Local bands make a comeback

Denver Collins

Dedicated musicians, loyal fans drive a musical renaissance that’s creating a scene in Kent that rivals that of the ’70s

Erik Urycki, lead singer of The Speedbumps, performs at FlashFest last week. Daniel Doherty | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Decades ago, Kent State was a melting pot of genuine musical talent, stirred by political unrest and social change that created not only a popular music scene, but a voice and identity for Kent itself.

In recent years, this talent has been put on the back burner, forgotten about by students, left cold under dreary northeastern skies.

But seasons change, and a diverse assortment of bands such as Tropidelic, Winslow, Amplexus, The Speedbumps, NJ’s and the Jeff, Lotus Groove, Drop to Zero and others have turned the heat back up on the local music scene.

Tropidelic lead singer Matthew “Roads” Andrle said this is the first time in a decade or two that Kent has had such an atmosphere.

“I really think we’re seeing a renaissance in Kent,” he said. “And this is just the beginning.”

The Rising Scene

Tom Simpson, assistant director of the Center for Student Involvement, has a bird’s-eye view of emerging bands as the owner of the Kent Stage and an organizer for on-campus events such as FlashFest.

“Kent State has some very talented musicians. There are people dedicated to making things happen for themselves,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time to make things happen like this again.”

Simpson remembers the glory days as a student at Kent State when Joe Walsh, Devo and the Numbers Band ignited the city with tones of change and the power of music.

“There’d be people all over the place from one bar to the next. It was truly a music scene,” he said. “Now Kent has a reputation where everyone goes home on the weekend. My goal is to change that.”

And change is slowly coming, as student interest in local music is on the rise. Maurice Martin, lead singer for the fusion soul-rock band Winslow, believes crowd turnout is the best Kent has had in a long time.

“I’ve been here since 2002, it’s not the same at all,” he said. “This is the first time that there are multiple bands that can walk on stage in Kent and bring a crowd of 200 people to a show or even 300, which has happened in recent months.”

Martin said he has also been impressed with the loyalty of Winslow’s fans. For instance, Winslow planned their CD release party for their new album Crazy Kind of Love, on the day Kent was hit by one of the biggest snowstorms in a decade. But that didn’t stop their fans from coming out to support them.

“We still drew well over 200 people,” he said. “And people were getting ticketed the next day because they weren’t allowed to drive.”

Finding an Audience

The biggest potential for a Kent renaissance is the diversity of genres that the bands are creating. From hip-hop to hard rock and from jazz/funk to folk rock, no Kent band sounds the same, Amplexus lead vocalist Mahlon Rhodes said.

“I mean if you’re talking about a renaissance in Kent, there’s a lot of variety,” he said. “You can pretty much find whatever you’re looking for.”

As these bands are finding wider fan bases in Kent, they are also finding new ways to attract a following nationwide. Amplexus guitarist Billy Liber said they have taken advantage of iTunes and Myspace to promote their music to a far broader audience than Northeast Ohio.

“We’ve sold the majority of our CDs to people all over the world through mp3s,” he said. “We have a daily regiment of marketing that we do, constantly trying to reach out to people that we feel come from the artists we were influenced by. We go to their page and try to get into their fan base.”

Reaching out to other artists’ fans is one of the quickest ways to gain recognition, as jam-rock band Lotus Groove is finding out. Bass guitarist Jim Garibaldi said Lotus Groove is reaching out to more established artists by playing live shows with them, such as Rusted Root lead singer Michael Glabicki, Eric Diaz of Hot Tuna, and members of One Under who were formerly in Ekoostik Hookah.

“It’s not going to help you if you’re just playing in front of your friends every night,” he said.

Getting Noticed

Garibaldi said he believes interest in Kent is growing, but also said that it’s a slow process.

“When we’d play other cities, we were well received, but when we played it, Kent, it was barren, like 35 people,” he said. “Which, I mean, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Erik Urycki, The Speedbumps’ lead vocals and guitar, said that promoting locally is not his band’s strong point, but they have had similar experiences on the road, traveling out to the east coast whenever they get a chance.

“We can go to Boston and have people asking us to sign autographs, getting a response totally different from here,” he said. “It makes you feel like a rock star.”

With such success outside of Kent, Urycki is hesitant to describe student interest in local music as booming.

“We won’t know if anything is happening until it happens,” he said “But the potential is there.”

Simpson blames the corporate takeover of radio and television for the lull in participation among students in previous years.

“I would attribute the lack of interest in local music to a lack of interest in good music in general.” he said. “It’s just like everyone’s bought and sold.”

Just Listen

“People don’t want to give local bands a chance because they think, ‘ah, they’re just a local act,'” Simpson said.

But it’s important to remember how the political fervor of the ’70s brought people together to support music with a message. It was the support from the local community that brought national attention to determined and talented artists like Joe Walsh and the Numbers Band.

So now, in our own age of uncertainty, the opportunity for our generation to speak out through its music has presented itself once again. The diversity and drive of the bands in the current Kent music scene have the potential to define the persona of a campus without a clear voice. All they need now is a student body willing to go out and try new things.

“If one of these bands gets some real serious attention, that helps everybody. There’s an old saying,” said. “‘All ships rise with a high tide.'”

Contact entertainment reporter Denver Collins at [email protected].

Local Bands at a glance

The diversity of sound among the most popular bands in Kent is what helps the music scene grow. What follows is a list of Kent’s up-and-comers and what sets them apart from each other.

• Tropidelic: Influenced by 311, Sublime, Atmosphere and a mixture of reggae and hip hop, Tropidelic claims that they can bring a “positive light to grey skies.” Tropidelic has played with Afroman and will soon play with other national acts such as Badfish, Rusted Root and Pacifier.

• Amplexus: With a harder rock edge and influences from Slipknot to Dave Matthews, Amplexus defines their music as “aggressive indie metal.” “I’ve never heard of an indie metal band, but I hope we’re it. Maybe we’re starting a new genre,” lead vocalist Mahlon Rhodes said.

• Winslow: Combining old-school soul and funk with rock and jazzier influences, Winslow defines their sound as “fusion soul-rock.” Originally named 1959, they won the first round of Battle of the Bands having only played two previous shows. Their fifth show, they went on to win it all.

• Lotus Groove: Psychedelic jam bands live on, and Lotus Groove is carrying the torch for fans of The Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers and Ekoostic Hookah. With aggressive guitar solos over laid-back jam-rock riffs, their music brings the ’60s and ’70s to the new millennium.

• The Speedbumps: With slow, melodic tunes and a heavy emphasis on lyrics, The Speedbumps have been called neo-acoustic, folk, chamber rock and everything in between. Their sound is influenced by artists like Nick Drake, Wilco, Iron and Wine and Damien Rice, to name a few.