This year, Tulsa's newly invigorated music scene has prospered from an abundance of realized creative potential that's given new energy and motivation to musicians and fans alike. Venues across town have stepped up to the plate, showcasing a variety of national and local talent on a near constant basis, and the results have paved the way to a refreshingly optimistic outlook even from those who, in the past, have been cynical and dismissive of the city's collective creative potential.
It's in keeping with this newfound optimism that Urban Tulsa Weekly is especially excited to announce the lineup for this year's NewVo music showcase. Now in its seventh year, NewVo is our way of championing the rising talent that populates both Tulsa and Oklahoma in general. Think of it as the Urban Tulsa equivalent to iROK's 2008 mix CD (which is spectacular, by the way). Some of these artists have released albums, toured Europe and opened for popular national acts. Others have little more than demos posted on their MySpace pages and have played only a handful of local shows thus far. The common trait shared by all of them is that they represent the future of Oklahoma music, and we at Urban Tulsa really, really like them.
Last year, artists and musicians were paired according to genre and corresponding venue over three weekends. The Otherside hosted modern rock night, where radio-friendly rock 'n' roll took center stage. The following weekend, the Mooch & Burn (now the Marquee) hosted indie night, where "avant-garde" and "quirky" were the ubiquitous descriptors of the evening. The final weekend took place at (the now-defunct) Liquidz, where world music showcased musicians whose exotic tastes and talents extended outside of the traditional pop format.
This year, we're tightening the proceedings by expanding the genre/venue concept (with an added folk-centric stage) while at the same time trimming it down to one ear-popping night spread throughout the Blue Dome district. Blank Slate, the Blue Dome Diner, Arnie's Pub and Dirty's Tavern have opened their doors to NewVo, and, while it's not on the scale of Dfest, we feel that the showcase couldn't be more suited to the area. The growing popularity of downtown as a gathering spot for night-crawlers is nowhere more evident than in this cluster of pubs and venues running across Detroit and Elgin, so what better place to hold an artist showcase?
Starting at 9pm, the four venues will host four separate shows that will occur simultaneously. Each venue will feature three musicians/bands (with the exception of Blank Slate, which will feature four) that will play out over the course of the evening.
That's right, we're making it difficult for ya. Instead of being able to gluttonously consume the ear candy offered by our 13 featured artists, you will be allowed a maximum of four (if you time it perfectly). Think of it as a musical diet. You can have Ghosts, but you can't have Here is There. And vice versa. Or, you can skip both and checkout folk-rock wild girl Ali Harter. Or red dirt/country act South 40. The point is that you have to choose.
The good news is that, once again, it's completely free, so you'll be able to wander from venue to venue without the worry of covers or re-entrance fees.
Obviously, we're not endorsing one band over another (we like them all), but the simple matter of fact is that at some point in the evening, lines will be drawn and sides will be chosen, so you better start negotiating with your accompanying friends and lovers now. It could get bloody.
At 9pm, the evening begins with two acts that couldn't be further removed from each other. Blank Slate kicks it off with local R&B sensation Branjae, while the Diner opens its concert hall to the wacky theatrics of man-child indie geeks Wighead.
Branjae, a Tulsa music veteran, was the female lead vocalist for the hip-hop supergroup Full Flava Kings before recently branching out into solo work. She's currently booked to the gills through the end of June, with an average of two or three shows a week scheduled in Tulsa alone.
"I believe Tulsa is starting to step up to the plate as far as recognizing its talent and supporting it," she said, in a recent interview. "I think my music will have an effect on Tulsans because I have something to talk about, and people are ready to listen."
Branjae's music is a polished, energetic riff on top-forty R&B, but what sets her apart from other like-minded artists is an excess of soulfulness and sincerity that's well-balanced against the slick commercial appeal of her studio recordings.
As for her NewVo performance, Branjae says to expect a show.
"I love entertainers," she said. "Artists that make you never take your eyes off them... I really want people to be blown away."
