Now Playing: Community Center

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.

Now Playing: Universal Sigh


Though the Georgia-based outfit Universal Sigh has certainly found a comfortable home on the jam-band circuit  — the quatet’s four live Bandcamp releases provide powerful testimony to their estimable long-form improvisational chops — don’t mistake them for just another band of burnouts. The Sigh’s approach to composition has more in common with ’70s prog and fusion and with neo jazz-rock outfits like Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe than it does with Trey and Jerry.
What’s more, singer-bassist Austin Parker’s hip-hop- and modern R&B-inflected vocals stand apart from the desultory wheezing of most jam-band frontmen, grounding Universal firmly in the realm of song-oriented rock ‘n’ roll. “It’s true that a lot of jam bands really don’t have good stand-alone singers,” says Universal Sigh drummer Pace Maynard. “Austin is pretty exceptional, especially for that scene.
“He has a naturally emotive way of singing that stirs something inside the listener. The first time we heard him, it was like, oh, wow, you should come and do that for us all of the time.”
Universal Sigh comprises four Georgia boys who coalesced around Athens and the University of Georgia about five years ago. Maynard says they all shared a love of classic rock in the vein of Zeppelin and Floyd, and classic prog in the vein of Yes and Crimson. Their tastes grew collectively to encompass Phish and the festival scene, and neo-jazz rockers like Snarky Puppy.
But even as the scope of their influences expanded to include more technically inclined musicians, Maynard says the band never lost sight of elements like groove and song. “I like prog, but I prefer the groovier prog,” he says. “I like to couch groovy, head-bobbing music inside more complicated structures.
“A lot of prog seems technical for the sake of being technical. It’s music for musicians. I like some of that music, but ultimately I’m more inclined to put on something that gets my head nodding. We try to achieve that balance between musicianship and groove in our songs. For that reason, we get a lot of fans who come up and say, ‘I don’t like jam bands, but I like you guys.'”
Though Universal Sigh has the four lengthy live releases on Bandcamp, and a slew more available at Archive.org, Maynard says they released their first “proper” studio record, “Atoms & Void,” in 2016 in order to “be legitimate in the eyes of the industry, and make our agent’s job a little easier.
“Our songs are constantly evolving, and you need ‘finished’ songs when you record,” Maynard says. “That made it difficult for us. Next time, we’ll concentrate on having a collection of songs, rather than whatever we have that’s ‘done.’ We’re happy with how ‘Atoms’ turned out, but next time we want to put out something that’s a better snapshot of the most pristine version of who we are.”
Universal Sigh will play Preservation Pub Saturday, Aug. 19 at 10 p.m.

Now Playing: All The Locals

It’s not often that a band’s career pivots on the release of a Christmas song, but that’s what happened for Atlanta, Ga.-based All The Locals with the release of their single “Something to Hold (This Christmas)” roundabout December of 2015.

ATL vocalist and keyboardist John Schmarkey tells that the then-three-year-old outfit had been struggling under the burden of career uncertainties and intra-band turmoil when the members took a step back and reassessed their direction. Parting ways with one original member, the rest of ATL went into the studio, their creative energies having been reinvigorated, and released the aforementioned single to a round of critical acclaim, including a statewide music award.

Ably mixing IMAX Rawk with neo-soul, hints of funk and plenty of pop savvy, “Something to Hold (This Christmas)” set  the band on a new course both musically and otherwise, a course that has carried through to their 2017 “Something She Poured” CD.

“That’s the point where I feel like we rekindled things, and really started climbing the ladder,” Schmarkey says. “We started writing a lot; we landed a distribution deal with Sony; we started touring and playing a lot of music festivals. We turned into not just a good team, but a good family.”

The latter is a key, Schmarkey says; some of ATL’s members can trace their friendships back to childhood. They’re a close-knit bunch, but also a diversely-inclined one. “Some of us came up playing Gospel in church,” Schmarkey says. “Some of us were inspired by rock, some of us were into funk. Our guitar player Mike (Fiorello) has a heavy Latin influence.”

That’s all true enough, inasmuch as there’s a lot going on in all of ATL’s releases. To be sure, a sturdy underpinning of neo-soul runs through the music, owing in no small part to Schmarkey’s distinctive vocal, a warm, lived-in rasp that recalls other white-soul crooners like Jay Kay of Jamiroquai and Marc Cohn of “Walking in Memphis” fame. But that strong soul core is leavened by bits of funk and snippets of blues, and adrenalized by a puissant helping of post-millennial arena rock in the mode of Coldplay or Imagine Dragons.

