A Level 5 Charm Spell was Cast on Me...
To look around Cafe Nola Friday night, you would never have known that a federal government shutdown was looming - unless you you were hovering over my shoulder, watching me frantically tweet and re-tweet about it while guzzling decaffeinated peppermint tea at the bar (I drop booze, caffeine, and do the whole clean-eating thing every January and February - don't @me). Maybe we all knew, but chose to ignore it because Baltimore band Mess was owning up to their "Charm City" base and winning over the room with catchy, melodic, alt-indie-pop.
Don't get me wrong, I was paying attention to the music - the tweets happened in-between songs and sets...honest.
Caveat: I'm new to Frederick. I moved here in July of 2017, and have been quietly finding my bearings. I've found several good bars, the city is quite walk-able thanks to a great park system, and I have been getting involved in local politics...but I still hadn't quite tapped into the music scene in Frederick. Hell, I am not really sure there is one (and I noted as much in a lengthly post on the city's subreddit page).
Friday Night was a breath of fresh air, though. Two bands from Baltimore (or 'Bawmer' for the locals) - Mess and Violet Ripken - made their way from Charm City to join locals Middle Kid in the Key City at Cafe Nola for what ended up being a pretty stellar night of live music.
You Mean, Like, The Crescent City?!??
I got to Cafe Nola around 9:30, ordered a caffeine-free peppermint tea, found a seat at the bar and posted up for the evening. My Facebook communique with Middle Kid frontman Zack Willis noted that the music would start at 10:00 PM.
Cafe Nola is a fine establishment. Much like such places in Virginia, from whence I just moved, places that serve alcohol must also serve food. The food at Nola is great. I've had several dishes there while trying to soak up the bourbon consumed at my weekly Drinking Liberally meetings held each Wednesday. One reason the meetings are held there is that for those abstaining from adult beverages, Nola also has a wide selection of coffee and teas available to patrons. In all, there's a lot of things going right for Nola...but it's not really a music venue. Indeed, some of what follows is not necessarily complaints...just, notes, if you will, for potential conversations in the future about how to make establishments that feature live music more closely resemble actual music venues (but again, more on that later)
There is a section of floor opposite the bar that is raised about four inches, and this is the "stage." It works in that it's tucked away from the main trafficked areas (i.e., the entrance and the bar), but the "stage" is so shallow that bands playing there set up in a line, that is, the drum kit is front-and-center, and each other musician lines up beside the drum kit on the left or right. From the player's perspective, this is a nightmare. It's difficult to watch/hear your fellow bandmates...and because of the shallow stage, monitor placement is, shall we say, less than ideal.
Also - it gets oppressively loud in the room (love you Etymotic, mean it!). And it is not like the bands are rolling in with three Marshall "full stacks" a'la J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. But even a power trio (Middle Kid) or four-piece band (Mess; Violet Ripken) are gonna blow the doors off the joint without much effort.
Further, the floor area is peppered with tables (after all, Nola is a restaurant). Indeed, some of the tables had been moved to clear the stage area and the floor directly in front of it. But the tables that remained had not been moved because they were bolted to the floor.
One positive of this setup is that it doesn't take much to make the room seem packed. And indeed, all of the tables were full and there were still folks standing near the front by the time Mess started playing...
What a Beautiful Mess.
According to their Bandcamp site, opening band Mess hails from Baltimore/Frederick (though introduced themselves as a Baltimore band). Unlike my usual routine before a show - I unfortunately did not look up all of the bands on the bill and preview their music. I have been jamming on the Middle Kid EP for a solid few weeks now and just didn't think to do so. So when the group kicked into "Lean" off their recently released TREE EP, I nearly did a spit take with my peppermint tea while spinning around to ensure I hadn't accidentally stepped into a T.A.R.D.I.S. and jumped with The Doctor back to the alternative rock halcyon days. Scanning the stage - flannel shirt? Check. Fender Jazzmaster guitar? Check! Doc Martens footwear?!? CHECK!
It's times like this that I am über thankful for things like Spotify and satellite radio, as they provide younger generations 24 hour instant access to arguably one of the more important eras of music over the past 50 years (again...don't @me). I have a feeling that the dudes in Mess - who are mayyybe mid- to late 20s - have several records in their collection with a 1991 to 1993 copyright date stamped on the back. I hear moments of Sunny Day Real Estate and Hum in their sound. This is all meant as a compliment. After a stellar one-two opening punch of "Lean" and "No Grovel About the Road" (I believe) off the EP, lead singer Erik greeted the crowd in a nervous/muted voice I am guessing was embellished for effect - because after these two songs, Mess had no reason to be shy.
We were treated to all the songs off the EP in what was an all too-short set. In between songs, Erik noted and thanked the other bands for inviting them to the bill and supporting them during the set, thanked the crowd and recognized/welcomed his parents sitting at the table stage center. Luckily for Mess, they now have at least one more fan than their moms and dads.
