|Editor Mitch Phillips takes you on yet another protracted adventure into the night-life - this time to the Berkley Front, where Nailing Betty auditions for Maniac Record's chief exec. Also: re-introducing Ernie Douglas and Johnny Allen.|
Nailing Betty / Ernie Douglas / Johnny Allen
review by Mitch Phillips
Betty’s Big Chance
It was Nailing Betty’s big chance. According to the e-mail, some record company types were coming up from New Orleans to see the band at The Berkley Front and now they were asking for support. I’d met drummer Rick Schneider at Memphis Smoke several weeks earlier while reviewing The Wrenfields. whose singer, Noreen Novrocki, gave Betty a good plug so I’d promised to come see them play as soon as I could. Well, this looked like the perfect opportunity to see them shine, being that they were all pumped up to impress the label reps.
I hadn’t been going out to see too many bands lately, opting for more economical CD and single reviews I could pull-off without leaving my office. Ever-increasing gas prices had effectively grounded my Dodge Ram, thanks to George W. and his oil-suckin’ buddies in Texas who want to cash-in on the lucrative summer travel season. They took a beating on the internet stock fiasco and it was time for payback. But it was Memorial weekend, so what the hell. I emptied the penny jar for Nailing Betty. It was the least I could do for their big chance.
The Berkley Front
Toadstools and Martinis
The Berkley Front, if you’ve never been there, is a two-story “American Beer Garden” in downtown Berkley that includes your run-of-the-mill storefront bar downstairs and a cozy loft known as the “Dean Martini Lounge” upstairs.
Very clever. The minute I entered the loft, I knew this was a great room for music. Very intimate, not too big, the reflective surfaces of the loft windows were counterbalanced by the carpeted floor and an overstuffed couch that sat along one wall. Best of all, the stage was the focal point of the long room.
As I entered the lounge, I reflexively looked toward the music and there was a momentary flash of recognition between me and the solitary performer who was in the midst of an acoustic version of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” I recognized him from somewhere and I think he recognized me between verses.
I sunk down at the bar and immediately developed an inferiority complex; the bar was chest level to me while I sat. I’m six-foot-four so I know I wasn't imagining that the barstools were too short. These weren’t barstools - they were toadstools and the effect was unnerving. Perhaps the diminutive stature of the chairs kept the vibe low and cool; keep the patrons from getting too “uppity.” Is it too much to think the bar’s designer is well versed in psycho-ergonomics? That’s Feng Sui for you trendies out there.
I asked the bartender who was onstage.
“That’s Johnny Allen.”
It all came back to me in a rush then.
Whatever Happened to Johnny Allen?
“Johnny Allen,” I gasped. I couldn’t believe it. I’d written a piece on Johnny Allen ten years ago on my first stint with Jam Rag. Robert Macadaeg and I had followed him around for a whole day; from his house, to the gig, and to an after-party held in somebody’s garage where all I remember is sitting in for an impromptu jam session and urinating in public. I was pretty drunk (big surprise there).
I do remember writing something like, ‘Johnny Allen is Detroit’s answer to Bruce Springsteen’ and I meant every word. He was the hardest working local performer I’d seen at the time, and probably since. Being around Johnny Allen was like being in the presence of a boneafide Rock Star; the consumate singer, songwriter and performer with energy to burn who wore the requisite tight leather pants. A True Believer in Rock & Roll.
Back then it was Johnny Allen and The Hamm Kings but there’s been several manifestations of his band and vehicles for his genius before and since then: Johnny Allen and The Appeal; 3lb Universe; Banana Wig; and now The Love Junkies. He’s probably the only local performer I know (who hasn’t “made it” nationally) whose music merits a box set retrospective (i.e. one that’s actually worth the money).
He didn’t recognize me immediately, but it only took two words and four numbers for him to remember.
“Jam Rag, 1991,” I said.
“Oh - My - God!” he exclaimed. A look of disbelief overtook his face and a smile emerged on mine. “Has it bee TEN YEARS! My God. Do you remember the after-party in the garage?” We laughed, talked of old times and caught up. Apparently, he was now managing The Berkley Front’s lounge between gigs with The Love Junkies and sits in at the lounge whenever possible. He can’t help himself. Johnny Allen LIVES to play.
Now Johnny and his lovely wife, Deanna, are expecting their first child in June, tentatively named “Ian Christophe Allen.” The wife’s not sure about the name but it gets my vote. Ian Allen; you couldn’t have picked a better stage name Johnny.
You can visite the official Johnny Allen homepage here.
It may as well be Ernie
"Mullet-heads! Down in front!"