In truth, it’s no small feat that a band with such a diversity of influences, and with such an obvious wealth of talented players — the band members’ individual talents are much in evidence on all of ATL’s platters — has managed to meld its musical chops with its songwriting instincts, without giving short shrift to either.

Schmarkey says “Something She Poured” represents the pinnacle of that synthesis, a months-in-the-making project that saw the band members build their own studio and coalesce creatively in ways they’d never done before.

“One of our goals with this EP was to break it down to the level of pure songwriting,” Schmarkey says. “We’re all very much musicians, so we’re all always coming up with cool parts and interludes. This time, we wanted to make it more about the songwriting. And it came out well; this EP is a special one.

“We put ourselves in a small room and hashed everything out as a family. Everybody figured out what their part was, and the whole thing came out very organically. Within the confines of that room, we were able to literally pour out who we are, this huge, colorful combustion that is our band.”

All The Locals will play Preservation Pub Friday, Aug. 17 at 10 p.m.

Now Playing: “Adele and Everything After,” screening at Scruffy City Film and Music Festival

Anyone who has ever loved an old dog will love the idea behind filmmaker Melissa Dowler’s “Adele and Everything After,” though they may be given a moment’s pause by the film’s seemingly sad implications. The movie follows a Boston woman named Marty who suffers from a rare heart condition, and who receives a new lease on life courtesy of a big-eyed black Labrador service dog named Adele.

But with Adele entering her golden years, Marty faces the daunting twin challenges of finding a new canine companion possessed of Adele’s singular abilities, and of letting go of the relationship that has defined and transformed her life for nearly nine years.

But just what does “letting go” mean? Dowler doesn’t want to give away too much, but she acknowledges most dog lovers will probably need a little reassurance on the front end. “There is what you’d call a happy ending,” she says. “But it is a very emotional journey. We warn people to bring Kleenexes, but to know that in the end it will be okay.”

A corporate filmmaker by trade, Dowler had been looking to venture into documentary filmmaking for some time. As fate would have it, her months-long quest for a suitable subject came to an end in her very own downtown Boston apartment building, when she was approached by the lady who lived next door.

“Marty told me she needed to do a fundraiser, and she wondered if I could help her make a video,” Dowler says. “And when she told me her story, what she had been through and her relationship with Adele, I knew this was much more than a fundraiser. This was the documentary I had been looking for.”

Dowler learned that Marty suffered from vasovagal neurocardiogenic syncope, a heart condition characterized by sudden precipitous drops in blood pressure, resulting in unexpected fainting spells. The untreatable condition made a wreck of Marty’s life, rendering her a virtual shut-in, and leading to more than 30 concussions by the time she reached adulthood.

It seems improbable on the face of it, the notion that a dog could be of any assistance to someone with Marty’s problem. But when she looked into the possibility of employing a service animal, she found the Canine Partners for Life non-profit organization, and a solution to her problem in Adele, a black lab who had been trained to anticipate seizures in epilepsy patients.

With little additional training, Adele was able to do the same thing with Marty’s fainting spells. The two became inseparable companions, with Adele learning to perform an astonishing variety of additional tasks, from paying the check at restaurants to hauling clothes baskets back and forth from the apartment laundry room.

“No one really knows how these dogs do what they do,” Dowler explains. “But as soon as Adele got with Marty, she started sensing things. Whenever it happened, she would sit on Marty’s feet, wanting her to sit down. And it completely changed Marty’s life. Suddenly, she could go out and start doing all the things she could never do before.”

But the focus of Dowler’s film is  the painful segue for both dog and owner, the point where the nine-year-old Labrador can no longer perform all of her duties with the vigor that had characterized her youth, and where Marty must let go and learn to place her trust in a new canine friend.

“One thing people may not understand is this is not a normal dog-and-owner relationship,” Dowler says. “These two were together 24-7. If Marty rode an airplane, Adele was there. When she took a shower, Adele was waiting just outside the shower. It was like losing a part of herself.

“She was letting go of a relationship that saved her life. And she was racked with questions. Will I find a new dog? Will the relationship be the same? What will it mean for Adele?”

