One of my best friends from high school, Pablo, and I share the exact same taste in music: classic rock, blues, and jazz, and that’s pretty much it. We can talk—or argue—about music for hours upon hours. We have this unwritten pact (well, I guess it’s written now) which states that if one of us should stumble upon an awesome band performing live, he should call the other and put the phone on loudspeaker to spread the joy. Anyways, he’s now a freshman at St. Edward’s University, a small liberal arts school in Austin, Texas. As summer break ended and we all parted ways, I was extremely jealous of him. He gets to spend the next four years of his life walking distance away from the famous Sixth Street, the heart of live blues music in the United States. You run into all sorts of characters on this famed seedy strip. In my senior year of high school, I participated in a statewide health professions competition that took place in a hotel blocks away from Sixth. I had dinner with a group of friends and then we headed back to our rooms. As we crossed Sixth Street the angelic sounds of an acoustic slide guitar, a three piece drum set, and a heavy railroad bass line graced my ears. I bolted from the group and entered a building to see three guys hammering away at their instruments in the back corner of a dark and dirty establishment, the guitarist howling the blues like a baby fresh out of the womb. I stood there in awe for about an hour before curfew.
Pablo can see this any night of the week.
As I said before, I was seriously considering the University of Chicago. That city also has a thriving blues culture, although I think at this point it’s more about the history (Chess Records, anyone?) than actual live performances. Even Houston has a fair jazz scene, especially on Sunday afternoons. I thought I would be giving all this up by coming to Cambridge. Seriously, Cambridge? No musical reputation at all. Or at least word hasn’t reached the south yet. But thanks to the concerted efforts of a few dedicated people, I’ve been proven completely wrong.
The first band I saw in Cambridge was the Peasants. I went with some of my Next House neighbors to Harvard Square on a Friday. On the way back we saw them covering some Beatles songs. They were really great, a good simple trio led by a fuzzy guitar and raspy vocals. The singer wore a denim bomber that said “This jacket kills fascists!” Not surprisingly, he urged everyone to pick up fliers for an anti-war rally and some free peacenik bumper stickers. Exactly a week later, they were performing in the same spot! They’re not some band of transients, either; if you look on their website they’ve actually done some pretty major European tours. This second time I recognized a couple Stevie Ray Vaughan covers, and the rest was original material. So if you’re ever in need of a good dose of classic rock on a Friday night, head over to the Harvard Square T Station; they seem to perform there pretty consistently.
Right after I saw the Peasants perform the second time (Oct 17), I headed back to Kresge Auditorium where the Festival Jazz Ensemble was performing for Family Weekend. I just caught the tail-end of the MIT Wind Ensemble‘s concert. A lot of the audience thinned out after MITWE left the stage, and let me tell you, they missed something spectacular. During the intermission between the two ensembles’ concerts, I met up with Ananth ’12 in Kresge’s lobby where we talked about jazz for a bit. We sat together almost in the front row where we were treated to some of the best live jazz I’ve ever heard in my life. Dylan ’12 rocked the saxophone something fierce, and Jack M ’10 was thumping at his upright bass like it owed him money. The entire ensemble created such a groove, it was impossible to sit still. There were stunning moments of individual talent, particularly from their drummer Jason “Buddy” Rich. Frequently throughout the concert, Ananth and I would turn our heads and look at each other with the same dumbfounded, awestruck wide-mouthed expression. It was that good.
The next concert was the following evening as part of the WMBR Live series. Every Saturday night the campus radio station brings in two or three bands to perform at the Coffeehouse in the Student Center. On the 18th were MIT’s own Supa Dupa, St. Mannequins on tour from New York, followed by the Terrordactyls, on tour from their base in Seattle (sadly I missed Supa Dupa’s set, but they will be performing at WMBR Live again soon). As Keri mentioned, St. Mannequins were enormously cute. One song was about a Tyrannosaurus Rex who played in the clouds. While one of the girls of the duo sang and played the guitar, the other drew a picture! It turned out that she was actually drawing on a shirt, so one lucky audience member got an awesome souvenir tossed like a wedding bouquet. The Terrordactyls played a really good set, too. They’ve done work with the artist who made most of the Juno soundtrack, to give you a feel for what they sound like. St. Mannequins were somewhat similar, as well. Toned down, acoustic indie rock.
