Last night, as I was tossing and turning in bed, unable to get to sleep, I figured out that I’ve probably seen between 1,500 to 2,000 concerts in the 30 years I’ve been writing professionally about music. (Okay, I wasn’t getting paid in ’75, but I did write a few things that got published.) It helps (a lot) that for about 20 of those 30 years I got into most concerts for free, and that when I’d go to clubs or shows where I didn’t have comps, it was relatively cheap to get in–not like today where seeing a semi-popular band in a club can cost $25 or $30 or more, and arena and stadium shows now cost in the hundreds of dollars for top seats and $45 to $50 to sit in the nosebleed sections. I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n’roll and it’s expensive.
But here’s what got me thinkin’ about all this. I’m writing this blog from Northfield, Minn., a small town about an hour south of Minneapolis. You might have heard about the big robbery and shootout in downtown Northfield way back in 18-something-or-other involving the James-Younger gang. During “Jesse James Days” here they have a cool recreation of the shootout, plus all the marching bands and Shriners in little cars you’d care to see. Town motto, as seen on T-shirts: “Cows, Colleges and Contentment.” I’m here visiting my brother, who’s a professor of religion at Carleton College, and my aging mum, who lives in an assisted living facility a few blocks away. And I also came to see the farewell gig of a band called Sonicate.
Don’t be alarmed if you haven’t heard of Sonicate. Although they have a web presence (www.sonicate.net) they only played in the neighborhood of 20 gigs during their year-and- a-half existence as a four-piece, and they rarely played outside of Northfield–the farthest afield they went was a strange gig outside the Macy’s at the Mall of America (perhaps the Twin Cities’ greatest claim to fame worldwide). Full disclosure: The reason I care about Sonicate is that the band includes my nephew, Ian, who just turned 18 and graduated from Northfield High only a week ago. He plays a Strat—mostly rhythm guitar—and sings a few leads and helped write some of the tunes. The lead singer/bassist, Willie, also just graduated, but from a loose charter school in Northfield called ARTech. Lars, the lead guitarist, is the old man of the group–he’s been at McAllister College in St. Paul for a couple of years, which is one reason Sonicate has only been able to get together sporadically. Nat the drummer is just a junior at Northfield High. Somehow, the guys in Sonicate–just like thousands of other folks in small towns and big cities all over America–found each other, got together and decided to start a band. Each member brought his own influences, abilities and limitations to the group. They subjected parents and friends to terrible rackets as they learned their instruments, they experimented with amplifiers, broke guitar strings and drum heads and slowly honed their skills. They were late with or blew off homework assignments to rehearse. Or long periods of no rehearsal probably made them wonder at times if there even was a Sonicate.
But they stuck with it and they got better and they started writing songs together and then playing small gigs in front of friends. It’s hard to pinpoint their style exactly, but it definitely leans toward edgy alternative. At the same time, they have the soulful alt-ballad down, too. They’ve all listened to the Chili Peppers and Radiohead and Cake and plenty of other stuff, too.
They made a demo about a year and a half ago that was pretty good–all over the map stylistically, but definitely showing a lot of promise. For the past couple of months, though, the band was working on a full-length CD. Lars, it turns out, is quite the wizard in the studio, and somehow they managed to mow lawns and do odd jobs to trade for studio time at Pachyderm Studios–a real place I’d even heard of!–and track the album with a real engineer (Andre LaSalle), with additional work being completed in Lars’ basement studio. And you know what? The CD, called All Good Things, is actually very strong from beginning to end. I say this sincerely as a music fan, not an uncle. The production and engineering is better than on nine-tenths of the indie releases I hear, and the songwriting is solid, with lots of stylistic variety but also some unity of vision. It turns out Willie has an amazing rock ‘n’ roll voice—he sounds like he’s been singing forever. There’s some alt-angst on a few songs, and some (white) rappish numbers, a few ballads; the arrangments move from full to spare and back quite skillfully. It’s obvious a lot of thought went into the sequencing of the songs and the overall shape of the album. If you didn’t know, you’d never guess that these are, essentially, inexperienced kids…okay, young adults.
The CD came back from the pressing plant the day I arrived in Minnesota for my visit—just in time for Sonicate’s farewell gig. Huh? What gives? Who puts out an album to coincide with the band breaking up? Is Lars going to jail? Have Ian and Nat been fighting like the Gallagher brothers? Did Willie have a Yoko Ono who broke up the band? Nah, nothing so dramatic. Ian’s going off to college in Massachusetts in the fall. Lars is travelling around the world. Willie is going off to music school. Only Nat will be back at NHS. So it was time to end it. C’est la guerre. This has happened to every person who’s ever played in a band that started in high school, from the Quarreymen (later The Beatles) to whatever forgotten groups people like Bruce Springsteen and Don Henley and every other star whose CDs you cherish played in before they found the band that eventually catapulted them to stardom.