According to Johnny Allen, Ernie Douglas has won several local awards for his performance and songwriting abilities. Now he was ripping it up with a solo acoustic number to open his set, treating the room to a flavor of musical performance I haven’t seen in a club since.....well, never really.
Dressed in jeans, hippie-boots and a beaded choker, Ernie Douglas is like a cross between Richie Havens and Cat Stevens. His music is folksy, but more personal than political, yet more fiery than introspective. His vocal phrasing and vibrato betray a strong Cat Stevens influence but, hey, somebody’s got to fill the space that Yusef Islam abandoned in search of the moral high ground. It may as well be Ernie.
But because of the diminutive toadstools and the six-foot-plus bandheads mulling about in front of the bar, I couldn’t see shit. So I asked one of the guys to move (politely, mind you) so I could better see Douglas’ performance.
The guy and his buddy copped an attitude with me. Sigh. I wondered if I would get sucked into some macho posturing bullshit and end up in a fight with these mullet-heads. I scanned the bar for potential weapons just in case. I figured, if worse came to worse, I could beat one of them into the floor with a ceramic ashtray while the other kicked-in my ribs. I’m not a violent person but don’t fuck with my angst. I’ll kill if I must.
The mullet-heads smirked and sneered at me a bit, but eventually moved just enough for me to see Ernie Douglas pull off an amazing cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Friends,” complete with the droning keyboard (how did he do that?). The crowd and I exploded in appreciation at the song’s dramatic conclusion. Douglas had already won my heart with his choice of covers but he drove it home with Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Lucky Man.” We cut our teeth on the same vinyl, me and Ernie.
Nice guy that I am (I don’t really beat people to death with ashtrays), I left a space between me and the next toadstool so people could get to the bar for a drink. After four or five patrons got their fill, the gods paid-up on my good karma and a beautiful, copper-haird vixen with full pouty lips and a rack like Jane Mansfield settled in next to me. The word, “Cowboy” glittered across her heaving chest like the city lights of the Alberquerque foothills on a warm, desert night. Yow. Sometimes It’s good to be the writer.
I guessed the T-shirt must have been a leftover from a Kid Rock show (or backstage rendezvous with said celebrity) but to me, it was her name becuase she wore it so damn well. Suzy, and her equally attractive, yet stylishly disinterested friend, Michelle, had come in with the band.
It seems Nailing Betty’s drummer, Rick Schneider, used to date Cowboy Suzy’s sister.
‘You don’t say?’
Cowboy Suzy, when not distracting men with her amazingly fine looks, is an X-Ray technician during the day.
Oddly enough, getting my ribs kicked in by the mullet-heads was sounding better by the minute.
Cowboy Suzy was diggin’ Ernie Douglas’ version of Peter Gabriel’s, “Salisbury Hill” and I was diggin’ Cowboy Suzy. If Cowboy Suzy had a live webcast, her hits would make Michiganbands.com look like...
Betty’s Big Chance or just another Fancy Dance?
This ariticle has been edited without the consent of the Chief Editor, whose disparaging comments about an advertiser's website has raised the ire of The Founder of Michiganartists.com (where this article originally appeared) , who took it upon herself to remove comments not complimentary to the advertiser. The Chief Editor in no way endorses the practice of appeasing advertisers by omitting facts. If you would like details of the omission, email The Chief Editor. The following paragraph, which does compliment the advertiser, has been left as is.
. . . . . But Maniac Music’s heart is in the right place and if all our little websites across the country can band together to make things right, artists may someday get what they deserve, God willing.
With the disadvantage of never having seen or heard Nailing Betty before, I settled in at the bar with Cowboy Suzy and waited for the band to begin. I asked her what I should expect.
“They’re kinda’ Black Crowes-ish,” she said with the upward inflection of someone who doesn’t quite believe what they’re saying. She searched unsuccessfully for the right comparison, then finally gave me the best plug she could. “Mark has a really good voice,” she cooed. I wondered what perks that might buy him later.
The band got to business and launched into their opener without too much messing about. It wasn’t The Crowes but I could hear the influence; Nailing Betty had a funky-rock sound going on that was still vague enough to call their own.
Singer Mark Schmier extended his arms out to the sides and tilted his head in just such a way that it reminded me of The Crucifiction - with shades. There was no doubt he had enough charisma to carry the band.
A cigarette dangled from the mouth of bassist Rick Lee who jumped, crouched and squirreled his way between drummer Rick Schneider and Schmier, trying to find a crowd-accessible spot on the small, floor-level stage. Guitarist Chris Martin carved out a niche stage-left, concentrating on his crafty fingerwork while keyboardist Bryan Geoffrey hammered the keys stage-right.