Staying with the Blank Slate, Branjae will be followed up by young hip-hop prodigy Kawnar, who will take the stage to perform tracks from his recently released album Unclear. Kawnar's quickly developing a reputation for himself around town as a benign kind of enfant terrible, and the headstrong commitment to his craft will likely translate live to impressive results.
Following Kawnar, the Slate roster switches gears for prog-rock outfit Here is There. This young band somehow manages to channel The Mars Volta and Kings of Leon simultaneously, and their studio recordings are impressive displays of technical virtuosity that hint at much greater things to come. Live, they can be a bit rough around the edges, but there's a palpable excitement to the songwriting that offsets any technical nitpicking. The Booker T. Washington high school students are young and still on their way up, and based on the quality of their output thus far, the sky's the limit.
Finally, to cap the night off, Born a Number will close down Blank Slate with their eclectic brand of electro-reggae. The project is the latest from Malan Darras, who, alongside percussionist Justin Siggins and laptop wiz-kid Cody Bailey, continues to entertain his propensity for genre-dabbling and self re-invention. The show is sure to be loud and colorful.
Down the street at the Diner, Wighead will be engaging in a different sort of dabbling.
"I like to describe it as a ball of hair rolling towards a power line at breakneck speeds," frontman Chris Rusk explained. "You don't really know what to expect or what it will sound like, but you know it's going to smell awful, and make you dance."
What it sounds like is the zany, over-caffeinated little brother of They Might Be Giants. Songs about lumberjacks, astronauts and naked animals are Wighead's specialty. Naturally, there are many opportune moments for orchestrated insanity during a live performance. The twisted mania of a Wighead show has been alternately cheered and jeered at various times, but extreme reactions seem to be par for the course for a band that's so insistent on audience engagement (patron beware: they've been known to throw spaghetti).
"I really like our shows to be something that can't just be interchanged with sitting at home, listening to the CD," Rusk said. "If people choose to spend their night watching our show above all other things going on, we should really make them feel like they've chosen wisely."
In accordance with the upped ante of playing against other bands simultaneously, Rusk and Co. have big plans for NewVo.
"It's going to be a great spectacle that will be marked down in the books of time," he joked. "We have some fun stuff planned that will not only give an earful, but will be very fun to watch. We're talking bubbles, balloons, and all sorts of wacky bojangled theatrics."
Back to Reality
After the twisted mayhem of Wighead, Black Swan will bring the party back down to earth when they take the stage to perform their collection of aggressive, guitar-driven avant-pop songs that have earned them both the respect of peers and the loyalty of fans in a relatively short amount of time.
Ending the night at the Diner will be GHOSTS, that ubiquitous and oh-so-beloved Tulsa trio that's taken a heavy leaning on piano-based pop (with a heavy Elton John influence) and injected it with the manic punk rock energy of early Flaming Lips. Much like Wighead, GHOSTS live shows are infamous for their flamboyance and mock theatricality. The band recently had a line-up change when drummer Al Pagano replaced Shane Grogan, and Saturday night marks Pagano's first live performance with the trio.
Next up, we have Dirty's hosting the country-centric portion of the evening, beginning with John Moreland and the Black Gold Band. Moreland's sound tows the line somewhere between country and southern rock 'n' roll, with energetic Springsteen/Mellencamp-influenced anthems that paint vivid portraits of a blue collar life in Oklahoma. Moreland's deeply gruff, grainy register anchors the songs with an authenticity and pathos that grounds the band's studio work (their album Endless Oklahoma Sky was released through Little Mafia Records).
This kind of straight-forward country-tinged rock isn't exactly en vogue with local twentysomethings right now, and Moreland is candid in expressing his frustration with feeling somewhat displaced in the scene.
"I think we get overlooked a little for just being regular dudes in a regular rock band," Moreland said. "Because that's not really what's popular in Tulsa right now. I don't know, sometimes I love (Tulsa), and sometimes I wanna move as far away as possible."
While this sentiment isn't exactly in keeping with the collective optimism mentioned at the beginning of this article, it's a valid frustration for someone like Moreland, an immensely talented musician who should be much more celebrated in the local scene than he currently is. Regarding moving as far away as possible, though, Moreland is quick to add, "I think that's a somewhat common thing that people in their early 20's go through with the town they grew up in."