Their set was stellar. Lush with layered electric guitars that were just filthy with melody, strained/yearning vocals, and an incredibly right rhythm section. The crowd was attentive - likely because the band has a commanding presence. For any fan of that early 90s alt-rock sound, check out TREE on Bandcamp [or click the image above to listen on Spotify]. you'll probably dig it. If nothing else, enjoy the nostalgia.
You Mean, Like, The Iron' Man's Mother??
If you're a big fan of the Bawmer Oweeoes, then you probably recognize the name Violet Ripken as the mother of the greatest baseball player of all time: Cal Ripken Jr.
Yet the 1991 Golden Glove and MVP's mother was not hanging around Cafe Nola Friday night. Better yet, we got a female-fronted Baltimore thrash punk quartet with the same name. Where Mess brought melody and moderate rock tempos, Violet Ripken dialed the room up several notches with buzzsaw guitars, punching bass and drums, and operatic vocals from singer Melissa Weller's booming pipes.
Another short set, it sounded like the band rifled through all six songs on their WILDCARD EP plus a few more. Weller also noted that they were glad to be in Frederick as part of this bill. They were definitely a good fit in that both bands thus far had a punk/diy ethos, and it was a treat to get two different sounds.
No, Not the Aussie Three-Piece...They're Plural
Around midnight, Frederick-based power trio Middle Kid took the stage, lighting into two new songs not available on the 2016 YEAH SURE EP or the all acoustic WHINER. After greeting the crowd, front Middle Kid Zach Willis and band commenced with the YEAH SURE lead-off track "Shell" which, musically, sounds like something straight out of Chapel Hill indie stalwarts Superchunk's playbook. There is something to be said about songs that can see-saw two chords back and forth through the verse and chorus and still hold your attention. "Shell" is one of those songs. By the time the band hit the bridge, they were firing on all cylinders. Willis has a lively stage presence. Plenty of jumping around (and being that the band is a three piece, there was more room to do so) such that there were multiple times between songs where Willis had to reaffix his classes and beanie hat to his head. Following suit, the band delivered a short - but punchy and impactful set.
The new songs sounded like a sonic departure from what is available on YEAH SURE. I wouldn't be surprised if Willis had been listening heavily to WOWEE ZOWEE-era Pavement before penning them. Once again, meant as a compliment. To be more specific, the guitar lines on these new songs leaned more toward 'avant' than they did melodic. But that is just the opinion of one set of ears. Looking forward to hearing these songs as they gel. Regardless, I am happy to report that I have a new favorite band in Frederick...
If I Am A Stranger Now To You...I Will AlwayS Be...
This was a much-needed night of local/regional music for me. If you read the Reddit post I referenced above, you'll catch hints of my previous lives in Richmond, VA; Little Rock, AR; and Fayetteville, AR - all three places with strong music scenes - and in two of which where I was an active participant.
All of these cities had venues with stages. One benefit to playing in Arkansas is that bars are not required by law to serve food where alcohol was also served. So you could build a bar and a stage and you are golden. Virginia and Maryland have an arcane and bullshit puritanical law that doesn't allow for the construction of *just* a bar. So you're hamstrung into serving food at places that also serve alcohol.
That said, and I am completely spit-balling here, but I wonder if bar/restaurant owners in Frederick view live music as an auxiliary effort. As noted in the Reddit post, venues in Frederick don't really have "stages" - and those that do could possibly utilize their spaces better so that the stage area felt like a music venue.
I am beginning to hear whispers. And a recent one is that the owner of Cafe Nola recently bought the entire building that houses the establishment. That building has three floors. The whispers tell me that there may be plans to put a barcade in on the second floor. While barcades are fun, I can't help but think this is a mistake. Hear me out...
Turn the upstairs of Cafe Nola into a legit music venue with a stage and an upstairs bar. The upstairs bar does not have to be as stocked as the main restaurant bar downstairs. Put someone at the door to collect cover and slap wristbands on those who pay it; these folks can traverse up-and downstairs as they please. If you just want to come to Nola to hang and drink/eat sans music...then you can chill downstairs in the restaurant.
This only works if the music scene in Frederick comes together to help a place like Nola profit from such a venture. And that means putting on shows, then promoting the holy fuck out of those shows, ensuring folks come to the venue, and spend their money (on food, booze what have you). All sides of the music community (bands/artists, fans, and venue owners) need to come together on this. Nola could/would be the place where the "scene kids" (I don't mean that pejoratively) of the music community would hang out. They would see it as "their bar." Fans would hopefully follow suit - because if you have a vibrant music scene, it's kinda rad to run into artists and musicians you may have just seen on stage last week knocking back beers in the same place where you and your friends are hanging out. I've lived in places where this is the norm. Indeed, it is pretty rad.
Over the next few weeks and months, I hope to turn the above into a larger conversation with the music and venue communities. I don't yet know whether or not I will chronicle it here, because who the fuck am I? But there are several other well-established Frederick outfits that might be a more appropriate venue for this conversation (such as the Frederickland Blog, the Subversive Zine, or maybe the Western Machines Blog - which recently published a post sharing this sentiment).
Hopefully some local Frederick folk in the know will read this and reach out.