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Local Music '99

The here and gone

by Brett Milano

Dropkick Murphys Is the Boston scene finally dead? Sure, but it's like Jesus, Elvis, or Kenny -- give it time and it will rise back up before long.

This isn't to say that (insert name of favorite band here) isn't still kicking ass, or that there isn't anybody worth catching in Cambridge or Jamaica Plain tonight. It's just that the scene's gotten a little dispirited in the wake of the Seagram/Universal merger and the attendant dropping of bands and burying of albums, which means that the dream of getting famous off a major-label contract is getting less attainable. (Meanwhile, the bands on Universal labels are consulting their lawyers to figure out whether they're still signed or not.) Local bands like to insist that they're not subject to the vagaries of the major-label biz, and it's true enough that many great Boston acts managed to flourish without the majors' giving them a second glance. General wisdom says that an indie resurgence is on the way, as regional scenes and small labels pick up the slack. But local morale at least seems lower than it was when A&R executives were practically showing up with checkbooks at all of Evan Dando's parties.

It's telling that this year's poll is littered with the names of people who've left town or who have one foot out the door. The past year saw the departure of Sebadoh, Susan Tedeschi, the Gigolo Aunts, drummer Malcolm Travis, and Juliana Hatfield -- local heroes all, and people who've embodied the independent streak that defines local music. But they join a list of emigrants (mostly to the West Coast) that includes Jonatha Brooke, Melissa Ferrick, Kristin Hersh, and the Lemonheads. No doubt they would all have loved to stick around, if it didn't look as if they were limiting their careers (or, in the Lemonheads' case, their party options) by doing so. But it doesn't seem that long ago that aspiring national bands would move into Allston to get some indie cred.

Nobody sums up the Boston dilemma better than the Dropkick Murphys. They're as quintessential a Boston band as you'll ever find, yet they refused to play in town for a year and a half, citing dissatisfaction with the club circuit and a lack of the gigs they were looking for. Too bad, because nobody since the Bosstones has waved the Boston flag so proudly; and nobody with a lead singer who can still stand up has done such a vital cross of Irish music and punk rock. The old-timers among us also have to be glad to see next-big-thing status awarded to a band whose members are experienced enough by now to qualify for a weekly gig at Club Bohemia -- heck, guitarist Rick Barton was playing the Rat with the Outlets back in 1981.

At least the Murphys put their money where their mouth was when they re-emerged this month, playing an auditorium in Mission Hill instead of a more lucrative club gig. Still, with a repertoire including songs that dis Lansdowne Street and rework the tale of Charlie on the MTA, this is an outfit that locals of all stripes can get behind -- providing that they actually get to see the band.

But, as Sting pointed out when he was less boring: when the world is running down you make the best of what's still around. So it makes sense that Buffalo Tom, the model of a heartfelt and hard-working Boston band, made a resurgence in our poll this year. In contrast to the Murphys, Buff Tom have played every hometown gig they can, finding that local fans remain diehard after the fickle marketplace (which should have taken the Smitten album more to heart) moves on.

Still, we'd guess that people weren't voting for Buffalo Tom as a gesture of solidarity -- more likely, they just thought "Rachael" was a good song. And they're right: a classic-model Buff Tom romantic outburst, it's their most obvious follow-up to "Taillights Fade," which was all over this poll in 1993. But this time the hit came from bassist Chris Colbourn -- in terms of singing or songwriting, the band's George Harrison figure. Which makes Colbourn an unlikely winner for our Best Male Vocalist category -- the first time a lead singer's award has gone to someone who's not, for the most part, the lead singer. By now Colbourn's contributions to the Buff Tom catalogue could fit comfortably on one album -- and it would be a mighty fine album. But we'd love to know how many voters are honestly into Colbourn's side of the band, and how many are just mistaking him for Bill Janovitz. (Psst: If you really are a fan of Colbourn's songs in particular, you should know that he's got an especially strong one on the local acoustic Kimchee label compilation In My Living Room).

Locals also stood by Mary Lou Lord, even though her poll-winning Got No Shadow (Sony) is more than a year old, and she's been largely MIA since then -- during a checkered year that began with an aborted tour and a spell in rehab and ended with her marriage (to Raging Teens frontman Kevin Patey) and motherhood. And a recent sold-out show at the Middle East suggests she's staying on an upswing.

One genre that's flourishing more than ever is metal -- but what does it say that one of the year's few national breakouts, Godsmack's debut, was broken by the Worcester headbangers at WAAF? We jaded folks can insist that this kind of thing used to play all the time at Narcissus in Kenmore Square, when the cool bands were across the street at the Rat. But frontman Sully Erna's been down this road before with Seka/Strip Mind, and his current band plugs in to an up-to-date style by blending the metallics with samples and hip-hop flavoring. This genre, as we all know, was invented by Vanilla Ice, and it's called "skate rock" -- if you don't believe us, just ask him.

With the reunion of the J. Geils Band under way, Peter Wolf's solo career is in danger of being forgotten -- in fact, all but the latest of his five solo albums are now out of print. So let it be noted that the Woofa Goofa didn't rest in the last 15 years, avoiding the oldies circuit to develop a personal style that peaked on his last album, the deeply soulful Fool's Parade (Mercury). That said, we'll be at the reunion shows doing the Whammer Jammer with everybody else.

Our winners in the Blues (Susan Tedeschi), Folk (Jonatha Brooke), and Female Vocalist (Juliana Hatfield) categories have all left town, but not without developing strong local roots. Hatfield celebrated her return to indie-dom with Bed (Zoe/Rounder), a rough charm of a comeback album (though those who've heard it swear that her real comeback is the previously completed and still-unreleased album God's Foot). Brooke's been in LA for three years now, but the Northeast roots will always be there in her cerebral, sophisticated songwriting. This year she and former Story partner Jennifer Kimball both picked up new skills, Brooke as an indie/Internet marketer and Kimball as a solo singer/writer, that will bode well for the future -- or at least will make it that much sweeter when/if they finally settle their differences.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing to happen in town this year was a wave of musical cross-pollination that saw swing and rockabilly (both represented by the Amazing Crowns) outlast marketing trends and stay vital. And it saw our winning Jazz (Saturnalia), Electronica (Lunar Plexus), and World Music (Babaloo) acts all emerge from different corners of the rock-club circuit. The acts themselves are as diverse as they come, with Babaloo putting New Wave style into their Latin/funk mix, Lunar Plexus combining hip electronics with retro-soundtrack cool, and Saturnalia drawing from avant-jazz and prog rock (and playing a heart-stopping set of Mission of Burma tunes with Roger Miller last fall). The fact that all these acts can play at rock-oriented clubs is something to be proud of. And the hip-hop success of the 19-year-old DJ Virtuoso suggests that upstart kids can make waves with a mike as easily as a guitar.

But if anybody seems to have a bright future, it's Mr. Airplane Man, two women drenched in the sound and soul of Fat Possum/Mississippi hill country blues. They'll get better still as they develop a more personal take on this style; meanwhile, anyone who's caught them packing in sweaty bodies at Toad or the Plough & Stars knows how magnetic they can be. And a different kind of reassurance comes from the Shods, who are possessed by the same spirit that used to haunt the Rat, not to mention whatever warehouse the Clash used to rehearse in. As long as somebody's playing with their kind of intensity, the local scene is never too far gone.

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