Good, bad or ugly—digging into the Akron music scene
cover story by Jenny Conn; photographs by Shane Wynn
It’s Friday night in mid-February at Jilly’s Music Room. Temps are single digits with a wind chill below zero, but the room is slowly filling. Small groups, couples and occasional solo patrons file in, icy air still rolling off their coats as they pass those lining the bar and settled at tables under soft white of light circles.
The Twist Offs fill Jilly’s pulsing lighted stage with strings, horns, keys, reeds and percussion, as energetic as they’ve sounded since the mid-80s, playing danceable horn-infused rock fronted by Erik Walter’s bluesy punk-inspired vocals.
The crowd is a mix, 20-somethings to over-40s. All is in motion, drinks steadily flow and the dance floor comes alive. This is the kind of night Jill Bacon Madden had in mind when, in 2013, she opened Jilly’s in the building where she’d once booked bands for Northside Bar & Grille.
It looks and feels nothing like Northside. All that wood and copper is gone.
“Northside was the coolest venue out there then,” Bacon Madden says. “But I wanted to build a place that was chic and comfortable now, where adults would want to hang out and experience live music.”
She means live original music in a space where the floor’s not sticky with beer.
“There’s so much talent in Northeast Ohio,” she says. “I wanted a place that offers a chance for people to be open to finding new music.”
To expose customers to new bands, she rarely charges a cover. In March, Jilly’s showcased 25 bands, ending with the annual Tb Music Northeast Ohio Bass Summit.
Around the corner, BLU Jazz+ was designed according to a similar ideal.
“There were no true jazz clubs in Akron, no venue to showcase the local talent,” says general manager Colin Cook.
Cook points to jazz programs at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Kent State University and the University of Akron’s School of Music as a rich talent pool.
“We want to nurture the next crop of jazz musicians,” he says.
BLU gives off a speakeasy vibe as you descend the steel staircase to the space below Maiden Lane. Immersed in the sensuosity of old-world jazz, even the club’s craft cocktails, laced with smoky bourbons and tangy gins, reflect that golden era.
The venue books local talent as well as internationally known artists, sometimes at the same time. One evening in February, BLU hosted Grammy-nominated jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco with jazz guitarist and Akron native Dan Wilson and Oberlin College graduate and drummer Jason Brown for two sold-out shows.
“The energy was palpable,” Cook says. “Everyone in the room was on the edge of their seats.”
The club’s jam nights are building steam, too, giving musicians opportunities to mix it up and spurring an unexpected development.
“Akron’s creating our own style of jazz, our own sound,” Cook says. “There’s a renaissance happening right now.”
That renaissance appears to be playing out across Akron’s broader musical arena.
The Akron sound is legion
At downtown’s grand dame, the Akron Civic Theater, Executive Director Howard Parr has been hip to Akron’s talent since 1998, when he took the helm.
“I would definitely have a pretty big tent view of what arts and culture are. It’s not just string quartets and poetry readings,” Parr says.
A Tallmadge-native, the sleek, eloquent Angie Haze is a classically trained musician who plays multiple instruments and composes by ear. On the Angie Haze Project’s first show out, the band won a House of Blues showcase, beating 15 acts.
“It’s just been incredible that so much has happened in such a small amount of time,” Haze says. “You put out what you want in the most positive and true sense, and it does happen.”
Haze, who headlines the Civic on April 17, plays out a lot locally—from Annabell’s, Lock 3, the Cashmere Cricket to Jilly’s , Dusty’s Landing and the Kent Stage. After filling in for a cancelled act at Musica, her folksy-gypsy-cabaret sound caught the ear of the headliner, Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter David Mayfield who took her on tour.
“People from out of the area are blown away by the talent here; not just artists but the business people also,” Haze says. “Maybe it’s partly the weather. We don’t have anything better to do, so you’re fully engrossed in your craft.”
Scarlet & the Harlots are feeling the Akron’s-onto-something vibe as well.
“One thing we’ve learned from traveling is that there’s such a rich talent here,” the flame-haired, opera-trained soprano Scarlet says. “So many great bands come out of this area.”
Scarlet & the Harlots also play Akron and the region, and have toured since 2011. The band was recently invited to play the Loud Wire Music Festival in late June in Grand Junction, Colo., headlined by Weezer and Rob Zombie.
“I’d like to see a scene develop in Akron, like there is in Austin or Seattle or DC,” says Harlots’ lead guitar and band manager Trevor. “I think there’s potential for that to happen because there really is a bunch of talent not just in Akron, in Northeast Ohio in general. In different genres, we have what it takes to succeed nationally.”
Brian Lisik, an Ellet-born rock singer-songwriter, agrees.
“Musician-wise this is one of the healthiest [scenes] out there,” he says. “Is there a proportionate number of not just musicians but really good musicians? I would say yes.”
