As a fan and advocate of original music I often find myself wanting to know and understand more about our local music scene. When it seems like venues for original, live music are at a premium, I many times wonder to myself wondering how original music has survived--and thrived (in varying degrees, mind you)--in Tulsa.
Personally, I was removed from Tulsa and the local music scene for nearly a decade before returning to Green Country and attempting to reconnect with the local music community.
But I've come back--on a mission (not from God) with evangelical fervor to bring the music scene to our readers in the profound way it deserves.
Initially, for this Music Edition, I considered attempting to trace a family tree of Tulsa music. Then reality set in. Music in Tulsa? Music in general? Do you realize just how broad a scope that is?
Volumes have been written about Bob Wills, his KVOO radio show that began in the '30s and the era of western swing.
In the '50s, Chet Baker shot to the forefront of the cool jazz movement and added another page to the history books in the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.
Then there's the '70s and the "Tulsa Sound", a movement already covered in great depth by a few of Tulsa's esteemed journalists. As much as I appreciate that part of Tulsa's music legacy, I've got no desire to keep beating that dead horse and certainly no desire to see Tulsa return to the '70s. We're having a hard enough time redefining our city without dwelling on the past.
Still, there are so many artists and styles of music that have been able to thrive in our city . . . Tulsa continues to support everything from country, blues and Red Dirt, to jazz and rock'n'roll. And as we've seen in the past few months, our city's hip hop and R&B artists are also stepping up their game in an effort to move to the forefront and become centerpieces of our local music community.
With so much going on musically, I realized I needed to narrow my focus and decided to take a look at our local pop/rock music scene and how it has developed since the early '90s. What influenced my criteria, besides personal taste in music?
For starters, speaking in generalized terms, pop and rock music should reach the broadest demographic. And considering the fact that most people credit Seattle's grunge movement for bulldozing the public's perception and expectations of rock'n'roll (or rather, almost killing it) in the early '90s, that seems to be an appropriate place to start rebuilding the genre.
So, what has happened in Tulsa since the early '90s? Who and what has shaped the face of Tulsa rock since then? Who best represents the development of the music scene? And who or what did I miss? These are the questions I asked myself as I headed off on my quest for knowledge.
Unfortunately, the information I'm looking for isn't something I can find with a quick search on the internet, so I have to rely the memories of friends and acquaintances, the people who were actually here in Tulsa at the time and were part of the live music scene, either as artists or fans and audience members. All of whom are the best, original sources--but it ain't easy.
Recollections can be hazy, but a few things become clear through the fog that give me a better, if yet incomplete, picture of Tulsa's rock scene and the most prominent bands over the past decade and a half.
Also, somewhere in the underbrush, I was able to identify a narrow, if not particularly beaten, path from where we were in the early '90s to where we are now.
When There Was A Scene
While opinions may vary wildly regarding who the most vibrant and important bands on the scene were, one thing is commonly agreed: as Tulsa crossed into the early '90s there definitely was a local music scene that supported live, original music. It may not have been incredibly large, but it was healthy and growing and had a band of fervent fans and followers.
In fact, one common perception (or impression) is that as our city emerged from the '80s, the live music market was actually more about original music than playing covers. Of course, there always have been (and always will be) cover bands, but bands playing their own material was more the rule than the exception at the time.
Or, perhaps a better description would be that the period had more of a "music scene" than a "club scene", with tastes dictated more by the music and bands than the clubs themselves.
Regardless of who you speak to, there are a couple of venues that are repeatedly mentioned as "the" places to play if you were in an original band at the time. Emerging from the late '80s, Club Nitro (located at roughly 6th and Quaker) was an essential venue for the development of original music.
Owned and run by K. Rahal, Nitro was a breeding ground for young and emerging bands. Even a fledgling experimental, alternative noise-pop act (yeah, right -- like you can come up with a better description) called The Flaming Lips made its first Tulsa appearances at Nitro.
The club was closed for a brief period in the early '90s, remodeled and reopened as Eclipse in roughly '92 or '93, with a restaurant called Vagabond beside it.
