Few rock ‘n’ roll origin stories are as strange and beguiling as that of the Baltimore-based six-piece outfit Community Center. Founded in 2015 by a group of area theater veterans, the band rapidly graduated from playing one-offs in local bars to living on the road.
“There was a gang of us who wrote music for the theater in Baltimore, and we decided to play out with some of our songs,” says singer-guitarist Brian Loeper. “We put out an ad that said, ‘We’re going to do this year round. There’s no money in it but we’re going to do it every day and travel all over the country.’ We got lucky and got two more people who wanted the same things we did.
“Then we bought a van off Craigslist and started doing shows. Our first tour was supposed to last three months and it went six. And now we’re doing 250 shows a year.”
But that’s not the only singular aspect of the Community Center story. Loeper and his colorful crew have released two albums — 2016’s “Horns and Thorns” and 2017’s “Those Animals” — that play like soundtracks to the best movie musicals you’ve never seen. Theirs is a crazy-quilt patchwork of genres, from trad rock to old-time jazz and cabaret and gypsy and blues, steered by the dizzying vocal interplay of co-leads Loeper and singer-trumpet player Amanda Rife, which is in turn spiced, spliced, and sometimes undercut by various vocal interludes courtesy of the remaining four band members.
It’s a truly theatrical approach to making music, an approach marked by comic sketches, onstage choreography, loads of audience engagement, and an exploration of character within the context of a rock song. “It isn’t quite like seeing ‘Music Man,’ but it is much more than us pushing buttons on our instruments,” Loeper says.
“Our songs are usually based around characters. We use lots of different voices, lots of different key and tempo changes. We like to play off characters that have pretty obvious shortcomings — who have problems with honesty or fidelity, or who have lots of bad habits. We employ lots of dark humor and self-deprecation.”
A key to the band’s theatrical give-and-take, says Loeper, is the sonic contrast between his own indie-rock-approved bellowing and Rife’s more polished tonalities. “I kind of have a barky, scratchy voice,” he says. “I have a lot of energy, but less accuracy. Amanda’s voice is more precise. She has an excellent instinct for melody and harmony. She tends to take the parts that are pretty or soaring or poignant. I take the parts that are more grumpy or aggressive.”
Adding to the gleefully experimental atmosphere at Community Center shows is the fact that the band allots a portion of each night’s performance to working out new material. Loeper explains that, given the band’s heavy touring schedule, their writing and recording chores have to be accomplished on the road, during the limited down time from traveling and playing gigs.
“We’ve got a mobile setup that allows us to work on songs when we have a little free time,” Loeper says. “Then we’ll take a few of those songs and work them into a certain part of the set every night. We like to have a part of the show where there’s uncertainty. It’s fun for us, and I think the audience recognizes it. The spontaneity usually translates to more fun for the audience.”
Nonetheless, Loeper acknowledges there are drawbacks to being a two-year-old, two-album outfit adhering to the touring schedule of 20-year arena rock veterans. “Instead of networking for a decade, we just jumped in a bus,” Loeper chuckles. “So there are nights we do really well, and the next night we may play to an empty bar. We’ve gotten used to the swings.
“But our goal is to just keep building it the way we are, to keep playing bigger and bigger shows. We don’t have any radio or specific monetary goals. We just want to play good shows to good crowds, and to keep honing our skills as a live band.”
Community Center will play Preservation Pub Tuesday, August 15 at 10 p.m.