The Music's the Thing

Notes wrung from self-deprivation, sweat and a few cliches at Florida Music Festival

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News Flash: pop-punk androids, nü-metal brats and heaps of desperate garage bands have hijacked Florida's music scene.Or did they own it in the first place? At least that was my preconception going into last weekend's Florida Music Festival, a demo-swapping, business card-trading and mediocre music-playing smattering of mostly Sunshine State rockers. This Orlando-based fest's very title implies a sense of inclusiveness, but who're they kidding — this one was for that pale, skinny and dispossessed kid in all of us.

Well, almost.

Axis Magazine publishers Rick Wheeler and Sean Perry had the unenviable task of sifting through mountains of demos, trimming the fat to a scant 150 bands and 75 DJs, and finding 20 venues to accommodate them.

My goal here was to find exceptions to my preconceptions.

Wetherbe, a Southern-fried folk-rock band from O-town, is made up of three scene veterans who've seen the ebb and flow of local original music. "Orlando is about 80 percent metal and 20 percent everything else," said drummer Larry Fulford. In 24 years, he's become darkly cynical about the future, though the sheer number of kids in attendance encouraged him. He added, "It's good for the bars, but bands shouldn't come here hoping to get signed."

That's not necessarily bad. At these types of events, turning people on to new music is (and should be) more important than seeking a record deal. Going in expecting to sign a contract is a ticket to heartbreak. FMF is more an intensive learning experience, said Pat Carney, manager of adult alternative band Cowboy Mouth. "This is a vehicle for the music, a quick way to get recognized," he said, pointing out the practical advantages of FMF. Former Creed bassist (and current record producer) Brad Hestla, at Carney's side, agreed, adding that it's hard to network in a town like Orlando — especially if your band doesn't go the traditional hard rock route.

Seattle transplant Emma Wallace played to a tiny but enthusiastic crowd at the Shanagolden Pub Saturday, and was easily one of the most overlooked acts of the night. "Yeah, there are a lot of negative-sounding rock groups," she said, while hackneyed bass thuds from Atlanta act Eleven Standing Still interrupted our conversation. "But even here, which is the only acoustic venue, I hear a lot of negativity in the lyrics." Her piano-driven set, played with charismatic intensity, was the first sign of a non-hard-rock pulse that I saw at the festival. Thankfully.

Still, my preconceptions persisted.

"We're a modern rock band," says Tommy Thompson, guitarist and founder of Atlanta's Transmission. We're talking among a swarm of mostly underage kids just behind a stage at Wall Street Plaza downtown. Asked about Transmission's sound, he cites Led Zeppelin and Alice in Chains, two bands that haven't released albums in years. So much for the "modern rock" tag. Thompson offered a story similar to many I heard throughout the day — he's been playing most of his life, this is his dream, and no amount of personal sacrifice is too much.

He spoke about the lifestyle nonchalantly, as though bands hoping to "make it" are measured by how little their lives can resemble those of 9-to-5'ers. Commonly, groups will tour for weeks, come home to nurse their sore muscles, fix their van and then head out again.

My Hotel Year is no exception. This popular Orlando emo outfit were FMF's de facto elder statesmen, all members being over 25 and having worked this crowd for three years running. Their outdoor set, late on a hot, cloudless Saturday afternoon, was better attended than most. As testimony to the band's reputation, this was MHY's second show in as many days.

"You have to spread yourself out," said drummer Patrick O'Neal. My Hotel Year hasn't graced an Orlando stage in six months, despite their overwhelming popularity here. Lately, they've been on the road so much that even their nomadic existence has consumed their daily lives. "We had a house, but because we're on tour so much now we couldn't make rent," he said. Now they stay with friends in Orlando, adding their hometown to the list of couch-surfing stops on their never-ending tour.

Such an atypical lifestyle lends itself to, naturally, lots of drinking. Downtown, the marginally all ages-oriented afternoon gave way to a chilly, seedier evening vibe. The outdoor venues were shut off to all under-agers, though the throng had grown to where that was hardly noticeable. Girls with asymmetrical haircuts and boys with tight-fitting thrift-store T-shirts crowded the streets, many already in stumble mode even though it was just past sundown. We scurried to catch some much talked-about groups, none of which would probably describe themselves as "modern rock."

Pittsburgh duo Grand Buffet, playing to a capacity crowd at the Back Booth, was two white guys rapping with nary a turntable in sight. Within the first 10 minutes, bearded frontman Jarrod Weeks had made perhaps a dozen references to the '80s and unloaded an entire can of Pabst on his head. Their live act was refreshing, though, and by the end of the night the crowd was either rapping with them onstage or jostling through the cramped performance space.

Meanwhile, the Social's triple threat of Jacksonville act The Julius Airwave, Orlando's New Roman Times and Tampa faves The Washdown was the most hyped show of the evening. And for good reason: None disappointed, though it was the least-known band that played the best set. Julius Airwave's well-informed power pop set them above most of the dreck I'd heard all day, completely shattering every expectation of yet another cookie-cutter mallrat band. It was damn near perfect, the kind of set that matches youthful ebullience with uncommon maturity. Which didn't come accidentally.

"We're all married, two of us with kids," said bassist Chris Gibson. "I'm a car mechanic and [drummer Mark Hubbard] is a grill cook, so we have to do these weekend warrior gigs."

Such hard-won wisdom undoubtedly influenced their live act — this is where they get their catharsis, and they know that each show is just as important as the last. "We have to play this intensely even if there is no crowd," Hubbard adds. "It also makes controlling the fans easier, especially if there's more of you than there are of them," he says, laughing.

The FMF bands, all of which made sacrifices to be here (these are unpaid gigs, remember), left me with less cynicism than just a few hours prior. Even if none receive record deals, fame or attention, their work ethic is undeniable. The old "Support Local Music" clichés never sounded so imperative.

Contact Events Editor and Music Writer Mark Sanders at 941-9067476, or [email protected].

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