Monday, February 11, 2008

The Music-Breathing Dragon

I need not recuse myself.

Sure, MAD Dragon Records is Drexel University’s innovative student-run, faculty-supervised record label. And I like most of what MAD Dragon puts out.....and I went to Drexel. But I am not unfairly biased towards MAD Dragon because it’s associated with my alma mater. If that line of reasoning were true, I’d own every book written by my former professors (I haven’t even read most of those books) and I’d attend every remotely interesting event on Drexel’s campus (I’ve attended only two events on campus in the past year—both MAD Dragon concert showcases). MAD Dragon just so happens to have a knack for spotting and nurturing talent. The label’s initial release, the first in the Unleashed compilation series, came out a few months before I graduated. Though I was a history major who had taken a grand total of two music courses at Drexel, I was nevertheless intrigued enough to buy the CD, a respectable compilation of Drexel artists. I watched as the label expanded beyond Drexel acts, snagged a national distribution deal with Ryko, and garnered all sorts of positive attention in the press. Before long, I found myself writing about the label’s artists. Having met some of the devoted faculty and many of the impressively driven students who make the MAD Dragon breathe its musical fire, I know that this label has the potential for greatness. Maybe it’s already reaching that potential; the MAD Dragon Concert Showcase which took place at Drexel’s Mandell Theater on February 8th was one of the best shows I’ve ever attended. So good, in fact, that I feel compelled to write about it. Now, anyone who knows my work knows that I don’t write concert reviews. But this is not a concert review; this is a document of a cutting-edge label whose latest live showcase proved how much it has on the ball.

While concertgoers waited in the lobby for the doors to open, unannounced guests Hoots and Hellmouth offered some acoustic entertainment. Their American roots style is grounded in folk and bluegrass with rock elements sprinkled in. I’d been familiar with this band for quite some time and I’d never denied their talent, but I’d never felt that their music fit my tastes, either. That said, I was impressed as these guys jammed before the show and again between acts during the show. They handled their instruments effortlessly and raised their voices in harmonious glee, filling large rooms without any apparent amplification. Besides, it’s no longer common to see someone rockin’ out on an upright bass, and it’s never been common to see someone rockin’ out on a mandolin!

The show got underway in earnest with “special guests”—i.e., not MAD Dragon artists—The Takeover UK. The Pittsburgh pop-punk band played a brief, lively set and had an amiable stage presence, making for a decent, albeit unexceptional, opening act. But let’s not dwell on a band that’s not even on the label.

Kicking the show into high gear was guitar-slinging singer/songwriter Andrew Lipke, a One Note Ahead favorite over the past year. Andrew appeared with his under-acknowledged band, “Bandrew,” featuring Dave Perrin on drums, Joe Divita on bass, Joe Vasile on guitar, and Krista Nielsen (my hopeless rockstar crush) on cello. Andrew had promised me a mix of older songs and newer songs and he sure delivered. Hearing classics—you know, songs released a whole year ago—like “Untitled Song #1” and “Green Street” was a powerful experience. Andrew’s music has such a cathartic quality to it that you can heal many wounds by letting yourself get lost in his songs. I got to chat with him after the show about two newer songs I particularly enjoyed: the arrangement on “Get It Over With” had blossomed beautifully over the course of several performances, while the mood-shifting “Mind Games” contained an eerie, “Stairway To Heaven”-ish passage which still haunts me as I write this. In person, Andrew’s voice is so otherworldly that one must ask, “What IS that sound and where is it coming from???” My one minor complaint is that ever since Andrew and Bandrew played at a Sgt. Pepper tribute concert last June, they’ve been fond of performing a supercharged “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” as a live novelty. They do an excellent job on it, but as a rare Revolver man in a world of Sgt. Pepper-ists, I wonder who else is up for an Andrew Lipke cover of “I’m Only Sleeping”....ahh, I can hear Krista’s cello now.... Anyway, Andrew’s currently working on a new album, and his MAD Dragon debut The Way Home… is readily available.

