“If you aren’t local, they’ll shit all over you,” he screamed in my right ear. Matt Southwell had brought his band Bang Sugar Bang back to his home state to make an appearance at the Motor City Music Conference. Their showcase the night before had been plagued with overrun set times and rescheduled bills that favored local talent at the expense of traveling bands and now he was drunk…and pissed.
The Motor City Music Conference started off with such high hopes. Here was a South By Southwest-style music conference coming to Detroit, a city with such a rich musical heritage that it seemed silly there hasn’t been a premier event like this going on forever. Growing up in Michigan, I root for Detroit. I pull for it and want it to have the fabled turnaround we all know is just around the corner. When I heard about the Conference, I was genuinely excited and fully expecting a professional event that would highlight what a cool city Detroit really is. On paper, it was all set: big named headliners; professional, experienced promoters; a wide variety of workshops and acts. This was going to be it. Can you tell I’m a Lions fan?
I submitted Riviera’s material through the very cool and super easy to use Sonicbids on January 13. A few weeks later, we received notice that we’d been selected and that showcase schedules would be posted by March 1. Touring bands will tell you that you need a lot of time to schedule road shows. Many venues book their best nights months in advance. A month and a half of lead time isn’t really very much, but it does still leave enough room to book shows in between your home town and the conference to make the trip financially justifiable.
March 1 came and went without word from the MC2 organizers. I checked the site and a new date for schedules had been posted, which came and went without word. Finally, the date of March 26 was set as when the FINAL line-up would be posted. Note that this is less than a month before the start of the conference, which leaves touring bands precious little time to line up shows, never mind promote them properly.
But of course, March 26 passed without posting of the schedule. Frustrated, I called Southwell in L.A. and asked if he’d heard anything about the conference. He hadn’t and so I logged on to the Web to check some Detroit papers to see if there was any info. Maybe the festival had been cancelled? Maybe Detroit had finally imploded like the Hudson’s building fiasco? Maybe…the Metro Times had a full schedule of acts. Scanning the page, I found both Riviera’s bill and Bang Sugar Bang’s, but not our beloved Quasar Wut-Wut’s (natives of Detroit who had also applied). I called the boss.
“Jake, the Quasars aren’t listed on the MC2 roster.”
“What the fuck…”
Jake and I fired off a series of emails to MC2 co-director Erica Koltonow. She eventually responded that she’d never received Quasar Wut-Wut’s confirmation to attend the festival. Jake immediately responded that they would indeed attend but we’d need to know the schedule as soon as possible to arrange travel. No reply. Another sally of emails from GLONO HQ and she finally gives our boys a Wednesday night at Small’s in Hamtramck.
When there’s no time to schedule a tour around a conference like this you have to think long and hard about how worthwhile an early slot on a mid-week bill on the first night of a fledgling conference really is. Generally, bands that are not big national names with a big draw will not get paid for these shows. You go to these things to promote your albums and pick up local contacts for future shows and maybe hook up with like-minded bands with which you can swap shows. There’s a lot of hot air made about networking with “industry” people, but it’s just that. Quasar Wut-Wut opted out of their night, thus forfeiting the $25 entry fee, but saving their asses on travel expenses. Riviera was not quite so lucky.
We drew a Friday night slot with local tastemakers Bulldog headlining. I, for one, was very excited about the chance to play with a band who does NOT dip into the same stagnant well as most “alt-country” bands today. Loftus had talked them up and there are few people out there whose musical taste I trust more than Johnny’s. His word is bond.
After driving 4 and a half hours across the Great Lakes State to the small Polish enclave of Hamtramck, we were more than a little stir crazy and glad to have made it to the venue on time. The opening band Jo Serrapere and the Willy Dunns were just starting their set of folky, sometimes jazz-tinged ballads and torch songs. Backed by seasoned and clearly accomplished musicians, Serrapere has a strong voice similar to Chicago’s own Kelly Hogan with less attitude. It was a great set to sip a scotch and water to while the daze of driving shook off.
Some time shortly after our arrival we were informed that Bulldog had cancelled. First bad sign of the night. Despite my persistent questioning, event manager “Tiny” wouldn’t give any info on their cancellation beyond “they’re just not coming.” Now, why would a local band just starting to make a hum in a city virtually vibrating with buzz pull out of a premier music conference? Could it be they knew something we didn’t?
But the show must go on, or more importantly, the show must not end early and force the bar to close, thus losing out on liquor sales. Our man Tiny asked if we’d be flexible with our set time. Wary of this sort thing having booked my own shows for ten years, I asked what he meant by “flexible.” Citing the need to keep the bar open, he asked if we’d go on around 12:45, a move that would make us the closing band. Now, I have all the confidence in the world in my band’s ability to close a night, but we rarely play Detroit and have yet to build a draw on our own. The whole point of playing this show was to get in front of the best crowd possible and win some fans. Being an unknown band closing out a night of locals at one in the morning is not the position you want to be in, especially when one of those locals has a bona fide celebrity front man!
“Why doesn’t the Orbitsuns close? They’re local and they must have a good draw,” I asked Tiny.
Ex-Sponge [Um, ex-who? – ed.] lead singer Vinnie Dombrowski fronts the Orbitsuns. Youngsters might not remember that they had two minor hits in the 90s, “Plowed” and “Molly (Sixteen Candles).” Having woken up to find grunge dead and the gothic country tones of Blanche tuggin’ scenesters’ ears from the Lager House to the Magic Bag, Dombrowski must have walked to the local Hot Topic and picked up the first trucker hat he could find and started bending more notes to fit in. As dull as this band is, they are local and fronted by a “platinum selling” artist (according to their website). “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have them close out the night,” I implored Tiny. Apparently not.
