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When I was 15 years old, I hit hipster puberty. I was too young for the club scene, and never heard local music—covers or otherwise—on the radio, and certainly not on MTV. I was coming into my teenage know-it-all years, wrapped up in adolescent egocentrism. I'd received my first record at age 4, and had been reading Creem and Rolling Stone since I was 8. I not only knew shit, I knew all the shit. So I didn't care about my classmates' tales of The Stench or Zion Tribe. I had Kiss, Petty and The Replacements.
Oof. It hurts to admit I was a dumbass. Especially about music, which I purport to love and am paid to chronicle and criticize. Younger, dumber me screwed me out of some great music. I hate that little bastard.
If I missed a mainstream album, I could always go to the record store. It wasn't so easy with local music. It was so much harder to release a record back then. You had to see these bands live, and their life expectancies were much shorter than now. If you overlooked a band, you missed them altogether.
I don't have to tell a bunch of music fans how profound a bummer it is to miss a hot show or classic album. I missed a lot. Some, like at the storied punk and metal venue Speedway Café, were because I was too young or had a curfew. But The Stench, Boxcar Kids, PCP Berzerker—all were casualties of my ignorance. Fortunately, I got out there.
At The Great Saltair one early-to-mid-'90s night, my friends and I attended a locals-only show headlined by local grungers The Obvious, who'd been getting played on X96. Being young, dumb and full of ourselves because we happened to play guitar (albeit poorly), we stood ready to judge all four bands harshly. But Iris' fey take on erudite Smiths-Cure mope-rock was pretty cool. And being young, dumb and full of our lingering virginity, we got way too excited about their song "Justine and Julia." Then Honest Engine started to set up and we got even more excited about the nerdy singer's glittery Gretsch.
They introduced themselves and launched into "U.R.V.R.," a prescient tale of mind expansion via virtual reality that I'd later learn was the foursome's go-to opener. Since my group was on a third-wave ska kick, Ben Carter's clean chicka-chicka intro grabbed us. Before we could skank, Carter stopped. We dangled in suspense, hanging on the low roar of a power chord, which finally gave way to a mean, funky riff. Suddenly, Honest Engine was in full chug, and we rode the funky verses and snarling choruses, picking up pieces of Tom Cram's philoso-geek lyrics about alienation, inclusivity and questioning authority. We grooved along with Jonni Lightfoot's pop-and-choke bass in lockstep with Eric Empey's skittering, jazzy beat. We might have squealed like fangirls at Carter's manic, whammy-fueled solos. The set culminated in what we'd learn was Honest Engine's favorite closer, an explosive anthem about a population mad with existential questions that decides to "Turn Out the Sun."
That was the first time I heard a local band that knocked me out, and whose CDs, shirts and stickers I would die without. I dragged so many people to Honest Engine shows, where I stood in front of The Bar and Grill's stage mowing on Taco Time smuggled in from next door, drunkenly shouting requests and, afterward, pestering Cram with questions. I did likewise with The Obvious, Wish, Clover, Megan Peters, Headshake, Tongue N Gruv, Insatiable, Wolfgang. Two years later, Honest Engine finally finished their album. There was no internet music buffet in 1995, so I babied that disc like my birth certificate.
In 1998, my wife and I had a real baby. My priorities changed; for all I knew, it was the end of my local music romance. Then, by some fluke, I found myself writing for SLUG Magazine, where I'd read about so many local bands I'd never see, and The Event NewsWeekly where I met current City Weekly contributor Brian Staker. SLUG and Staker helped me amass a varied pile of local music by Red Bennies, the Wolfs, Erosion, Purr Bats, Thirsty Alley, Fistfull, Crapshoot, Sugarpants, Atomic Deluxe, Magstatic, Fat Paw, Bob Moss and more. I was stunned at the amount of great original local music that had emerged in three years. I believed it was only a matter of time before the scene blew up.
When I came to City Weekly in 2000, I wrote about a different local act each week. I learned the scene was larger than I'd imagined, and still growing. We had an alt-country scene (The Trigger Locks, J.W. Blackout, Dirty Birds, Silent Sevens), blues acts (Harry Lee, Zach Parrish), punk (The Corleones, The Downers), hip-hop (The Numbs, Ebay Hamilton, SEM), singer-songwriters (The Legendary Porch Pounders, Mary Tebbs, Nate Padley), metal (Hammergun, Le Force, Iota), straight-up rock (Starmy). Before "indie rock" was so liberally applied, we had Chubby Bunny, Redd Tape and The Rodeo Boys. The garage-punk-psych scene started by The Wolfs and Red Bennies grew to encompass The Rubes and Pink Lightning. And there was a cadre of relentless creatives contorting the framework of rock 'n' roll—nay music—in Alchemy, Vile Blue Shades, Blackhole and Tolchock Trio.
- Nate Padley
I could go on. I want to expound. But we're only at the mid-2000s. That's when my work with Harp magazine took me away from covering local music. I slowly lost track of the scene, but still gave local music pride of place with its own alphabetically sorted section in my wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling collection. But I couldn't listen to it much because I was wrapped up in covering national/international artists. When Harp shut down, I focused on school.