Andrew Lipke and Bandrew in the official video for "Untitled Song #1" (2007):

The Swimmers graced the stage with their distinctly 21st century take on new wave and power pop. This was my second time seeing The Swimmers, and their energy on stage was incredible both times. Having heard a few recordings of theirs, I can say that the recordings don’t do the band justice. To be fair, the same can be said about a lot of artists, including several that I’ve previously written about. Capturing that live energy in the studio is next to impossible without that give-and-take between the band and the audience, and of course a performer might be less inclined towards free-spiritedness when the performance is being fixed in perpetuity as an auditory representation of their work! That said, the best of the Swimmers tracks I've had the opportunity to listen to are smile-inducing ear candy, and I suspect that their forthcoming MAD Dragon album Fighting Trees will be a favorite among indie pop collectors. What I know for sure, however, is that The Swimmers are a wonderful live act with a great ability to make people feel good. They still have some growing to do, but they also have a lot of potential and I think they are better equipped to live up to it than much of the competition. Additionally, it was a joy to meet the band’s frontman Steve Yutzy-Burkey and learn that one of their best-known songs, “St. Cecilia,” is at least in part about pipe organs.

[March 4, 2008 update: Watch me eat my words about The Swimmers here.]

The Swimmers performing "St. Cecilia" at The Khyber in Philadelphia, 2006. Slightly glitched, but it will do until a better, more recent clip of this song is made available:

Next up was one of the very first artists featured on One Note Ahead, singer/songwriter Matt Duke. It was good to see that Matt is still working with bassist Dane Klein and drummer Nate Barnett—together, the three of them have a sound. Matt was his usual self, which is to say that I had no idea what he was going to do, say, or play next. He had his mellow moments, his silly moments, his frighteningly intense moments (those are always the most rewarding), and those seemingly inevitable Murphy’s Law moments which he handled with a typically ridiculous sense of humor. But the most intriguing aspect of the night’s set was the actual music. Instead of playing it safe, Matt laid down a bunch of newer, less familiar tunes. That meant no “Oysters,” no “Weeping Winds,” no “Tidal Waves,” no “Yellow Lights,” nothing from the XYX compilation or the Winter Child album. It would have been too much to ask him to play “Don’t Ask (For Too Much).” What he gave us was a host of fantastic-sounding songs whose lyrics I’ll need several more listens to totally absorb and whose titles I either don’t know or can’t remember yet—typical Matt Duke fare!—plus the strangely atmospheric “Love Buried” (featured last year on the label’s worthy Unleashed 3), which afforded Matt the opportunity for a Hendrix-style guitar freakout. He announced that his next album will be out in June. I’m already tired of waiting.

Closing out the night were The Redwalls, the only non-Philly act among the actual MAD Dragon artists who performed in this showcase. The Chicago band’s story is well-publicized, but the long and short of it is that Capitol Records had put out one album by the guys, who recorded a follow-up album only to get dropped by the withering major before the damn thing was released. Unusually, Capitol let The Redwalls keep the follow-up, which found a sympathetic home at MAD Dragon. Released last October, The Redwalls is a strong effort, building on the band’s Beatles and Kinks influences with doses of neo-psychedelia, orchestral rock, power pop, and American roots music. But in person, the four-man outfit in the tight-fitting clothes played an exciting fusion style combining the aggressiveness of rock with the feel-good energy of roll. Or, as I told the band’s product manager and their street team leader after the show, “The Redwalls are amazing!!!!” All the complex arrangements on the records were reduced to two guitars (one a Rickenbacker, no less), bass, drums, and three voices. This lean, mean sound called for each Redwall to play his part to the hilt, and all of the guys rose to the challenge. The harmonies were impeccable and the energy they gave to the audience was infectious. I was particularly impressed by the dreamlike “Each And Every Night,” which was surprisingly effective without the mock Phil Spector production of the album version, and the stripped-down treatment of “Build A Bridge,” a Capitol-era song recently featured on an AT&T/Cingular commercial. Of course, not everyone shared my positive sentiments. On my way out, I ran into someone I’d been chatting with before The Redwalls’ set. I said, “Hey, man! What’d you think of The Redwalls?” He smirked and replied, “They played how many different songs tonight? Two, right?” I simply paused to mull that over and groaned, “I didn’t find THAT funny. I’ll see ya ‘round.” And I walked away.

MAD Dragon gets inside The Redwalls' heads at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, 2007:

For more information:

Matt Duke on One Note Ahead:

Andrew Lipke on One Note Ahead:

Original text copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.