Part III: This flag signals goodbye
By Kyle Melton
[Editor’s Note: “Shocker in Gloomtown: Part III” is the third installment in a five-part series by the DCP looking at the past, present and future of the Dayton music scene. This series was originally run in the DCP in 2008.]
As the Dayton music scene reeled from the untimely deaths of Tim Taylor in May 1997 and, in November of that year, Ben Schelker (ex-Oxymorons), as well as the closings of Trader Vic’s Music Emporium and Ken Gross’s Aardvark Ballroom, some might have predicted that the scene that had flourished in Dayton during the mid-’90s had run its course and that Dayton would fade into musical oblivion.
Without the central hubs that provided focus for the scene in the 90s, and without one of its most inspiring figures, a new model and a new direction had to be forged. For those that came through the tragedies and continued to pursue national recognition, they simply proceeded on their trajectories.
“Basically, the bands that were gonna do all that [touring], just left,” said Andy Valeri, head of local label Big Beef Records. “I think what happened was that a couple of the driving figures died. That, in the long-term, took wind out of the sails. Not that people felt defeated, in some personal senses people felt even stronger. Some of the creative forces were [just gone].”
After the closing of the Aardvark Ballroom, Ken Gross and his Network Sights and Sounds effectively vanished as a force within the local music scene. Into the void stepped two of his longtime understudies, brothers Ben and Chad Parker. The pair established a new club, Club Safari, on North Main that could host touring underground bands.
“People were still thirsty for the music and it was a bummer that Aardvark closed,” Ben Parker said. “Without Aardvark, there was no set venue; shows were nomadic, happening here and there. Club Safari was a small club, but the size of the club did not reflect the scene at the time. We had great bands come through: Enon, Royal Trux, the Go, the Make Up. It was a very fun club, but [had a] short run due to an undependable owner.”
“It was Club Safari after [the Aardvark Ballroom],” said Don Thrasher, music writer for the Dayton Voice, Impact Weekly and the Dayton Daily News during this period. “After Ken Gross stopped booking shows, it was a huge loss that’s never been filled. The groups he brought from out of town gave people a chance to play with all kinds of bands that weren’t superstars, but definitely were well-known underground bands that brought a lot of people out.”
During this period, even the iconic Canal Street Tavern faced a series of obstacles that paralyzed the club’s ability to take their operations to the next level. After hosting the Annual Dayton Band Playoff Finals, as well as several other high-profile shows for local bands, at the Fraze Pavilion from 1994 to 1997, owner Mick Montgomery quickly found that the venue no longer welcomed him and Canal Street Tavern.
“Suddenly the administration that seized the reins of Fraze Pavilion,” said Montgomery, “Basically just decided that they didn’t want to deal with someone bringing concerts in there. They pretty much brought it all in house. Whoever came in wouldn’t even talk to me about it. Of course, having gotten up to that and then having it yanked out from under us, that really was a negative for us. We kind of wound up just pulling it back in and realizing that we are in a world of ‘us against the world.’ We were made to feel totally unwelcome.”
Despite all of these apparent setbacks, the local music scene continued to produce an exceptional variety of bands in the late ’90s. The older wave of practitioners continued to lead the charge through this period. The Mystery Addicts and Mondolux waved the flag for Dayton’s long-running punk legacy. Robthebank and Let’s Crash carried on in the tradition of the Network scene of the early ’90s. Mink and Shrug both became fixtures at Canal Street Tavern, drawing unwavering adulation from their audiences.
It was the unlikely crossover appeal of the Mulchmen, however, that stood to catapult yet another band out past the boundaries of Dayton. However, just as the band was poised to make the jump, tragedy struck the Dayton music scene yet again as the Mulchmen’s drummer, Gregg Spence, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“Things reached an apex, I think, with Gregg [Spence’s illness] and the scene was never stronger, more supportive, more unified, or more effective,” Valeri said. “When Gregg fell ill and it became obvious what was going on, [there was a lot of] unity around that. Hands down, the most rewarding and most effective creative endeavor that Big Beef has ever done was helping to produce the Gregg Spence Benefit activities. If Big Beef Productions was ever known for anything, I would want it to be that.”
In order to help Spence and his family cover his medical expenses, Valeri and Big Beef Productions put together a series of shows in Dayton during June 1999 featuring some of Dayton’s finest bands of the period. United together in support of one of their own, the concerts demonstrated the level of solidarity amongst the musicians in Dayton at the time.
The benefits culminated with a show at Bogart’s in Cincinnati headlined by Guided By Voices. The show was the kick-off to the extended tour for the band’s major label release, Do The Collapse. In early 1999, GBV recorded with Ric Ocasek and signed to TVT Records. Some GBV loyalists decried Pollard as a sellout and SPIN and Rolling Stone both withdrew their unwavering support. The move also distanced GBV from the Dayton scene and impaired the band’s ability to enable other Dayton bands to follow in their wake.