I thought my days writing about music were done. Yet, here I am. And in 18 months as City Weekly's music editor, I'm maybe still not completely up to speed. The scene is so much larger now. I keep thinking how it's only a matter of time—I'm not gonna say that again. Sure, some local acts, like Neon Trees, have blown up. But a music scene is about its underground. Tons of other—I dare say better—bands are still slogging away after all these years, or just getting started. I don't need to tell you who's knocking me out now. You've seen, and will see, them in these pages. It's more important to say something else.
The magic of the music in your own backyard is a connection that comes from sharing a city, sky and culture with these artists. You can hear a song by Townes Van Zandt or Ray LaMontagne and find something relatable. But when you hear a tune by Sarah Anne DeGraw or Dan Weldon or Mike Sartain and find that mutual root in familiar soil, a reference or scene that's uniquely and innately Utahn? The connection is so much deeper.
It would be nice to see more Utah musicians find success, and for that to spread throughout the scene. Far nicer is the realization that at least you found the music that's been within earshot all along. Now that it's easier than ever to record and release music, there will only be more. And it's so exciting to know that, soon, across the country, every local music scene will become a self-contained microcosm rich with natural resources, where its rockstars and fans mingle in real time, in real life and, at night, commune in the ritual of music.
[Music Editor's note: I had the great pleasure of working under and learning from Fred Mills at Harp and Blurt. A rock 'n' roll gentleman and scholar, he has written about music since the late '70s for The Bob, Option, Spin, Magnet, Stereophile and various weeklies. You don't publish that much by tossing kudos like confetti—if something sucks, Mills says so. So I sent him some of my favorite local music for an outsider's perspective.]
Covering a local scene can sometimes be a thankless job. Do you play cheerleader, and destroy your credibility, or do you throw rocks and get your ass beat by a disgruntled band member? I do recall, though, Randy Harward sincerely enthusing to me about several Salt Lake City bands, like the gorgeous Americana of Band of Annuals and the delightfully twisted rock of Red Bennies. Y'see, our prime directive isn't to seem cool or all-knowing, but to share our enthusiasm and, occasionally, offer constructive advice. All of the artists below have merit, some more than others. But they all deserve their shot, so give 'em your attention.
Two strikes for the silly stage attire (capes?!) and Google-unfriendly name (hint: include "SLC" with search terms), but I'll give 'em a ground-rule double for their infectious, shambling, Flying Nun Records-inspired jangledom. Maybe even an inside-the-park home run.
Crook & The Bluff
I know this sound; I lived it for a decade in Tucson. Desert-informed blues, rock and psychedelia have a permanent through-line, no matter the region. Alternately desolate and expansive, lunar-lit and sunbaked, this pushes my primal button—and as a result, I just bought their album. UMF show: Friday, March 3, 9 p.m. at Lumpy's Downtown
Sarah Anne DeGraw
Quite a maturation/evolution, judging by 2012-2016 YouTube clips that show her going from wispy, tentative, anodyne folkie to assertive, sexy, swaggering rocker. She compares favorably to Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, and her pipes fill up the room.
Tony Holiday and the Velvetones
Every city with a club scene has the proverbial journeyman blues band that perennially tops annual Best of awards but remains unknown nationally. But I come pre-sold on this harp-powered outfit, having already heard of its rep for sinewy, tuneful chops and a full-tilt appreciation of the form. UMF show: Thursday, March 2, 9:30 p.m. at Leatherheads.
During my Harp tenure, Randy sold me on the then-burgeoning Latin alt-rock scene in the U.S. But in SLC? This band's like the Clash and Thin Lizzy jointly storming the gates.
Elsewhere, I namecheck late '70s Cleveland; The Moths would be lower Manhattan from the same era, influenced by the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls while rubbing shoulders at CBGB with Television, Mumps, Milk 'N' Cookies, etc. Dark, powerful, insidious stuff.
Roll over Goner Records, and tell In The Red the news. Four decades ago, this would've been straight-outta-Cleveland avant-garage-punk that I was creaming over in my punk 'zine. And produced by Slaughter Joe Foster of Creation, Rev-Ola and Kaleidoscope labels? That's a trademark of quality, for sure.
A wild card with the potential to be really great—guitar and keys hooks galore, and a Jurassic-worthy bottom end—or really annoying, with meat-and-potatoes blues/funk/rock tropes steering perilously close to Joe Walsh and Steve Miller territory.
SLC's "longest-lasting"—their words—rock band? Based on 2013 album Gang Up and some YouTube clips, that may be due to sounding like no other SLC band, and therefore no competition. Unhinged, Devo-esque sonic chaos only rock critics could love.
The Samuel Smith Band/Pig Eon
Swampy, swaggering, slide-guit anthemism on the one hand (the SSB); strummy, twangy, soulful Americana on the other (Pig Eon). Frontman Smith's gravelly voice oozes soul, and with new recs from each outfit, I'd be hard-pressed to pick one over the other.
Fred Mills lives in Asheville, N.C. He currently is the editor of Blurt as well as business publication Capital at Play.