Although the club initially reopened as a coffeehouse style venue, that model went to the wayside in short order as the room quickly regained it's recognition under Rahal as a place for eclectic, original music.
Details about Rahal himself are sketchy at best, and I wasn't able to locate him as no one seems to know if he remained in Tulsa, though there have been occasional sightings as late as 2003.
K's reputation precedes him, however, as recollections are often accompanied by a knowing grin and chuckle, if not an outright laugh, along with the words: "he was quite a character."
Rahal was a "hands on" owner and manager. Nitro was his club and he insisted on introducing each of the bands himself, in his own, inimitable, over-the-top manner. As the evenings wore on, Rahal would often get progressively more, relaxed, shall we say, and feel free to take the stage mid-set if the mood so struck him.
More often than not, he would banter with the band or the audience between songs when this happened, but he also wasn't above running a band off-stage or lambasting them if he felt they were being disrespectful of him or the venue.
Whatever the case, a night at K's was always an adventure.
Nitro was more than just a club, however. It was, in effect, a prep school for young bands working their way up. Jarrod Gollihare (of Admiral Twin) referred to Nitro as "a great starting point. K let you do your own thing, so long as you were respectful of him and his place."
Paul Cristiano (bassist for RadioRadio) says of Rahal: " . . . I loved K. I learned a real valuable lesson from him. I played in a band and we really packed that place out so I was like 'Well, can I get some money?'"
K's response was: "Look, it cost money to run this club and right now, you need a platform. You need a platform to perfect your art: this is it. I'm providing that, nobody else is. I make the money, you make the music."
As hard as it is for a young musician to grasp that at the time, in hindsight, Cristiano says " . . . that's exactly right- nobody else was doing that. He provided the Room, the PA and the beer. That's what's what he gave us. I love K -- that guy is the godfather of the Tulsa music scene."
The other outlet for original music at the time was the Tower Theater, located in the Williams Center. Previously run as an art house cinema, Jim Edwards and his partners turned the theater into a multi-purpose room for screening films or conferences and speakers during the week and holding live alt-rock shows on the weekends.
Edwards had originally gained experience in running a live venue when he and his partners took over the Cain's Ballroom in 1975 in an effort to turn it from a country dance hall into a rock venue. Their vision for the room never fully came to fruition, but they made their second attempt at creating a Fillmore style atmosphere when they took over the Tower Theater for a two-year run.
Conceived and operated as a primarily all-ages venue, Edwards believes that, to an extent, he witnessed the birth of a scene. "A lot of kids were hanging out at the time . . . It never got too crazy and there was a certain amount of joy."
Edwards hesitates to place too much emphasis on the Tower's importance, stating that "the legend has grown" and acknowledging that it wasn't a particularly profitable experience. "It's not always about numbers, though, so much as a sweet spot that we may have, based in a little bit of reality. Rock'n'roll is really about the myth anyway, isn't it?"
Edwards says that his model for the venue was based largely on Bill Graham and the legendary Fillmore Theater. The main focus was on creating a positive experience and being a great host to the bands and the kids, and if the Tower's reputation is any indication, he was immensely successful in that regard. What the venue did provide was a good stage with full lighting for the bands and an inviting atmosphere for the audience.
The Tower Theater may have only had a two-year run, but it still made a lasting impact on the bands and music fans that frequented it. To some degree, Edwards sees his role as one of shepherding both the bands and the audience and helping nurture a sense of mutual admiration and respect between the two.
"I think that, in general, people want a deeper musical experience and we worked hard to make that experience a possibility" says Edwards. "If something real and meaningful came of our efforts, I hope it's that."
The other hot club of the early '90s that everyone remembers is IKON. Granted, the IKON isn't remembered for playing to the pop-side of the rock spectrum so much as the darker Goth, punk and industrial acts, but the venue wasn't necessarily limited in its focus. After all, the IKON did host a number of alternative bands and not only welcomed Mother Love Bone at one point during its run, but also a poorly attended show by Wilco in the early stages of that band's career. Pigface and My Life with the Thrill Kill Cult were also regulars.