An hour or so after first approaching me, Tiny loafed back to say that the Orbitsuns would not take the last slot. There was mention of gigs the night before and the following night as well as 8:30 am work schedules, none of which made any difference nor made any sense.
I negotiated with Tiny for a while and we agreed that Riviera would take the stage at midnight (just ten minutes later than originally scheduled), but would play for an hour and a half instead of the allotted 45 minutes. While still not ideal, it was workable and if we set up very quickly we could keep the crowd with a strong opener.
While we waited for the standard rockabilly of the Ingham County Regulars, Bang Sugar bang’s Southwell arrived with lead singer Cooper in tow.
“We got totally fucking hosed last night,” Southwell spit into my ear. Having played in a band with Southwell in college, I recognized his tone right away. He’s an ex-hockey player from northern Michigan who moved to Los Angeles and started a war with the local weeklies. He’s not one to mince words.
“They totally fucked with our set time and basically let some local DJ fuck around the whole night,” said Southwell. “I brought half of Alpena down for our set and they still gave us the shaft.”
It was a theme I’d hear throughout the night. Traveling bands getting dicked over by local prima donnas. Loftus had heard similar stories from two other bands that night. That’s no way to run a national music conference. While I agree that local bands should get premium slots and support when their city hosts an event like this, I don’t think it should be at the expense of those bands who spent money and time getting there, often scheduling tours around attending the conference. If you want a conference that just highlights local talent, don’t invite bands from other states.
Southwell’s band stood around for an hour and a half while local DJ cum Robert Plant impersonator Barbara Payton dragged out her set, this after Bang Sugar Bang was bumped from their original set time from third to closing. Sound familiar? It gets worse.
“After letting her go on and on for an hour and a half, 25 minutes into our set we get the two-song warning from the sound guy,” said Southwell. “We had our set timed out at 30 minutes—it was the same set we played opening for the Dead Kennedys—so it wasn’t that big a deal, but still…”
His story had eerie similarities to the night that was unfolding for us. But Vinnie Dombrowski was a pro! Surely he wouldn’t pull such an amateur move on us.
The Orbitsuns embody everything I hate about alt-country. It’s a genre that requires acting, I understand that. The Great Depression was a long time ago and real life coalminers don’t have much time for late night sets in gentrified neighborhoods. The great irony being that many lovers of alt-country claim it as a more “real” genre than pop. But there are different levels of acting. Where Uncle Tupelo may have been on par with Sean Penn, the Orbitsuns are the genre’s equivalent of Steven Segal—all overblown posturing and style with no substance. If you sing with an accent you didn’t grow up with, I am not interested.
As the Orbitsuns’ set eased over the hour mark, I was getting nervous. Midnight was coming up mighty quick and I didn’t see how we’d switch out the gear from their set to ours in time to make our agreed start time. As an added show of accommodation, we’d agreed to let them use Riviera’s drum kit. It saved on set-up time and saved the Orbitsuns from having to load their own kit in and out of the small club.
It was 12:10 when their guitarist launched into a five-minute joke. It would be another 15 minutes before Dombrowski announced their “final” song, a bar band 10-minute sham of Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues.” At this point I turned to Tiny and asked, “How long is this going to go on?”
“I’m trying to get them off, they won’t stop.”
This is the worst thing you can do to a visiting band—hog up the prime time with a self-absorbed set that borders on a bad skit. And there was no end in sight. As the clocked ticked past 12:30, we’d had enough. I gathered the band in the backroom and dropped the bomb.
“This band is fucking us. Let’s get outta here,” I said, tempered with several glasses of Chivas.
With little more than 30 seconds of debate, we all agreed it was time to at least save our pride and leave. After having to track down our own venue information, after compromising on set time and length, after lending these douche bags Joshua Rogers’ one-of-a-kind Ludwig kit, after enduring an hour and a half of Vinny Dombrowski’s banality and phony country posing, we’d had enough. We grabbed up our gear and loaded the van. We were leaving.
It didn’t take long for Tiny to notice. As we hauled our amps out the back door he came running over in a panic. “What, you guys are leaving?” You’re fucking right, Tiny. Soon he summoned the bar owner, a solidly drunk lady whom I actually liked quite a bit. She implored us to stay but it was she who’d rooted on the Orbitsuns into their bloated set. It was she who had no regard for the fact that we’d driven so far to play a free show in her venue only to be shafted by a pseudo-local celebrity and his band of fakers.
Within minutes the reinforcements arrived. Five MC2 promoters followed us into the alley and asked why in the world we’d leave now. After explaining the whole thing yet again, I walked them back into the bar and asked them to take a look at the crowd. At 12:50, a solid hour after we were scheduled to go on, Dombrowski was still on stage aping to a fast dwindling crowd that numbered 50 at best. “It’s a Friday night and this is the best this guy can draw in his home town?” I asked. “You guys shafted us for this. You can’t drag that asshole off the stage.”
We did eventually get Joshua’s kit off stage and loaded up. As we walked out at 1:10 am I looked back to see Dumbrowski still on stage, holding court as we walked through the drizzle to our van. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear he’s still there now.
In the end, the MC2 was like so much that comes out of Detroit. It is theoretically a great thing that gets fucked up by local politics. Here’s hoping next year is the year the Lions go all the way, but you can bet we won’t be back for the Motor City Music Conference.