The New Band Showcase at Cornerstone '98
By Dave Landsel

The sheer volume of submissions received by the 1998 Showcase committee should have indicated the tremendous growth in high-quality independent music - and it certainly played out spectacularly when it came time for the year's sixteen winners to take the stage at Cornerstone '98. Almost without exception, each band fulfilled their simple mission beautifully: Come to Cornerstone, play the stage, rock listeners's socks off, get networked, have lots of listeners become fans.

Let's see if I can recap the happenings for you readers who were in attendance, and, hopefully, if you weren't there you'll take this opportunity to introduce yourself to some of the best, most innovative music at this year's festival.

"Hold my hand - I'll take you there, to the place where flowers grow ..." Sounds kind of Hootie-esque, don't it? However, the downright earnestness of the Five O' Clock People won me over right away. The set began mildly, but momentum built as time went on. This band did a good job of setting a standard for the event - lots of humor and energy, and not just another folk rock band.

Farewell to Juliet, the only real "veterans" in this year's Showcase, played next, to an appreciative, mostly older crowd. I'd been looking forward to seeing these guys since hearing their latest project a few months ago - they did not disappoint. Probably what impresses me most is that they're still happy doing what they do after so many years of eluding those recording contracts. It's refreshing to see people committed to art first. Best wishes, you guys.

After a lengthy break, the oh-how-very-Nashville singer/songwriter Karen Bradley played a rather uninspired bunch of piano-driven rock tunes. It didn't help that she arrived moments before set time. And the fact that she pulled in a stellar supporting cast of backup musicians, including J.J. Placensio (formerly of Sixpence, Plumb) and Stu Heiss (of Resurrection Band), wasn't enough to salvage her so-so set. Methinks it could have been a great deal better had she actually been working with a band before she showed up, but she hasn't done that in quite some time. Sorry sister. Tori Amos you're not.

Anyway, how much ska must I be subjected to this year before I get to go home? I'm not knocking their talent - they've got it - but I desperately need to find something that sets you apart from the dozen other ska bands I've heard lately. Sorry If you've just tuned in, I'm ranting about a band called The Ivy League.

Listen peeps: Maybe I'm uptight and need to let loose and skank or whatever, but right now I'm feeling just a tad jaded about ska. But, by all means, you kids have fun. It's just that there's so much blatant band-wagoning going on, and it seems to be especially blatant within the ska thing. Every horn player is a rock star! So in the name of all that's holy, please, can we stop forming new ska bands? We've got enough, thank you.

Well, the smell of BO in the tent is getting to me, so I leave the massive, overjoyed crowd of dancing fools to their revelry, and I call it a day.

Y'all, I really like Kenosha, WI. It's the kind of place people talk about in a mocking tone of voice, you know, like Peoria. Enough already! I know some cool people from Kenosha, and now I know one very cool pop-punk band called Hangnail, fronted by high-school senior Mike Middleton.

Of course, as with anything this style, I don't know what they were singing. But I caught the words to one song, something about "don't let the sun go down on your anger." A little reminder, anyone? Mike told me later that although he won't pretend everyone in the band is a full-on Christian, it is his hope that just being in the band and playing these kinds of venues will be a witness to them. That's cool. I dig that.

Okay. I've really ripped into ska here. However (and, go ahead, do your worst: say I'm crazy), the vibe of the next set put on by Big Dog Small Fence, an army of kids from East LA, had me dancing on the inside.

See now, y'all, this is what I'm talking about. Rather than just a couple horns, some checkered cloth, and a lead who likes to yell in order to hide that he has no singing talent, these guys take their collective heritage, shake up the ol' ska vibe, and give it a great big twist of Latin. Missy Sortino does vocals, and she has got the greatest voice. I really, really liked it. A "new band" no longer, their recent signing with West Coast-based Eclectica Records ought to be a well-deserved boost.

Standouts of this set included the instrumental "Joel's Song," for sheer energy overload, and the nifty cover of "Everybody Needs Somebody." Check out the horns on this band! Ska will come and go, but these kids will be making music forever.

The day might easily have been over right then and there, but it simply got better, thanks to Manitoba-based Officer Down. "I'm surprised we got picked," one of them said. "Lots of people think we're too political." I disagree.

People who don't like to be reminded of life's harsh realities needn't apply, but if you remove your head from the sand long enough to get some fresh air, you'll see that all this band is trying to do is follow Christ's example by speaking up for "the very least of these." The medium used to convey the message is completely satisfying, and as a non-hardcore fan, I was very much drawn in by their controlled, well-executed set.

I'd heard and been impressed by the demo from the rap-core, RATM-like Ignited Soul, and they certainly delivered the goods on stage. "What is it about the soul? It's ignited! It's ignited!" Absolute chaos (albeit organized) followed this opening line. Intensely ministry oriented, these guys likewise have what it takes musically. I'm tempted to call them a Rage cop, but something prevents me from writing them off thus. Whatever they are, I look forward to hearing more of and about these guys.

If Thursday was Noise Day, I have to call Friday Eclectica Day. I certainly needed some peace and tranquillity by then, and Spinoza, the NYC-based foursome, offered just that, with their groovy-with-a-capital-G set of straight-ahead folk music.

Lead singer Reid MacLean and I had a chance to chat informally the day prior to the show. We rapped on the topic of art and ministry, how the two relate, etc. - you know, stuff. "I don't even know exactly what I'm trying to do with my music," he wondered aloud as he went about his business hanging up promotional flyers. Well, be that as it may, their music certainly doesn't fail to inspire.

Grounded in the New York bar/club scene, Spinoza's combination of the thoughtful and the entertaining can put a smile on any face. "The earth has music for those who listen" one song tells us - go figure.