Lisik has recorded four albums, including his latest solo record, “Curtisinterruptedus,” which comes out in April. He says he gets mileage out of announcing the band’s Akron roots on the road.
“People equate Akron to the Black Keys and Chrissie Hynde.”
Vivian Ramone, 18, and sister, Midge Ramone, 14, have played as ShiSho for 11 years, gigging locally at Musica, Annabell’s and Highland Square’s Porch Rokr.
“A lot of people think there is no scene, which I think is funny,” Viv says. “There’s so much going on in the underground right now.”
The sisters glean inspiration from Akron’s Devo because the Mothersbaugh brothers’ ongoing creativity and artistic innovations have kept them relevant.
Audiences outside northeast Ohio are picking up on something that evokes Akron as well. On tour, punk band Extra Spooky heard it from a venue owner.
“He asked us ‘what is it with you Akron guys? Is there something in the water?’” guitarist Henry McCoy.
“That’s our favorite complement,” guitarist Spenser Nikitin says. “It’s alright to get compared to bands. But we’ve gotten ‘you sound like Akron’ and it feels good to hear that.”
Trevor says a venue owner in Charlotte told Scarlet & the Harlots the same.
“Yes, there’s something blue collar,” Scarlet added. “Something working class. A raw sound.”
As for Akron’s music scene garnering national attention, Lisik equates it to falling in love.
“It’s either going to happen or not. You can do things to increase your chances, you can do everything right, and not get a date either.”
Isn’t everyone in five bands?
Lisik still feels the burn of losing the Lime Spider in 2007 after a six-year run bringing national acts to Akron.
“We need something akin to the Lime Spider that’s open till 4 in the morning—a Lime Spider/Waffle House, so musicians would come after the gig to keep playing.”
A late night venue would probably work. Many area musicians have a main band yet play in several other acts, too.
Bassist Toussaint English—aka “TB Player”—has played with the Tracy Thomas Jazz Band, the John Mosey Trio and the Colin John Band, in addition to his role in Scarlet & the Harlots.
“People want to stretch themselves, to play different styles,” English says.
Scarlet has performed with the Akron Symphony at E. J. Thomas and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as with Akron singer-songwriter Ryan Humbert during his annual Holiday Extravaganza at the Civic Theater. Her bandmate Trevor writes songs with Humbert and joins his Harlots cohorts, drummer Dylan Gomez and guitarist Ryan McDermott, in the Joe Vitale Jr. Band.
In April, Humbert is producing “Ohio’s Greatest Hits” at the Music Box Supper Club to celebrate the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony’s return to Cleveland. Lisik was invited to perform as a vocalist and Gomez will perform with the house band.
Haze has played with Hoseff Garcia, upright bass, for seven years, but she often adds new musicians.
“Depending on budget and who’s available, I like to spice things up with different instruments like flute, accordion or sax, or to feature an artist I know, to give them exposure.”
Extra Spooky collaborated with Tin Huey founding member, sax player Ralph Carney, on the band’s latest single “Father Man,” coming out on seven-inch vinyl in May.
Lisik remembers when it was considered bad behavior to play with a band other than your own.
“You practically had to sign a divorce decree,” he says. “Now I can put a call out for guitar players and get all these emails back.”
Knowing others have your back is important for a growing scene.
“This is how we survive and keep the ball rolling,” Haze says. “It’s hard doing things on your own. Supportive people are out there.”
“There hasn’t been a central gathering place that all different types of musicians feel comfortable in,” Lisik says.
That sentiment is echoed by Extra Spooky, which has had difficulty landing Akron gigs that fit the band’s sound—“high-energy haunted dance punk”—or style. (Lead singer John Cohill has donned a Bowie-style silver suit with wings for performances.)
“We never really covered anything,” McCoy says. “We just jumped right in to writing our own stuff.”
For the members of Extra Spooky, the Akron scene is the Bizarros, Hammer Damage, Pizza Ghost, Assassin Broadcast and a cache of bands no longer together.
Their favorite local venue?
“Honestly, nowhere,” says drummer Logan Patrick, because he thinks too many area bands and venues lack originality. “When you see a two-piece blues rock band trying to be the Black Keys, it’s uninspiring.”
If venues focused more on original talent than on cover bands it might help raise Akron’s music profile, ShiSho says.
“As far as venues go, it’s very dichotomous,” Viv says. “Venues book the same kinds of bands and there’re not really any mid-sized venues.”
Scarlet’s Trevor agrees.
“Musica holds about 500 people. You would have to block out a month or two to properly promote that gig, which kills our opportunities,” he says. (Editor: Musica holds a couple hundred less than that.)
When the Civic’s Parr heard about Bacon Madden’s intentions with Jilly’s and Tony Troppe’s plans for BLU Jazz+, he was thrilled.