Overall, it's not that there were a large number of rooms that hosted all original music in the '90s, so much as the fact that there was significant activity and public support of the scene that started to evolve around them. By many accounts, Club Nitro being referred to as THE place for original bands to play initially meant it was the only place to play before the scene expanded to include 4 or 5 venues that welcomed original music or a blend of originals and covers.
Opinions vary as to how active and healthy the local music scene was at the time, but common consensus is that it did feel like it was a special time for rock bands in Tulsa.
The nature of a local music scene is for there to be little microbursts of activity, spawning a group of young bands, who then dissolve and reform under various different names and line-ups. As a whole, it's generally a very incestuous situation with band members flitting back and forth between varying projects. The true test, though, is seeing which bands, or at least which players, stand out and remain active over the years.
When discussing the peak of the Nitro/Eclipse and Tower Theater years in the early 90's, there are a few bands whose names regularly emerge as the leaders and flagship artists of the time.
One such act is a group known as The Mantras, an all original act that combined late '80s college rock influences with a bit of hippie-stoner rock and a more progressive alt-rock sound. Edwards remembers the Mantras as "really creative and psychedelic -- real trippy...", and recalls a show where the group had two go-go dancers covered in day-glow paint dancing on stage as the band played. Edwards also remembers the guitarist having a "very unique, obtuse approach to the instrument and the music."
Another artist, Michael Garrett, whom Edwards calls one of the creative patriarchs of the local music scene, fronted One Night Tribe at about this time. The group was a 13-15 piece band that played world-beat music similar to Paul Simon's Graceland material, which was popular at the time.
According to Edwards, Garrett currently resides in Eureka Springs, where he is working on another music project and has even had one of his songs recorded by Jimmy Buffett. More recently noted within Tulsa music circles, Garrett shared co-producing and songwriting credits on Jared Tyler's 2005 album Blue Alleluia.
Edwards' short list of standouts from the early '90s also includes alt-rock band Abby Grange, Tulsa Reggae godfathers Local Hero, John Russell's progressive art-rock act State of Mind, Melodramatic Wallflowers, and Glass House.
Another band that Edwards didn't mention during our conversation, but did come up frequently when discussing the time period with others was Dragonfly, a band that included Blake Smith and Don Jameson. These bands represent only a smattering of what was happening musically in Tulsa at the time, but they are also a good place to start when getting an overview of the early '90s music scene.
The Big Three
Above all others, when looking back over the past 15 years, three bands stand out as prime examples of Tulsa's pop/rock movement with consistent links from our past to the present. Each of them have multiple ties to the Tulsa music family tree, have seen a measure of national success, and are still active in local music circles to some degree.
They should be all too obvious, but just in case you haven't figured it out yet, they are: Admiral Twin, Caroline's Spine and Molly's Yes.
While naming three bands that appear to have peaked in the late '90s may sound like a copout, the fact is, all three bands had a big effect on our local music scene and continue to impact it today.
Pure Tulsa Pop
Admiral Twin has not only been one of the most consistent pop bands in Tulsa over the years, but it is also one of the easiest to keep track of. Reaching back to the late '80s, drummer Jarrod Gollihare was a part of popular act Beatnik Pirates before forming Melodramatic Wallflowers with Mark Carr, Brad Becker and Steve Francen back in '91.
The band quickly developed a strong fan base and was incredibly prolific in writing new material--so much so that Edwards vividly recalls working lights to cover for an employee who called in sick one night when Melodramatic Wallflowers played a grand total of 38 original tunes in one extended set. In 1996, Francen left the band and was replaced with John Russell (formerly of progressive rock band State of Mind) and the band changed its moniker shortly thereafter, adopting the name of the iconic local landmark and drive-in theater, Admiral Twin.
(Side Note: The Admiral Twin drive-in is now owned by Blake Smith, a close friend of the band who was also guitarist for Dragonfly ,a contemporary of Melodramatic Wallflowers, and later, Royal Crush.)
