the band up at Old City Coffee, where he holds a day job, for a First Friday gallery-hopping night. And when Borders Book Shop opened on Walnut Street, the Low Road played there, too. (The band has since played Borders in Memphis, Tenn., and Vienna, Va.)

This adaptability has enabled the Low Road to work more and, says Tom Sheehy, a longtime Philadelphia music-watcher and independent publicist, to build "a much broader following than is available to most bands that just play clubs."

"It's the whole intimacy thing," Brenner says, explaining why the band enjoys playing nontraditional venues. "It seems our music sticks with people much longer when we play a bookstore. I don't know - people are sober. They're already in the consumer mind-set, so they buy more tapes."

Like Go to Blazes and a few other Philly bands, the Low Road has developed another response to the slim opportunities in town: Hit the road. Howard Kramer, who with partner Dave Reckner runs Raw Ltd., the management company that represents the Low Road, the Dead Milkmen and others, says the group plays out of town "three times" as often as it does at home.

The travel wreaks havoc with the musicians' lives. "You're going to work tired. You have less time to yourself," says Yale, who works at the Folklife Center of International House. But he and the others recognize road trips create a more widespread buzz about a band. And, they say, they've been lucky enough to land in rooms, some as big as the Chestnut Cabaret, that respond positively to an unorthodox band.

What does it take to sustain a healthy regional music scene? Look at Austin or Seattle and you'll find management companies and venues sympathetic to young artists, recording studios in all price ranges, radio support, loyal audiences and often, recording labels devoted to home-grown talent.

Those working in Philadelphia rock say they see some of those elements, but not all.

The area boasts a number of world-class artist management companies. Hard to Handle in Wayne represents AC/DC and Emerson Lake & Palmer; Entertainment Services Unlimited in Voorhees has Cinderella, Kiss and Nelson; Golden Guru in Center City brought singer/songwriter Jeffrey Gaines to prominence, and Steve Mountain's Cornerstone management has built careers for the Hooters and Tommy Conwell.

What Philadelphia has less of are production companies willing to pilot the fledgling careers of alternative rock acts.

In urban music, Ruffhouse Records, the record label based in Old City, has created a niche by aggressively scouting young acts (some from out of town, such as Atlanta's multiplatinum rap duo Kris Kross), then refining its discoveries' talents next door at Studio Four, one of the city's busiest recording facilities.

It's an arrangement not unlike the setup Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had during Philadelphia International's heyday in the early '70s: a collection of prolific songwriters matched with a state-of-the-art studio, extraordinary vocal talents, a high-powered business office and, not incidentally, access to major-label distribution.

No such system exists to nurture local rock bands. The city's biggest studios, Kajem and Sigma Sound, concentrate on major-label work, and the smaller outfits aren't financially equipped to sign new artists to development deals.

That's a loss for local acts. According to Sam Moses, a partner in Kajem, the major labels are looking to upstart businesses such as Ruffhouse to scout and groom new prospects. "The real (talent-discovery) work is going on at a lower level" than it once did, he says.

Artistic mentoring for young alternative-rock acts in town is more likely to come through close relationships with a particular engineer or producer.

Prominent among them is Adam Lasus, owner and operator of Studio Red. Working out of his Center City basement, he has quietly created a reputation as one of the hottest engineers in alternative music by making tapes as crisp as any major-label project.

Lasus has done all three of the Low Road's tapes, including Fru-Fry, finished in June. He's also become one of the group's most important artistic guides.

He has engineered highly regarded efforts by the Wishniaks and Go to Blazes, and Hey Babe, the acclaimed debut of Boston's Juliana Hatfield. Many see his studio as the center of Philadelphia's alternative music scene - a place where record executives come to hear new acts, and where the city's finest musicians interact with a parade of nationally known talent.

Some suggest the city needs a prominent independent label, along the lines of Seattle's SubPop, to bring the Philadelphia scene to wider national attention. Lasus, who works with indies large and small and has just completed his first major-label project, disagrees.

"It's kind of cool if there isn't a (dominant alternative-rock) label," he says. By having to shop their tapes around, area bands are getting valuable feedback, and "that diversity is beneficial."

As for Philadelphia radio, few subjects - with the possible exception of the lack of venues for local acts - get musicians riled quicker. Airplay is critical to building a following, bands contend, and local radio isn't doing its part.

When WMMR-FM became more actively involved in local music in the '80s, the scene boomed, recalls publicist Sheehy.

"In 1980, Charlie Kendall, who was the program director for WMMR, put the Hooters' demo tape in heavy rotation. And he discovered that local music was not a drag on ratings, but a boost. Suddenly things started to happen. By 1984, if you were in A&R and Philly wasn't on your expense report, you got heat."

Out of that fertile time came the signings of the Hooters, Cinderella, Robert Hazard, John Eddie and the Vels. By 1987, they were joined by Tommy Conwell, Bricklin, the Innocence Mission, Pretty Poison, Britny Fox and Heaven's Edge.

Many of those bands fizzled. (Looking back, Steve Mountain admits the major labels may have been given a description of the Philadelphia talent pool that was "a bit overblown.") But at least they had a shot.

Radio stations that don't recognize local talent, and labels that push for ''perfect" records that literally require years in the studio, Mountain says, have made it more difficult for the bands that have followed. The latter, he says, has deprived young bands of street-level role models.

"If you're an aspiring athlete and you work out with a bunch of professional athletes, you're going to know what's expected of you," Mountain says. "Bands used to have that kind of contact with people who were a few years ahead of them. That doesn't exist in this market."

As for the members of the Low Road, they don't much care about being part of a "scene."

"We don't think geography dictates anything," says Kramer. "We hope to (break nationally) based on the merit of the music we do, not where we're

from."

With jobs, two rehearsals a week and a full schedule of gigs, there's not much time to hang out with other musicians anyway.

The band's mission in the next six months, says Kramer, is to take the momentum it has built locally and turn it into widespread recognition. A lot of that work must be done in New York.

"We've hit a glass ceiling here" in Philadelphia, he says. During a weekly gig at the Irish bar Cafe Sin-e in Manhattan this summer, the band was able to perform for a number of artists and executives, including Sinead O'Connor, Marianne Faithfull and Richard Gottehrer, who produced Jeffrey Gaines' debut and expressed interest in the band. Kramer is anxious to talk further with Gottehrer, who could take the band to a label just on the strength of his name.

At the suggestion of some major-label scouts, who want proof of the band's following, the Low Road will also release a repackaged version of an earlier tape next month. Through aggressive marketing, Kramer hopes to sell at least 3,000 copies. The group's three previous efforts, all bankrolled with gig money, have sold a total of 1,000 copies.

And, naturally, the Low Road will be trying to get label scouts out to a few performances, though with Philadelphia so close, the New York execs expect the band to make the trip - and play in an unfamiliar, often artificial, showcase setting, often without a sound check.

"We're starting to make a name in the A&R community," says Kramer. "It takes persistence. It took me seven months to get a gig at the Bottom Line and I'm still calling to get a return gig. It's the old sales methodology: The 10th call is going to make the sale."

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