So last night was Sonicate’s CD release party and farewell gig at this warehouse-turned-music venue known as The Freezer, which is part of the ARTech charter school complex on the edge of town. The show cost a buck to get in, and when we arrived at around 7:15 p.m., the parking lot was filled with teenage kids socializing, chasing each other, playing Frisbee with a flip-flop and generally hanging out. There isn’t a helluva lot to do in Northfield, day or night, so a rock ‘n’ roll show for a buck is hard to beat. The crowd was more boho than I was expecting. A lot of long hair, a few tie-dyes. Actually, they looked a lot like the poeple I hung out with in high school back at the end of the ’60s/dawn of the ’70s. If anyone was sneaking off and doing bong hits at their cars or drinking from some flask, you could’ve fooled me. They looked like “good kids,” as adults like to say somewhat condescendingly.
In all, there was somewhere around 150 kids on hand for the show. Inside, there was a pretty substantial Yamaha sound system on either side of the stage, which was only elevated about a foot or so off the ground. In back, a guy named Bob, who does work for ARTech and also directs Northfield High’s plays (last fall it was The Crucible) was manning a rather ancient-looking and maxed-out Peavey board. There was pro lighting. The drums were surrounded by plexiglas. There was at least one Marshall amp. A baby grand piano. Again, totally pro.
It turns out there was a brief set by another band to start the show: Autophobia is a quartet of Northfield High sophomores. I heard them referred to as heirs apparents to Sonicate’s local following. And they were good! During their first song it dawned on me that I literally had not seen a band of high school kids playing rock ‘n’roll since my own high school days. The 1,500-plus shows I’d seen since then had all been by so-called professional bands and singers; people who had made it to a certain degree (even if it was just opening for a better-known entity). And it really took me back to watch this sea of kids, jumping up and down in front of the stage, cheering every solo, singing along to the cover tunes they knew, and completely getting off on the energy of listeing to their own band. I flashed back to dances in my hometown where schoolmates of mine like Bobby Rego and Tony Summo and Peter Rikstiens and Tony Scarangella would have everyone dancing and singing and carrying-on like they were our own personal rock gods. Summo could play “Foxy Lady” as well as Hendrix (well, almost). How could you not be impressed? So here was Autophobia, Northfield’s next big thing, whipping through a handful of Red Hot Chili Peppers cover tunes, The Beatles’ “I Dig A Pony” and a few originals. The singer, Daniel, was dynamite—what a natural—and the lead guitarist sensatioinal; really gifted.
Sonicate’s 90-minute farewell set had everyone grooving from the first note. There was some playful moshpit action during the punkier numbers, and when Lars would walk to the front of the stage for one of his off-kilter guitar solos that sound like a slightly demented alt-version of The Ventures, a great roar would erupt. During the middle part of the set, when Ian and Lars strapped on acoustic guitars and the band members literally sat on the stage for a few tunes, the crowd sat down, too, and listned in rapt silence, hanging on every word. Sonicate had their share of odd cover choices—”Video Killed the Radio Star,” “Build Me Up Buttercup” (sung by Autophobia’s singer; it had been part of some rock’n’roll revue that a bunch of these guys had been involved with earlier in the month), some Modest Mouse song that everyone (except me) knew and sang along with, even “Landslide,” sung by a friend of the band’s named Siobahn, with just Lars on acostic accompaniment: beautiful. But mostly it was Sonicate originals and the crowd was with ’em every step of the way—the ultimate tribute an audience can give to a group. Before the last song, Willie announced that it was Sonicate’s last song ever, and I found myself getting a little choked up. Say it ain’t so! But they rocked the house hard and at the end everyone was sweaty and smiling…that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Afterwards, the lights were turned on, most people spilled into the cool night air, but a few lingered to have their freshly minted Sonicate CDs signed by the band members. There were many hugs. Plans were made to get together at this or that party over the coming days and weeks. But Sonicate is no more.
Maybe some day years from now, when Willie or Ian or Nat or Lars is famous, Sonicate will get its due: “Oh, yeah, that was the band he was in during high school. I hear a copy of their CD sold for $2,000 on EBay the other day.” Fine, spend the big coin. I’m keeping my copy, ’cause I genuinely want to listen to it a lot more, and I’ll carry my memories of that great last gig, when Sonicate ruled Northfield, Minnesota, one last time and the kids were alright. It’s true: rock ‘n’ roll will never die.