An afternoon thunderstorm killed the power, but one of the most memorable moments of the week was the impromptu acoustic set they did to finish out their time slot. If you're ever in New York, you'll be able to hear them 9 p.m. Tuesday nights at the pint-sized BMW Bar on Seventh Ave. (see www.spinoza.com for details).

Next up, the extraordinary vocal talents of Ramsie Shick gave me the shivers - from the sound check to the closing notes of the encore. Being rather familiar with the album and the promotional literature (I was suspicious of a lot of preachiness in both), it did please me greatly to discover that this show didn't take itself all that seriously.

She's a former NYU student who forsook her supposedly pagan East Coast roots for the more godly environs of Dallas, Texas (hey - they said it, not me!), where she was "discovered." All my nit picking aside, Ms. Shick has amazing talent, and will more than likely be rocking and rolling the entire evangelical free world in the very near future. To be sure, she deserves more, but the way she's being promoted and booked, I'm afraid she's destined to remain in the ghetto that is "Christian" music. Here's to you anyway, girl.

I was too busy chasing MC Hammer for an autograph (which I did get and do proudly display at work) to notice that one of the most anticipated events of the year had already begun. So then I was all like, "Oh my God" (just kidding). Really, I did drop everything and run to hear one of the most highly anticipated concerts of the year (for me, that is). This is one band with whom I fell in love a long time before I heard them on stage.

The latest incarnation of The Rest comes from Nashville; but the band was formed in Budapest, Hungary, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Paul Jenkins, Kelly Larson, and Julie Lee are the core members of The Rest, and they're joined by a bass player and drummer (a pair of very cool cats). Lots of jazz influences layered with a folk vibe on top of a good chunk of '70s-style rock/pop. Think Fleetwood Mac, and you've got the rock/pop part down.

The vocals harmonize beautifully, and the Hungarian hippie outfits and Paul Jenkins being the ultimate groove-boy in his floppy hat make me feel right at ease. Of course it helped that, from stage, mid-set, they went ahead and pronounced Cornerstone the best festival ever.

The very lovely (and now very married) Sarah Masen joined them for a rendition of "Hope" in the early part of the set, but she left quickly for the Prism Magazine tent to do a set of her own, which was, by all accounts, super.

I left early that day, so I missed the eclectic Twin Cities band Pegtop. However, I did see them later playing out around the grounds, and I found them intriguing, but not quite my thing (see a review of their latest CD online at the Tollbooth).

Friday was wonderful in every way, and I hope to see some of these bands back next year. I must admit, I wasn't present for the opening set of Saturday's show, but I have every confidence that Lancastrians (I used to live there, so I know what to call them)  Mack the Coffee Man did a good job of rendering live what I'd heard previously on CD. Their brand of thinking man's music/shoegazer alternative is a real winner (see a review of their latest CD online at the Tollbooth).

The Plain Janes, whose set I did hear samplings of, are the latest modern-rock offering from the West Coast. Straight-ahead, good lyrics, nice stage presence - what more can I say about a band that sounds like 85% of the music on my local alternative rock station (hey Chicago: Q101 sucks!). A word of advice, boys: diversify. Hit us with something new and different.

Regardless of what I think, though, they have been fairly busy in the Bay Area, opening for a lot of larger rock shows. It's anyone's guess how long modern rock will continue to limp along on two broken legs, but these guys seem to do a pretty good job of keeping it moving. Is that a good or a bad thing? You tell me.

Well, it seemed as though things were going to end up being fairly flat, when all of a sudden I remembered: Estis P@rc was coming up next!! I've heard their music before, and I was mildly cynical, as in, "Yeah, but can they do that live?" (see a review of their latest CD online at the Tollbooth).

Well, come to find out their album was recorded with them all in one room standing around a couple mikes. Okay, not quite, but hey, all I can say is, Wow! I decree this one of the best performances of the festival. Loopy guitars (lots of cheesy distortion) and sensuous lounge vocals from a bunch of really down-to-earth AOG kids from Nebraska.

I'm incredibly excited about this band. They took this obscure corner of musicdom and incorporated some accessible pop/rock, turning it into a fashionably out of style little musical experience. I may be out of it, but I've not heard the likes. One of the best new bands of the year (or have I already said that?).

The last set of the day (and the year!) came as quite the surprise: Boston's own Scarlet Haven. What hooked me immediately was the stage presence and talents of lead singer Courtney Reid; her little acoustic opening number sent the perfect message: I can sing, so listen up, people.

It was refreshing to hear someone cut the crap and say things straight in a scene where many artists aren't really comfortable speaking their minds, or don't have much to say, period. Her satisfyingly abrupt remarks between songs ("a beautiful friend of mine committed suicide") led right into a stirring number on the topic. Or how about: "Just because you're a Christian doesn't mean you don't struggle." You get my point.

Scarlet Haven were very much a rock band, and a good one, too. Winners of their local competition for this year's Lilith Fair, and regulars on Boston's top rock station, it's clear this band's got it going on. And well they should - they've got the gift. I wish I hadn't been feeling the effects of a week spent at Cornerstone (although it was a great week, extremely satisfying in every way), else I'd have been even more "there" mentally. But it was a good way to end the year.

This year's showcase was a nothing but a complete joy. Things went mostly without a hitch, thanks to a superb sound crew and the expertise of the talented and energetic stage manager, Phillip Kim, of N*soul Records. It was fantastic to see so many bands with talent, creativity, originality, and the general gutsiness that's needed to get anywhere these days.

As I noticed the label reps lurking in the shadows, I couldn't help but hope that these kids will remember what it's all about when confronted with such big issues as contracts and record deals. It's not about how much money you get out of your deal; it's about good music. And good music we had plenty of.