Moreland, a self-professed "bitter dude," admits that anger fuels much of his creativity.
"I tend to write a lot of songs when I'm pissed off," he said.
Fortunately, that anger is put to productive use in his live show, which he describes as both loud and distinctly Oklahoman. You can see for yourself Saturday at 10pm.
After Moreland, Tahlequah's country folksters the Turnpike Troubadours will deliver a set of their thoughtful, rootsy salutes to Oklahoma (hopefully including the hilariously fitting and yet heartfelt "Austin to Ashes," wherein vocalist Evan Felker, upon learning that his girlfriend is leaving him for the Texas capital, wishes to see "Austin burn to the ground").
The Dirty's show will close with South 40, Tulsa's popular red dirt act, whose debut CD Home dropped less than a year ago to glowing local and regional reception. They've been compared to the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, and Waylon Jennings, among others, and their album is a well-executed foray into commercial country music that could very well land on national radio rotation at some point in the near future. For country fans, this show is a must.
Old Uncle Arnie
Lastly, Arnie's Pub will host a folk-oriented roster that features three singer-songwriters, beginning with Lauren Miller.
Miller is a talented vocalist who plays stripped-down, ambling acoustic numbers that bring to mind a sunnier, more commercially viable Ani Difranco, complemented by the occasional nod to Stevie Nicks. Like Difranco, Miller's songs are many times simply spoken-word monologues that are filtered through the melody of her charming voice and laid against the most basic minimalist guitar work. The simplicity and restraint of it all is refreshing. Miller's been cutting her live performance teeth over the last year with semi-regular gigs at both Bru House and the Colony, and the NewVo show should be a good opportunity for her to continue to develop as a musician while building a fanbase.
Much like Miller, Dal Conner plays spare guitar-and-vocals acoustic numbers, and he works perfectly as a follow-up to Miller. Conner's songs are melancholy, romantic swoons that sound like what I would imagine Morrissey covering early Elliott Smith would be. There's a bit of quirkiness in Conner's voice--besides Morrissey, he brings to mind both Andrew Bird and Jens Lekman. The quiet nature of his music, combined with the added factor of Conner not actually living in Tulsa (he's currently based out of Los Angeles) should prove to be an interesting under-the-radar draw.
Rounding out the Arnie's show is Ali Harter, the Oklahoma City-based folk rock troubadour who is in the very top tier of regional musicians currently making a name for Oklahoma (that tier would include Kunek, Samantha Crain, Ryan Lindsey and Evangelicals, among others). Musically, Harter is an astonishing force of nature. Her low, feminine growl and her angular, at-times epileptic guitar work recall the hardened self-possession of Bonnie Raitt and the raw force of Moon Pix-era Cat Power, but Harter owns her identity, never allowing outside influence to seep too deeply into the proceedings.
She recently got back from a tour of France and Belgium (NewVo is one of the first shows she will play since being back stateside). With memories of Europe still fresh in her mind, Harter recalled some of the tour's illuminating high points.
"They treat musicians at every level, whether they're just starting out or are hugely famous, with the same respect," Harter said. "They really take the arts seriously and treat you like you are actually doing a job, not a hobby. Which is what it is, a job. A really fun job, but a job nonetheless."
She continued, saying that the French were always receptive and grateful, as well as immensely respectful.
"They listen," she said. "Often times, rooms of over a thousand are completely silent. It's incredible."
Though Harter is hugely affectionate towards other parts of the world, she makes it clear that Oklahoma will always be her home.
"I love the camaraderie of the scene here, artistically and socially," she said. "I'll always live in Oklahoma, and hopefully will continue to do my best to include it and its people in my life."
Harter's second album, Worry the Bone, is available through Little Mafia records. She'll conclude the 7th Annual New Voices showcase on Saturday night by performing the closing set at Arnie's.
So there it is, folks. 13 awesome bands, four worthy venues. Start choosing.
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