The following Thursday evening Jack the Bassist arranged for the jazz funk band Snarky Puppy, on tour from their home in Denton Texas, to give a free performance in the Hayden Library’s Killian Hall. They play a style of jazz completely different from the FJE. It’s got lots of almost Floydian synthesizer effects, and it’s very heavy on the rhythm section. The electric bass frequently takes the lead role, and the combination of three drummers working together creates a crashing backdrop for the weaving melodies of the other instruments. Saxophone duels with trumpet on top of all this for a very layered and dense funk groove.
Before I knew it, Saturday rolled around again. I was in MedLinks CPR training all day, so I missed Fred Fest, a joint venture between WMBR and the East Campus Concert Committee. Four bands performed live in the East Campus courtyard, but unfortunately I missed every one of them. On the plus side, the CPR training didn’t prevent me from attending another installment of WMBR Live! This time the station brought in MIT’s own Fortran and Boston’s up-and-coming bands Apple Betty and Drug Rug (don’t worry, parents, their music was perfectly clean). I guess it’s hard to describe music I’m not familiar with, but Fortran plays what sounds to me like shoegazer rock (edit: listen to the last minute of this stream for a good laugh). It’s different from what I’m used to, but still enjoyable. Apple Betty is an all-female trio that looks incredibly cute. I thought we were in for something similar to St. Mannequins, but their set was full of hard rocking punk songs. Half the audience were jumping up and down in an MIT version of a mosh pit. But it was the final act that totally stole the show—Drug Rug. Their lineup includes a drummer, bassist, singer/guitarist, and a mandoliner. Uhh, mandolinist? A mandolin player. The lead singer is a petite girl who plays a guitar as big as she is, but she can really, I mean really belt out a tune. They’re such a dynamic band, too. The mandolin player and guitarist would switch lead and rhythm roles on the fly within songs (their sounds really aren’t that different). Occasionally in the middle of a solo she would fall to her knees, close her eyes, and make a face of pure pleasure. Everything about the performance, from the passionate soulful vocals to the screeching blues/rock solos, was perfect. The radio station broadcast Drug Rug’s performance live on the airwaves, and they keep a streaming archive of their shows that anyone with a media player can listen to. However, only station members have access to mp3s of the shows (I haven’t mentioned this before but I’m a new DJ at WMBR…more on that later), so I downloaded the hour long file and used Audacity to split it into tracks. I used their MySpace and Amazon pages to name the songs as best I could, tagged them with track numbers, artist, and album information, whipped up a pseudo-Pie album cover, and uploaded a .zip of the performance to my MIT webspace. Now you too can experience the MIT blues scene! Just click here. Enjoy! The last one, “For the Rest of Your Life,” is my favorite, and they almost weren’t going to play it. If you listen to the concert, you’ll hear the audience refuse to let Drug Rug leave the stage and demand to hear one last song.
So who brings these artists to the Coffeehouse and Killian Hall? It’s the WMBR management, headed by Ben ’09 and Jack ’10, two of the most awesome people I’ve met so far. They’re just regular students (and DJs), but they organize and promote concerts by some extraordinarily talented bands. I’m sure it’s a great way to develop and hone leadership and management skills.
The best part of these concerts is that they have all been 100% free. You can also snatch some cool swag like radio station temporary tattoos and stickers, and the WMBR Live series generally feature cookies and soft drinks.
If you’re keeping track there at home, that’s eight bands in nine days. As you can see, there’s a thriving music scene here at MIT, something had no idea about until I got here. I’m not saying that it’s a deal maker or breaker, but I could definitely have used the information in making my decision. In any case, I know for sure that I can still make that speakerphone call to Pablo at least once a week.