Tapeopcon Showcase – Hotel Congress (Tucson, AZ)
TapeOpCon just loved New Orleans in the summer of 2005. They couldnt wait to return, and organizers Larry Crane and Craig Schumacher had hoped to make the Crescent City their conference home for the next few years.
When Katrina blew those plans away, the duo scrambled for new digs, and ultimately Schumacher brought the Con to his Tucson home. That the resulting attendance exceeded expectations is a tribute to the fortitude, fearlessness, flexibility and good humor of the indie music industrys techie contingent no doubt the very qualities that keep them in business.
Gamely, they braved 100-plus temperatures in the universal bleach-out of the desert sun. Cheerfully, they boarded buses for the 20-minute ride, each way, from their secluded resort conference center in the foothills to downtowns historic venues, for evening panels at the newly restored Fox Theatre, and concerts following at Hotel Congress. Impressively, they exhibited an unabashed love of music that of the locals in early evening slots, as well as the name acts who came later with committed attentiveness and enthusiastic responses. These folks are full-on fans of live music. The sound, of course, was near perfect.
Perhaps it was the home team effect, but local acts often stole the show. To Tucson bands, the TapeOp crew was full of industry moguls representing, perhaps, the chance of a lifetime. They relished the chance to strut their stuff.
Locals the Solace Brothers and Beta Sweat were runaway hits, the former having gained some notoriety as openers for Built To Spill on a few dates in 2003. Fresh from their own two-week national tour, the Solace Brothers were nearly unrecognizably tight. Local crowds look forward to the spontaneity that often makes their sets unpredictable. Friday night, though, their keyboard-driven gut-rock was focused, front and center, and they brought the house down. Austin singer-songwriter Steve Poltz couldnt stop talking about them in his charming set of postmodern show tunes the next afternoon.
On Saturday, Beta Sweats Marina Cornelius offered up a stage style and vocals like Grace Slick as girl-next-door. Her sister Leann plied bass, and Jake Bergeron held it all together on drums. If it werent for Calexico, this would be Tucsons favorite band. The kids have it, and no doubt they dreamed some in the audience could make them rock stars. Perhaps they could.
The surprise of the weekend was Phoenix musician Lonna Kelley, who followed Granddaddys Jason Lytle in a set before the Solace Brothers. Kelley and her band played her blend of Gillian Welch and Tara Jane ONeil sensibilities with such poise and taste, youd think they were touring veterans. In fact, though, because Phoenix is tough for those playing anything but blues-based rock and metal, Kelley might not have an audience at all if it werent for Tucson. She doesnt even have a record, but her Frenzy video has earned five stars on YouTube.
National acts wore many hats for the weekend, not only performing on the night stages but also participating in conference workshops and panels, and stoking their gearhead joneses on the exhibition floor, in between dunks in the pool and poker games in their hotel rooms. Extra credit goes to those who performed on the outdoor stage. The locals, at least, know the train schedule about every ten minutes along tracks across the road from the hotel and some have even learned to incorporate the attendant rumble and occasional whistle scream. But the trains seemed to fluster some of the visitors, especially Rebecca Gates, who got off to a bad start and ended her set early. Friends Of Dean Martinez fared much better in a set that spanned their catalogue, but then leader Bill Elm grew up here.
Jay Bennett filled the parking lot with his deep rasp and a collection of hard-rocking new songs from his forthcoming release. Accompanied only by David Vandervelde on drums, he made do without the considerable technology featured on his recordings. We havent figured out how to play these songs with just the two of us, he said between songs, but loud equals good. Were all about loud.
The schedule had acts alternating between inside and outside stages, but it went the way of the trains after a set or two, and for most of Friday and Saturday, attendees were making tough choices: Stan Ridgway or M. Ward? American Music Club or Ian Moore?
Saturday had the crowd split nearly exactly in two. A barbecue supper gave the edge to an outdoor set by Tucsons popular Little Sisters Of The Poor, the countrier, folkier rock project of former Sidewinder David Slutes. As entertainment director for Hotel Congress, Slutes had a busy hand in organizing and stage-managing the TapeOp concerts. Indoors, Brian Berg of 44 Long all but ran away with the hootenanny song-swap before it collided with Norfolk & Western on the outdoor stage. Bergs fellow Oregonians turned in a predictably polished set of unpredictable music, including a lovely cover of Neil Youngs Heart Of Gold among their genre-mashing originals a blend of country, rock, and eastern European folk, featuring accordion and banjo along with the more traditional rock trio instrumentation.
Meanwhile, back inside the club, Tucson MVP Nick Luca held forth to a sizable and appreciative crowd. Luca is also an engineer with Schumachers renowned Wavelab Studio and had a big role in organizing this TapeOpCon. Ian Moore followed, filling the room for a dynamic set of new and old songs accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fucus.
As the temperature fell into the 70s and a light breeze softened the air, Cracker turned in a lackluster, after-midnight set. Many attendees already were partying on buses headed back to the hotel, but if someone had collected a dollar from everyone who said, You know, I really like Camper Van Beethoven, but…, it would have made a nice donation to help rebuild New Orleans.