“Adele and Everything After” debuted in April at the Cleveland Film Festival, its premier drawing SRO crowds to showings on two different screens. Gratified by the reception, Dowler says the successful premiere speaks to the film’s compelling emotional center. “I was able to build a trust with Marty over time, and because of that, she doesn’t hold anything back,” Dowler says. “You really see her struggle.

“My own favorite films are films that make me feel something. And when one of my films makes the audience laugh or cry or gasp, that’s the best reward I can receive as a filmmaker.”

“Adele and Everything After” will screen at Scruffy City Hall Thursday, July 27 at p.m.

Now Playing: “No Roads In,” screening at Scruffy City Film and Music Festival

https://youtu.be/eDjiaxPwY-I

More than just a concert film, more than just another behind-the-music rock doc, “No Roads In” is the story of two men’s quest for artistic truth in a world given over to pre-fabricated entertainments. It chronicles the odyssey of Canadian sound engineer Adam Naugler and singer-songwriter Blake Reid as they seek to record an album of original music in a century-old farmhouse in the middle of a wheat field in southern Alberta. In a recent phone interview, Naugler and Reid discuss the recording project, how they came to work together, and how their musical journey turned into a cinematic one, as well.

Scruffington Post: What was the genesis of “No Roads In?”

Adam Naugler: It started over five years ago. I’m a sound man in the film and TV industry, and I was doing a lot of projects that didn’t inspire me. Lots of reality TV stuff, or as I like to say, “non-reality” TV. I was feeling lost, and I wanted to get back to my craft. I’m passionate about music, and I wanted to do something that would make me feel excited again.

I’m also a country boy at heart. And I wanted to bring those worlds together, my love of music and my love of a certain rural way of life. I started looking for a house to do some kind of recording project in. And I looked through a whole bunch of houses, but somehow, none of them were quit right.”

SP: How did Blake become involved with the film?

AN: I knew I wanted to do a recording project. And although I am a musician myself, I’m not a singer or a songwriter. As it happens, Blake and I have a mutual friend. He had introduced me to a record Blake had done, while we were off filming polar bears in Manitoba in the middle of a snow storm. I had nothing to do but listen to that record, and I was blown away. It drew me in from the first song. He has a way where the words he crafts transport you right into the moment he’s singing about.

Fast forward to 2014. That album had been one of my favorites ever since. I was in Nashville filming a food show, and that same director said, “Hey, Blake’s in town. Let’s all have lunch.” We had lunch, and I started telling Blake about this recording project. And he was into it from the start. From that moment on, we determined to find a way to make this work.

Blake Reid: I always had it in mind to do a live recording project. So when I met Adam, I already had some songs that were very organic, that didn’t fit in with a lot of the commercial country I work in. Then I just started writing more material, just sort of writing without boundaries. It was an opportunity to really get back in touch with who I am as an artist.

SP: Describe the process of finding the house that was eventually used in the film.

AN: The job was to find a house with a story to tell. And while we saw a lot of great houses, there was always something that just wasn’t there. Then one day, I was driving around southern Alberta, and I went down this road I had driven a thousand times before. But this time, I saw the top of a roof that I’d somehow never seen before. This house just looked like it had been set down in the middle of nowhere. It was an empty farmhouse; the last time it was occupied was 1939.

At first, the owner didn’t want anything to do with me. He was not interested in anything I had to say. But it was eating away at me, so I went back again the next day, and I wouldn’t leave. I told my story, and after a couple hours, I was able to convince them it would be okay.

BR: That old house had such a warmth to it. A lot of old houses are spooky, but not this one. There was a uniqueness about that house, and about the way we recorded there. We recorded everything live, with a generator just outside. The house and all of its ambient sounds were a part of the recording — the wind, the rustling wheat, the way the plaster on the walls pushed back against the sounds the musicians made. As a songwriter, it was really interesting for me to have the environment as an element in the songs, and the recording. We didn’t run away from that; we embraced it.

SP: At what point did the recording turn into a film?

AN: We decided early on that we should document our journey, just hang some GoPros and run with it. But the nature of our journey was we never really knew what it was going to be. The project had a way of finding its own way. It had a mind of its own, and it transformed into a full-fledged documentary.

“No Roads In” will screen Friday, July 28 at 7 p.m. at Scruffy City Hall. For more information, see http://www.noroadsin.com and http://www.blakereidband.com.