“I embraced them personally and on behalf of the theater, and thought maybe there will be opportunities for some crossover,” Parr said. “I would be happy if two or three more people announced the same thing.”
To that end, Musica is now opening its doors at 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday nights.
“I want Musica to be a venue where everyone feels welcome,” says event ccoordinator Jasmine Shadburn. “There’s so much great talent in Akron. [Opening at 5] will give us more time to include local musicians; give them a stage to perform on.”
Extra Spooky members are in agreement that Akron needs a signature music festival, possibly at Lock 3.
“All the music is cover bands,” McCoy says. “They have room for three stages to go at once. They could have an annual music festival that could make a lot of money and attract a lot of people to Akron.”
Some bands are dubious about Lock 3 booking nonlocal tribute bands.
Scarlet & the Harlots opened at Lock 3 for a Supertramp tribute band from Canada.
“Why are you flying in people from Montreal when you have all these great musicians right here?” Scarlet asks.
With a lack of venues for its size and sound, Extra Spooky has turned to house shows and the DIY scene, in which a band gets a space and throws a show. They once played a yoga studio in Manhattan that was converted to a live venue by night.
“That is kind of a huge thing for music that’s our size,” Cohill says. “The bands themselves run the shows and you can have a sound guy you can trust.”
The Firestone High School grads have played together for five years and are the essence of serious—no booze or smokes, and they practice every day. Despite their youth, these guys believe in the power of print media, investing in posters and buttons they distribute around town. The plan is to release their album, “Marbles,” dedicated to Akron, and move to L.A. in late summer.
“We believe Akron could become something eventually but it’s just not now, and we can’t really wait around,” McCoy says.
Extra Spooky’s swan song show should send them to L.A. happy. They’ll open Jilly’s July 31 for the Bizarros and the Bad Dudes (Mike Hammer and Kal Mullens of Hammer Damage with Mike Houseman of The Record Party).
The grass isn’t greener for younger musicians
ShiSho says the area lacks venues for “youngwave” punk, a term they coined. Despite their youth, Viv and Midge have found a way to perform and record their original funny folk punk since 2005. But it’s been a struggle despite their longevity and their chops. (Their latest, “The Sisters” EP, features the Dead Milkmen on “The Dead Milkmen Song.”)
“There’s a lack of places for people under 21 to play and in Kent there’s a lack of excitement about music,” Viv says. “The venues need to step it up a couple notches. You can play EuroGyro but there’re people there watching sports at the same time.”
So they’ve gotten creative, playing at Akron Art Museum, the Akron Summit County Public Library events and at Kent’s Scribbles. Annabell’s in Highland Square is their favorite venue.
“They’re a really big proponent of the punk scene,” Viv says. “Sometimes there’s oversaturation but it’s a better problem than having nowhere to play.”
Midge agrees, “There’s more of a carefree vibe at Annabell’s.”
Carefree indeed. During one ShiSho gig, Annabell’s hosted a deviled egg-making contest won by a local chef who dyed his eggs with octopus ink.
Conversely, ShiSho was once invited to play a Girl Scout festival in Solon and positioned next to Radio Disney. Their cover of “America Will Punch You” by Steve Ganze of Harvey & Felix was not well received.
“There were some angry moms,” Viv recalls.
Age has been a problem for Extra Spooky as well. At one Akron gig, 30-some fans were turned away at the door because they weren’t old enough to buy booze. Fans offered to pay a cover but were still locked out.
“They wouldn’t budge,” says McCoy.
A new-old venue
A few years ago, Parr opened the stage at the Civic Theater to local artists, providing an all-ages entertainment venue.
Under the Civic Theater’s atmospheric dome, stars twinkling through wisps of clouds, are about 2,600 seats, making the venue more suited to large productions that generate operating revenue.
Even so, Parr created The Club @ the Civic series as a way to open up to local talent, scheduling cabaret-style shows with the band and audience both on the 200-person capacity stage. Parr hosted 36 such events last year, featuring a range of musical styles. Club events are pretty much break-even shows.
“It’s very eclectic, almost exclusively based on local attractions,” Parr says. “The more we’re able to provide platforms that allow people to easily access whatever their tastes are, the more it will work to dispel this concept that there’s not much going on here.”
Parr believes Akron venues, artists and audiences all benefit when the entire area is doing well and drawing crowds. If there’s a vital step forward to take, maybe opening up more is it.
“This is not about excluding,” Parr says. “This is inclusion.”
The question isn’t whether that would help but what Akron’s music scene will look like—in a year, or in 10—once that becomes the rule instead of the exception.
When Jenny Conn was a kid she knew wanted to either climb trees or be a writer. She cut her teeth writing news for weekly, daily and trade publications. After earning an M.A. in journalism, she started teaching. Now, she’s a writer who teaches and climbs an occasional tree.