I kicked back, closed my eyes, listened and waited for an impression to emerge or a hook to grab me but came up with nothing; maybe the whiskey was workin’ it’s mojo on me. I decided I’d better rely on the crowd rather than my own 86-proof attention span.
I scoped the lounge to get a feeling for the peoples’ reaction to Nailing Betty. The room had definitely filled-up since their arrival so they’d either done their promo or had built a dedicated following. A group of women clustered near the stage, swaying to the music, drinks in hand, making eyes with their favorite bandmember. Groupies; every decent band has groupies.
I continued to scan the room for reactions from people who weren’t so obviously connected to the band. A suburban housewife-type near the bar grooved to the music, swaying her hips from side to side while she sipped her drink. Her eyes never left the stage, mezmerized by......what?
The Davey Jones Principle
For those of you too young to remember, Davey Jones was the lead singer for “The Monkees,” a made-for -t.v. band that had a show back in the late sixties and early seventies. Jones was chosen for the lead-singer role based more on his looks than on his vocal abilities. But The Monkees became a real band who could perform real music and Jones could really sing. Unfortnately, the media focused on Jones because of his marketability to teenage girls. This usually overshadowed any musical efforts of the group and frusterated their efforts to be taken seriously.
The recurring theme of the night at The Berkley Front was how cute Mark Schmeir (the singer) and Rick Schneider (the drummer) were. From Cowboy Suzy and Michelle to a buxom Kindergarten teacher named Kelly in the crowd - all seemed particularly interested in their personal fantasies of these two bandmembers and didn’t hesitate to give the band kudos based on that opinion alone. Nailing Betty could have been playing show-tunes on kazoos while clapping cymbals between their knees and still garnered approval from every female in the room.
Mark and Rick are both tall, dark and handsome (which certainly never hurt a career in music biz and in some circles is a pre-requisite to stardom - see MTV) but this wasn’t getting me any closer to what people thought of the music. Davey Jones was getting in the way of The Monkees. I decided to get a more masculine perspective.
A male friend of the band probably put it best, "I like the music but it all starts to sound the same after a while." I suppose it was true. The reason nothing in particular jumped out at me while listening to Nailing Betty was that the tempos and keys of the set hovered around the same area. Each tune in their set, standing alone, were well crafted, funky-rock numbers. But as a whole, the set lacked dynamics; there was no tension, release, tension, release, tension, tension, climax, release, conclusion. They rocked from the beginning to the end with nary a breath in between.
Nailing Betty believe in their music and have the passion to carry it off. But if they want their fans to believe in Nailing Betty, they'd better understand the experience from the crowd's perspective.
Betty’s Big Chance or Fancy Dance?
I still wasn’t sold on Nailiing Betty, but because of my lubricated condition, I didn’t trust my own ears. So I approached the record exec. from Maniac Music to get his take on the band and what he intended to offer them based on what he heard.
“So what do you think?” I asked CEO Michael Allen.
“Well, I drove 1200 miles to see them, “ he said flatly, as if I should be able to divine exactly what that meant. He offered nothing more, remaining cooly disinterested in whatever I might say next.
“So what are your company’s plans for Nailing Betty?” I asked, trying to get him to commit to something I could print.
“I know what’s marketable, “ Allen said, directly contradicting his company’s mission-statement on their “about us” webpage:
http://www.maniac-music.com/about.html ‘(opportunity for success) should not be based upon the financial based opinion of an executive if the artist is "marketable." That judgment should reside with the music community.’ - editors parentheses.
Allen proceeded to give me the company schpiel, what a great deal it offered bands, how many cities he’d been to and how many calls he’d fielded from record companies on a daily basis - but still fell short of answering my question, “What about Betty?” He wasn’t commiting to anything.
Later phone calls and e-mails resulted in no more success than our conversation at The Berkley Front. “As far as what we intend to do with Nailing Betty, you’d have to ask the band if their going to take advantage of what we have to offer,” Allen said in a voice message. “I can’t comment on negotiations with artists,” he said.
According to Rick Lee, Betty’s bassist, the first round of negotiations is in the works with Betty getting 33 percent of sales with Maniac picking up the tab for recording and distribution. But nothing’s been written in stone and it’s still too early to say where the relationship with go.
I can only surmise from what little Michael R. Allen, president and C.E.O of Maniac Records (thats Communicator of Exaggerated Opportunities) told me and what I’ve read and experienced of Maniac Records that the impetus is still heavily on what the band does to foster thier own success. Nailing Betty may not be any closer to Nationaly Success for their “big chance” with Maniac Records, but they had a dancefloor of beauties who would cheer them on for the time being.
Nailing Betty’s second album is already in-the-can and scheduled for release sometime this month according to their website. You can visit the official Nailing Betty homepage here.