July 22, 2010

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Old and bold
Original music fights back at Manch Vegas Summer Jam
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

Sometimes it seems like original music doesn’t stand a chance in the bars of Manchester.

A band’s progression used to be fairly predictable. First, learn to play a few classics — “Sweet Emotion,” “My Sharona” and “Satisfaction” worked for those keen on being rockers. Then, hunker down in a garage or basement and find an original voice. Finally, play out in a few bars, get good enough to make a record — and hopefully, a mark on the music world.

But walk into a downtown show on a Friday or Saturday night, and everyone seems to be stuck at step one. There may be CDs for sale from the stage, but a band is lucky if it can trot out even one or two of its own tunes between the covers it’s required to play to get booked.

A few self-proclaimed “old and bold” area musicians hope to change that, beginning with a big show at Milly’s Tavern on July 31.

Robby Gagnon remembers a time when original music thrived in Manchester. His band Hollywood East enjoyed a lot of success in the early 1990s.

“We could play everywhere, from the Mai Tai on Elm Street to Decadence, over by Dunkin’ Donuts,” Gagnon said recently. “There was a theater that used to rent for 100 bucks for shows.”

By the end of the decade, he says, it was mostly gone.

“We have seen the scene disappear,” he said. “We want make a concerted effort to bring back original music in Manchester.”

The event, dubbed the Manch Vegas Summer Jam, won’t bring back the golden day of the early ’90s. But if it serves as a reminder that there are still bands on the scene willing to find their own sound instead of covering Skynyrd and Zeppelin songs, that would be a start, Gagnon said.

“Led Zeppelin wasn’t a cover band playing the Chinese circuit in Manchester. They were an original band, coming from the heart and putting it out on the stage,” Gagnon said. “‘Gimme Three Steps’ isn’t a cover song, it’s an original written by Lynyrd Skynyrd, made with blood, sweat and tears.

It’s time to move the scene forward, he said, and “Without original bands, there’s no chance that will happen again.”

The five-band show includes some veterans of the scene: Josh Logan, My Sister Will, Kopko, and Gagnon’s current band Lords of Audio. Rounding out the lineup is a younger modern rock band, Seven States Away — “I don’t think anyone in that band is old enough to drink,” Gagnon said with a laugh.

My Sister Will is in many ways a microcosm of the Manchester music scene. Front man Jace Longway has performed with several bands, including popular early ’90s rockers the Cinch. Two of the group’s members play country music with the Tom Dixon Band. Bass player Tommy Spangler briefly owned and ran the Flambeaux, an Elm Street club that opened and closed in 2009.

Mark Kopko, who fronted American Bred for several years, will appear with his new band Kopko. The group has a loose rock sound that Gagnon jokingly calls “hippie music.”

Before Josh Logan became an area favorite playing solo and with his own band, Gagnon remembers a stint he did as a roadie for Hollywood East. “We’ve all come and gone through different bands, it’s always been this kind of close knit,” Gagnon said, “but we’ve never banded together to do something.”

It’s an ambitious effort, with more than 1,500 invitations sent to Facebook friends, and any fans still lingering on the all-but-moribund MySpace. They hope to sell 400 tickets and provide everyone who appears with a decent payday. Said Gagnon, “how cool is it to be a rock band and play a set and make 300 bucks towards a session and CD?”

First and foremost, they want to deliver a message, Gagnon said: “If we put 400 people in Milly’s on a Saturday night to hear original music, it makes a statement.”

They’ve received support from Mad Bob’s owner Madeline Shields, who posted fliers for the event in her bar and even offered tickets for sale. The Lincoln Street club is among the few Manchester establishments willing to buck the trend. “She loves these bands, and loves original music,” Gagnon said.

Others are watching to see if this works, Gagnon said: “We have talked to a couple of clubs. We have another venue or two that have already said they’d be willing to let us do it once, but we’d have to prove it to them.”

Sometimes the hurdles are maddening, he said. “For a guy my age to be talking to a manager who’s 10 years younger than me, telling me that he knows everything about the music scene and that stuff just doesn’t work here — it’s kind of crazy.”

But Gagnon says the effort is worth it even it only succeeds a little bit.

“We don’t think it’s going to come back to the way it was in the heyday, but it can come back to somewhere in between. You’re not gonna find every Friday and Saturday night five clubs in Manchester doing nothing but original music, four or five bands a night. There aren’t enough bands to support it, nor are club owners willing to risk their necks. But we can get two or three clubs and a few more bands. There are bands out there.”


Next up at the Middle
What: Manch Vegas Summer Jam with Lords of Audio, Josh Logan, My Sister Will, Kopko and Seven States Away
Where: Milly’s Tavern, 500 Commercial St., Manchester
When: Saturday, July 31, at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $10