Part IV: Oscillating circuits
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.]
By 2003, the local music scene emerged from a series of tragedies and found itself in a relatively healthy, stable state. Although several opportunities seemed unfulfilled, the diversity of bands and the venues in which bands in Dayton could be showcased indicated a thriving, if less acknowledged music scene.
In addition to the long-running Canal Street Tavern, Elbo’s emerged in late 2002 as an equally vital venue for local independent music. By 2003, the club rivaled Canal Street Tavern’s popularity and provided an alternative venue that audiences and bands alike found inviting. With a distinctive look and a wide-open booking policy, the club offered up-and-coming bands additional opportunities to create their own shows. Although Elbo’s went through numerous staffing changes, by 2004 a pair of longtime Dayton musicians stepped up and helped to establish Elbo’s as a premier venue for local and national talent.
“Art Chin was having a tough time finding someone to book the club when Melissa Daye left,” explained Jay Madewell, booking agent at Elbo’s from 2004-2006. “[Web designer] Chris Wright and I wrote a very lengthy proposal detailing how we would run the club and Art accepted. Looking back, I’m really impressed with Mel’s work. She started something and Chris and I grabbed the baton and ran with it. Factors that we considered for Elbo’s were things that we wanted in a club as musicians. We wanted to create something that would be around for some time and would build a reputation, like a brand.”
“Elbo’s totally flipped the script on the whole scene,” said Tim Anderl, head of Bettawreckonize online zine. “This was a venue that was just as likely to feature hip-hop as it was to feature rockabilly, emo or indie. You could go any night of the week and see some sort of show or spectacle that music-fans living in places like Chicago, or even Cleveland, were taking for granted. It wasn’t a first for Dayton — there had been Sub Galley, Aardvark Club, Brookwood, before — but for some reason, it seemed as though Dayton musicians and fans of all genres were happy to share it.”
As the scene began to gravitate toward Elbo’s, promoters such as Do Tell Records and Bettawreckonize capitalized on the size of the space, its central location, and its willingness to allow outside promoters to create their own bills. During this period, acts such as the All-American Rejects, Mastadon, Bishop Allen and many more all made tour stops in Dayton. In much the same way that Newspace had done in the early- to mid-90s, Do Tell and Bettawreckonize served as connectors between Dayton bands and the national music scene.
After a period of inactivity within the local music scene, Wright State University’s WWSU 106.9 student-run radio station re-emerged as a vital tool for the local music scene in 2003. Although extremely active in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the station had drifted away from local music for a period. As new students entered the school’s radio program, attention once again shifted towards increased coverage of local music.
“Right around 2003,” said Julie Fromholt, DJ at WWSU from 2003-2007, “We had a large influx of new volunteer DJs many of whom (myself included) would go on to hold staff positions the next year. We all became friends and all started going to shows together. Tom Salvatierra, our engineer at the time, was playing with the Professors and helped get us in touch with Elbo’s to do some cross promotions. My friend Mark Keinneth wanted to do a local music show, which I ended up co-hosting and eventually taking over.”
In addition to increased airtime for local discs, WWSU also branched out into sponsoring events at local venues. The synergy created between WWSU and Elbo’s culminated in the Team Evil Now festival in the summer of 2004. Headlined by Captain of Industry, the event was held in Elbo’s parking lot under the Dayton Transportation Center and drew a sizable audience. While the event showcased some of Dayton’s finest bands for a local audience, it was the explosion of another band on the national scene that summer that turned the spotlight on Dayton, if only for a brief moment.
Formed in 2001, Hawthorne Heights (originally A Day in the Life) exploded onto the national scene in 2004. After signing to Victory Records the previous year and with their debut album fading into oblivion, MTV picked up the video for the song “Ohio Is For Lovers” and the band took off. Shortly thereafter, the band’s debut album, The Silence In Black In White, became the highest-selling debut for Victory Records and reached platinum status. In 2006, the band’s follow-up, If Only You Were Lonely, debuted on Billboard at #3.
Following the release of this album, however, Hawthorne Heights became mired in legal battles with Victory Records, essentially stalling the band’s momentum. Although
Hawthorne Heights earned national recognition, the attention did not trickle down into the Dayton scene in the same manner that it had in the ‘90s.
One of the bands that spearheaded the buzz surrounding Dayton in the ‘90s, Guided By Voices, finally disbanded in late 2005. Leader Robert Pollard continued to record and release countless albums after his band’s demise, but his reluctance to tour as the band had in previous years diminished his profile and reduced attention on the Dayton music scene even further. Despite the lack of national attention on Dayton, enthusiasm within the scene elevated as a pair of new forces helped to centralize the Dayton music scene.
In the early years of the millennium, the Story Changes emerged as a touring juggernaut, waving the flag for Dayton from coast to coast. By 2003, the band found that it wanted to host an event at which it could spend time at home and play with some of their closest friends. First held at Elbo’s in 2003 (later moving to Nite Owl in 2006), Holidayton has since become an annual fixture on the Dayton music scene calendar, showcasing some of the best bands and solo acoustic acts in a single evening.
The following year, after witnessing Midpoint Music Festival in Cincinnati, Dan Clayton and Shawn Johnson estimated that such an event could and should happen in Dayton. After a year of planning and organizing along with designer Andy Ingram, Clayton and Johnson presented the first Dayton Music Fest in October 2005. With over 25 bands participating the first year, attendance for the event reflected the sustained enthusiasm that many still had for Dayton music.
“The real reason we started the Fest,” said Clayton, “was to shed a little light on the indie rock music that was being played, but wasn’t really being heard outside of the crowd that followed a certain band. We wanted to kind of cross-blend the crowds and let bands play for people that they might not otherwise play to.”
“The initial response was great,” Ingram said. “Many people showed up. I can only think of a few musical events that I would describe as “blissful” and the first Dayton Music Fest was one of them. For one night there seemed to be a beautiful excitement and friendship among the bands and the fans that came out to take part in supporting what was being made here.”
By the end of 2005, with Elbo’s seeming to function as a centerpiece of Dayton music and several bands such as the Story Changes, Lab Partners and Captain of Industry putting out releases on various independent labels, it appeared as if Dayton might once again emerge as a strong center for independent music. Early in 2006, however, a number of changes occurred at Elbo’s that would result in the club changing ownership and eventually closing. In the fall of 2006, plans were in the works for the club to re-open under new management and a new name, but without any formidable explanation, these plans evaporated and left the scene without a venue that many viewed as an essential force in the local music scene.
“Bands don’t get a chance to make connections anymore,” said Don Thrasher, music writer for the Dayton Daily News. “You don’t get the variety or as many as you used to. That’s a big thing that’s been missing since Elbo’s.”
As the scene reeled from another significant loss, various clubs in the Oregon District attempted to step in to help fill the void. While the Oregon District historically favored cover bands for their entertainment, the success of the Dayton Music Fest indicated a shift as clubs such as Nite Owl and Oregon Express both hosted more original music.
“I started out working at the Nite Owl,” said Mary Katherine Burnside, booking agent for Nite Owl and Pearl Niteclub. “The only bands they had were cover bands and they rotated the same ones monthly. I went to them asking if I could do one night a week where I could book any kind of music I wanted. Luckily they let me and that night took off to be the best night of their week. Eventually they asked me to take over their booking and I was able to turn the Nite Owl into an all-original venue with occasional cover bands.”
As the Dayton music scene struggled to regain its collective footing and capitalize on the annual events to sustain the enthusiasm throughout the year, a younger wave of artists and a new label emerged in 2007 that injected new life into the local scene. Founded by Tony Gilbert, Squids Eye Records quickly became a force within the local music scene. Sporting a roster of young, inventive bands and a rapidly expanding catalog, Squids Eye Records is leading a new charge of Dayton music on a national level.
Although Dayton once stood poised to become “the next Seattle,” the legacy of Dayton music continues to be written. While some may feel the best the town has to offer is in the past, there are many that feel that potential still lies within this post-industrial city. Many factors that have perpetually hindered the scene remain, but for those that are dedicated to making original music in Dayton, they realize that Dayton holds a unique charm that drives creativity.
“It’s cheap to live in Dayton,” said Madewell. “It’s so cheap that many leave, fail and come back because they’re not prepared for the cost of big city living. We’ve had good thrift stores. We have live music venues. We’ve had people with a ‘can-do’ attitude. You could argue that music is just something that we do here in Dayton.”
“I would say we are definitely in a tough spot right now and if things don’t change soon it definitely won’t get any better,” said Burnside. “There have been so many good bands break up or move to other cities because Dayton doesn’t seem to be offering them anything. I feel like one of the biggest problems is that there is not even one ‘perfect’ venue for bands to play in. The places that are available all have their ups and downs but because of poor management, inadequate space and equipment, sound issues, stage sizes, the smoking ban, etc. our good bands don’t even want to play in their hometown anymore.”
As the Dayton music reconciles its past with its future, Don Thrasher seems to capture perfectly the reality of the matter: “You could never really re-capture the kinda vibe of the early ‘90s (in Dayton). It could be better, and it could be just as cool, but it wouldn’t be the same.”
Thanks to Tim Anderl, Julie Fromholt, Steven Gullet, Tim Krug, Mike Volk and Chris Wright for archival materials. Part V of “Shocker in Gloomtown” will appear in the December 13 edition of the DCP.
Reach DCP Music Editor Kyle Melton at MusicEditor@DaytonCityPaper.com and read his blog at thebuddhaden.net.