As most people know, Admiral Twin went on to do a national tour as opening act for Hanson as that group was exploding on the international scene. The band then scored a record deal and released Mock Heroic on Mojo Records in early 2000, but the label folded shortly thereafter, leaving the band in limbo for a time.
Admiral Twin continues to play around town consistently, playing covers and originals as the venue allows, and has a new CD near completion. The new disc, Admiral Twin's first since 2003' Creatures of Bread and Wine, will be released this summer via indie label New Pop Revival and should signal a renewed touring schedule for the band.
Caroline's Spine, a Tulsa band by association and adoption, has become one of the city's most beloved. Guitarist Mark Haugh is a Tulsa native who attended Loyola University with lead singer Jimmy Newquist, where the two formed a band called The Grovers.
After college, Newquist scored a record deal with an indie label in California and Haugh followed him to the west coast where the two met drummer Jason Gilardi and formed Caroline's Spine.
After not making much headway on the music scene in LA, the group started touring regionally and eventually came through Tulsa for the first time in '95. Scott Jones, a childhood friend of Haugh, actually helped book the first couple Spine shows in Tulsa.
After rotating through a few different bassists, the guys talked Jones, a guitarist, into joining the band and he learned to play bass on the road (literally) as he immediately began touring with the group.
With two native Tulsans now in the band, local music fans embraced the band as their own and Tulsa became a home away from home whenever the band passed through. After releasing two albums on Hollywood Records, Caroline's Spine went on hiatus in 2001, taking its first extended break since the band had started touring.
At that point, Gilardi made Tulsa his permanent home and remained active in the local music scene. Together, Jones and Gilardi joined Ben Hosterman and Mike Jameson of Mad Verb to form New Science. That band doubled as Zac Maloy's backing band, Killer Grins, and at one point also completed the Clovis lineup with Ben's brother, Greg Hosterman.
Meanwhile, Newquist carried on with a solo career and did some touring with his own backing band, which at one point included guitarist Jean-Michel Ballaguer (now of Citizen Mundi). Gilardi also joined RedEcco, fronted by Randy Patton during the hiatus.
Aside from playing a handful of shows each year to keep the band alive, Caroline's Spine has remained relatively dormant for the past six years. The band has recently come out of hibernation, however, with a new CD, a winter tour and more extensive tour dates planned as 2007 progresses.
The Long Way Around
Molly's Yes completes the triumvirate of major Tulsa players tying the '90s to the current scene, but the band's place in the grand scheme of local music is a bit more convoluted. Instead of tracking linearly, Molly's Yes both consolidated member from earlier bands and distributed them out to later projects, the most prominent of which is currently RadioRadio.
So where to begin? Glass House is probably as good a place to start as any. Described by Brad Mitcho as "basically The Plumbers with Jenny (Labow) singing and two keyboard players", the band initially combined Mitcho and Labow with guitarist Jeff Quimby and keyboard player Mike Reiser, whom Quimby had previously played with in Quiet City.
The group went through a number of drummers, including David Barrett, who went on to form Whirligig and Sean Layton, who departed for Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, before tying up the position with Scott Taylor.
Glass House was initially conceived as a singer/songwriter type project, but added some cover tunes to its repertoire to fill space when the band was booked for entire evenings and eventually became recognized as much for its covers as for its original songs.
Nevertheless, the group did go to Nashville to record its first (and second) CD, where Mitcho learned about recording from Quimby and also met Wayne Morgan, with whom he would eventually collaborate when producing. Glass House gathered a lot of attention, but the rotation of band members and creative frustrations led Labow to strike out on her own and the band broke up in '96.
Jenny went on to experience moderate success as a solo artist and eventually moved to LA to pursue her music career. She recently released her 3rd solo disc and has worked with multiple area musicians, including bassist Cristiano and most of the members of Caroline's Spine at one time or another.