“I remember that a lot of bands used to get pretty competitive about being taken out on tour with GBV,” recalled Sara Farr, music journalist for Impact Weekly and the Dayton Daily News during this period. “However much Bob may have wanted to take fellow Daytonians out with him on tour, he may very well not have been able to. I’m positive that for every Dayton band who wanted to go, there were probably 20 other bands in places like Chicago who wanted to open for ‘the kings of lo-fi.’”
While bands clamored for the dwindling opportunities to follow those that blazing trails ahead of them, other factors on the home front altered the ways in which bands could reach out to new audiences in the new millennium. The beginnings of national media consolidation began to have local effects as Clear Channel eliminated local radio programs hosted by Tony Peters on WTUE and Joe Winners on WXEG, leaving only Rev. Cool Jim Carter at WYSO to continue championing the music of Dayton on the radio. However, the local print media increased and varied its coverage of what was happening in Dayton during this period.
“As the scene continued to splinter and fragment, there was more to cover,” Farr said. “At Impact Weekly, we included coverage of all genres ranging from heavy metal and hard rock to classical and jazz to hip-hop. We really tried to give all musicians a shot at coverage. There were also a lot more writers during that period. You had Carol Simmons and Ron Rollins occasionally writing about local music, you had Don Thrasher, John Wenzel and a stable of talented freelancers at Impact Weekly.”
During this period, changing technologies also altered the ways in which bands produced and distributed their recordings. As digital technology — particularly computer-based recording programs — improved in quality and affordability, more musicians embraced the expanding possibilities.
“As far as technology goes,” Thrasher said, “It was easier for people to mass produce their own CDs, like in limited runs. This was the first time you could make CDs look like CDs you’d want to give to people, with a cover and everything. It was pretty liberating and gave people a chance to put out albums that maybe they wouldn’t before.”
In addition to the ways in which bands produced records, technology also affected the ways in which bands were covered by the media. The online zine Bettawreckonize, launched in 2001 by Tim Anderl, applied the emerging popularity of online publications and glossy message boards to serve as a touchstone for the Dayton music scene during this period.
“The initial purpose for Bettawreckonize was to create a platform that Dayton bands of differing genres could share to learn about each other and to network,” Anderl explained.
“Bettawreckonize had a dozen or more staff writers and photographers from the Dayton area contributing content at any one time. The site was equally recognized by metal heads, indie rockers, punks and hip-hoppers. The most useful portion of the website seemed to be the message board capability. I think it allowed a centralized location for Dayton bands that wanted to network.”
As the new millennium unfolded, several local labels and bands stepped up their activity and ushered in a new vitality. Big Beef Records put out Lab Partners’ Daystar album in 2002, which received rave reviews in SPIN. The female-fronted powerhouse Shesus (featuring ex-members of Brainiac, O-Matic and Robthebank) toured feverishly and released Loves You, Loves You Not on New York label Narnack Records. During 2001, a pair of local labels emerged that would become ubiquitous in the local scene over the next several years.
Beginning in 1994, Olive Records put out a handful of releases before morphing into Do Tell Records in 2001. As Ben and Chad Parker sought to up the ante on the endeavor, they turned to a close friend to help them professionalize the label.
“Olive was a stepping stone to Do Tell,” Ben Parker said. “I wanted more control and direction over the projects. I was also on tour, learning new skills, seeing how others ran their shows and decided it was time for a new program. I wanted a real business and Andy Estepp provided the business sense and new energy for the group.”
Serving as a catchall for various artistic pursuits, Team Evil Records also appeared in 2001 and quickly established a presence in the Dayton music scene. Functioning more as a loose collective than a label proper, Team Evil and its stable of bands provided fresh blood at a crucial time.
“Team Evil Records is difficult to explain because by design it [was] amorphous,” said Noel Benford, co-founder of Team Evil Records. “It was initially created to release the first Pig Eye Jackson LP. Team Evil was never a true label but a musical collective. The impetus was to create music that we liked, to express ourselves and to have fun. The American Static came on board as well as the Motel Beds, the Stowaways and Joe Anderl. Soon after Pig Eye Jackson disbanded, Captain of Industry formed from the ashes.”
Although Canal Street Tavern continued to serve as a foundation for local music throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, several other clubs tried to establish themselves as hotbeds for local music. After Club Safari closed, activity drifted over to El Diablo, as well as to Jag’s in Kettering and to Canon Art Collective in Beavercreek. While these clubs had some success, it was not until a downtown eatery emerged as a new hub for local music that the scene found a new anchor.
In 2002, restaurateur Art Chin made the decision to divide his restaurant, Chin’s Asian Bistro, into two areas: one a dining room and the other for live music. As Elbo’s began booking in earnest in early 2002, bands and audiences alike found the club to be inviting and embraced it as a new hub of activity. After several years of turmoil and tragedy, veterans of the scene and young bloods alike saw an opportunity to re-establish the Dayton scene…
Thanks to Tim Anderl, Steven Gullett (at Glampunk.org), Roger Owsley, Andy Valeri, Mike Volk and Chris Wright for all archival materials. Part IV of “Shocker in Gloomtown” will appear in the November 29 edition of the DCP.
Reach DCP Music Editor Kyle Melton at MusicEditor@DaytonCityPaper.com and read his blog at thebuddhaden.net.