Meanwhile, after spending a brief period assisting Labow on her solo material, Glass House band mates Mitcho, Taylor and John Quinn (Glass House bassist, who had previously been in the band Peter Parker) formed The Plumbers to pick up gigs and stay busy.
At the same time, they also pressed on and joined forces with Mac Ross (of Groove Pilots and Stephen Hero) and Ed Goggin (also of Stephen Hero, as well as The Push) to form the band that would eventually be known as Molly's Yes.
The group's self-produced, independent debut was picked up and re-released by Universal/Republic in '99, but didn't make many waves on the national charts and the group finally disbanded before completing a second record.
At that time, Mitcho was doing local production work as well as carrying on with The Plumbers and got an offer to join Fanzine, whose record he was working on when guitarist Greg Klaus left the band. Mitcho declined, but Ross stepped in and the band saw a degree of local and regional success and even played the main stage at EdgeFest in 2004 before falling apart.
In 2006, Mitcho and Taylor finally re-engaged the original, modern rock machine as members of RadioRadio with friends Greg Hosterman, Christiano and Urian Weaver. Weaver connected with Mitcho when Brad was working on a CD for Urian's previous band, Martini Kings.
Hosterman's voice is a known entity on the local music scene as he started out in the acoustic duo November before moving on with Greg Hosterman Trio, spending some time in Kettle of Fish and more recently fronting Clovis with his brother Ben (of New Science, Mad Verb and Entropy).
The final piece of the RadioRadio puzzle is bassist Cristiano, who has spent time in Screaming Jimmy with Mat Mays (coincidentally, the original lead singer in Kettle of Fish) and Quiet Drive with eventual Glass House members Jeff Quimby and Mike Reiser.
Cristiano has also played bass for Labow, a latter era version of Royal Crush with Smith (previously of Dragonfly, with Don Jameson, who eventually formed Fanzine) and TRB with Tony Romanello, who started out in Murmur before going solo and becoming a critical darling in Tulsa.
What Did We Miss?
Admiral Twin, Caroline's Spine and Molly's Yes may serve as signposts that guide us through the past decade and a half of Tulsa music, but they were far from the only thing going on.
What about Hanson, you ask? What can really be said about Hanson? The brother act was a fairly self-contained phenomenon that took off on its own. Even though the group took off rapidly, it still kept its Tulsa ties and paid respect to the bands that helped it along, as was shown by taking Admiral Twin on tour as an opening act.
Outside the bands that were outlined and the peripheral bands that were mentioned alongside, there was plenty more going on in Tulsa. The underground/hard rock scene of the '90s spawned bands like Asylum, Bunnies of Doom, Tribe of Souls, Bozak, Shannon's Tub, DDS, Liverpool, Diffuser and the near-legendary Pitbulls on Crack, all of which are interconnected by only a couple of degrees of separation.
Of course, there are also direct links from current bands backward into punk, rockabilly, alt-country: you name it. There are too many to name them all, but you get the idea.
Where Are We Now?
So where will the scene go from here? Only time will tell, but it's not hard to look around and see which acts are growing musically and remaining popular at the same time.
Congress of a Crow continues to turn heads as Danelle Phillips (formerly of Fridgebuzz) carries on with two members of progressive hard rock act, Vastu.
RedEcco also promises to make a lasting impact on Tulsa's pop scene and includes Gilardi (Caroline's Spine) and Sean Taylor (Flapjack Cancer Company), as well as front man Randy Patton, who was previously playing in Mudville Project with Greg Klaus.
Again, tracking backwards, Mudville Project's leader Klaus was a founding member of Fanzine with Don Jameson, who was in Dragonfly in the early '90s. Mudville's current keyboard player, Greg Younger, was also lead singer of Dragonfly.
A newcomer to the scene who's also showing a lot of promise is acoustic pop act The Pearls. Led by Andy Skib of MidWest Kings and accompanied by Jocelyn Hughes, from Rook, Mourning September's Tony Chavez, and relative newcomer Mike Kelly, their guitar and vocal arrangements are simple but timeless.
Easily the most prominent pop/rock band in Tulsa right now, however, is The Hero Factor. Originally founded by Eric Arndt and Matt Fisher, the band got off to something of a false start. Arndt met keyboardist Chad Copelin (who also produces) while playing bass for Nathan Brandt and approached him about joining Hero Factor.
When Copelin began playing with the group, he also brought along drummer Nathan Price from his previous band, Ember Days.
Finally, Ben Kilgore, who was previously in Shadowalk with his brother Blake, opened a few shows for the 4-piece configuration of Hero Factor before eventually joining the band as lead singer.
The Hero Factor chain doesn't stop there, however. Once the current band had started to settle in together, Rockwell Ryan asked the band to open a show for his band, Stephen Speaks, at Tulsa City Limits. That night's show was recorded and ended up being the band's first CD.
Once the band was ready to record its first studio disc, they went to Black Lodge Studios in Kansas to work with Ed Rose, who they met when Chad, Nathan and Eric were helping Scott Windsor on what eventually became The Umbrellas.
After releasing an initial EP on the Nobility label, Hero Factor is preparing to go into the studio and begin recording its next full length disc.
For these sessions, studio time will be split between Black Lodge and Hanson's studio as Eric and Isaac (Hanson) have known each other since childhood. Need any more proof that Hero Factor is fully ingrained in the Tulsa music scene?
I know that I'm missing more, like the fact that Brandt's new project (with Aaron from Shamrock) is a band called Motorcade. Or maybe that Johnny Wright, who previously played guitar for Brandt, is now playing with his brothers: Jacob Wright and Joseph Wright, the drummer from Xanadu, in the group GloSoul.
Despite how it may feel at times, Tulsa's local music scene continues to grow. What will be most interesting is seeing what bands emerge from our current musical climate, how long they will last, and how they tie into the rest of the bands on the scene.
Granted, we no longer have K. Rahal's Nitro or Eclipse to grow baby bands, but we do have the Pinkeye. It may be a breeding ground for primarily emo, screamo, and hardcore bands, but at least it's a stage for young bands to play and build their chops. All they need to do is refine their sound and build their following in order to move up to bigger rooms like The Hive and The Otherside - all of which, not coincidentally, are interrelated clubs.
Additionally, not one, but two rooms (Soundpony and Mooch & Burn) have opened their doors in the past year for original and indie rock and Under the Mooch, the indie record store at 14th and Harvard, is even hosting small shows on a semi-regular basis.
Mercury Lounge also supports all original bands, and although it's more of a rockabilly and alt-country bar, it still hosts the occasional indie or punk rock band.
All told, that's not too bad a tally, especially when you consider the fact that other clubs like Boston's, Dirty's Tavern, 1974, and BruHouse also book bands that play original music alongside cover tunes.
Popular live music venues like Gray Snail, Liquidz, Elephant Run, Fishbonz, Sideline and others have given local musicians a chance to ply there ware, work up their acts and give locals a chance to hang out to a cool vibe.
Other venues--restaurants and bars 818, Continential, McNellie's, who appreciate live music and know its value to attracting customers--continue to book the cover acts, who, every now and then, get to slip in an original or two.
The scene is growing and vibrant and the venues continue to open and prosper along with the scene. As long as we continue to have a handful of clubs that welcome original music, Tulsa's original music community will continue to grow.
With that in mind, only one question remains: Who will carry Tulsa's pop and rock scene into the future?
Writer's Epilogue: Yes, I know there are numerous bands and clubs that that I may not have mentioned, forgotten or somehow inadvertently not included. I'm sure you'll be right there to remind me. Nevertheless, I'm still interested to hear more about the history of Tulsa's bands, so feel free to send me your comments and band timelines.
And although I may not have credited them all directly, I'd like to thank the following people for their time, insight and invaluable assistance: Jim Edwards, Matt Stevens, Davit Souders, Blake Smith, Paul Cristiano, Brad Mitcho, Jarrod Gollihare, Eric Arndt, Greg Hosterman, Terry Waska, and anyone I may have left out.
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