Concert Review: Charlotte Pop Fest (part 1)

The Charlotte Pop Fest (September 24-26 2009) was both thrilling and disappointing, sometimes all at once. It’s important to make clear right up front that attendees easily got value for their investment, the lineup was impressive, and the organizers are a dedicated team. But, but.

The three-day event organized by Charlotte musician James Deem, sought to bring together a stellar lineup of (power)pop acts, both celebrated and unjustly overlooked. Yet due to a variety of circumstances — some beyond the control of the organizers, other of the how-did-you-think-that-wouldn’t-be-a-problem variety — the Fest seemed star-crossed well before the first act took the stage.

First, the bad news. The Knack (Remember them? There would be a lot of “remember thems” in the CPF lineup) were originally slated to top the bill, but health problems forced their backing out. Then of course the economy in general didn’t help ticket sales. A vaguely similar event (albeit one with schlocky acts like Night Ranger topping the bill) in South Carolina was canceled days before its scheduled date, owing to anemic sales figures.

Of course there wasn’t much organizers of the Charlotte Pop Fest could do about those things, short of not putting on the event. But then came kind of a biggie. The event was put together as a fundraiser for something called the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. Now, if you’re a thinking, rational person, a thus-named organization wouldn’t cause you any alarm. But if, on the other hand, you’re either (a) part of the fringe fanatical, intolerant end of a mainstream religious category that developed in, say, the last couple thousand years and isn’t Islam or Judaism; (b) a cowardly advertiser afraid of alienating the oh-so-delicate sensibilities of those fringes or (c) both, then, well, Mr. Dawkins and his organization are virtually guaranteed to (going vernacular here) piss you off.

Well, plenty of people, it seems, were a, b, or c. And if not plenty, enough to gin up that kind of moral outrage that gets covered on the local news affiliate. Said advertiser pulled sponsorship at the eleventh hour, and the Fest was (organizers say) left with no choice but to cancel Roger (Jellyfish) Manning‘s set. A bigger question one might ask, of course, is why didn’t the organizers see this fracas coming? Last time I looked at a map, Charlotte was in North Carolina, and NC is part of the south. Hell, Mark Sanford’s office is only a couple hours’ drive, and Joe “You Lie” Wilson‘s gerrymandered district is also in that neighboring state. Not exactly the Boston-NYC corridor, that. So one would have thought that a high-profile event with even the most tenuous ties to an avowed atheist would, I dunno, raise a few hackles among those cranks lacking a teabagging event that weekend with which to occupy themselves.

Anyway, the thing is, the problems with the event were largely nonmusical. The event itself was chock full of high-caliber acts. The Fest kicked off on Thursday, so I  (and presumably many others) missed some truly fine artists, many of whom rarely travel down Bible Belt way: The Posies and Mike Viola were among that day’s highlights. But Friday featured at least three acts that I considered not-to-be-missed.

First up (for me, anyway*) was Gladhands. This group released a string of good-to-excellent powerpop albums in the mid 90s, and broke up near the end of that decade. As I recall hearing at the time, they were quite bitter and frustrated at their lack of success. (You’ll have to trust me on that; I can’t cite a source for that info.) They deserved better, with their Burt Bacharach-meets-the-Nazz approach; I described them to a friend recently as something of a Wondermints, East Coast Division, and I’ll stand by that. Their (long out of print) La Di Da album is a near-perfect record.

Onstage they weren’t terribly exciting, but that wasn’t all their fault, either. The venue — Dana Auditorium at Charlotte‘s Queens University — doesn’t exactly ooze that rock and roll vibe. It has an ambience a bit more like, say, your middle school’s auditorium, but with higher production values. Well, actually, not even. Lighting was virtually nonexistent: Gladhands (and all acts, in fact) played under a set of white lights that pointed straight down; no mood lighting here. As one musician wryly observed, “well, at least the floor behind the drum throne will be well lit.” And while the monitor mixes were pretty good, the house mix was a notch above wretched. The drums in particular sounded like dead fish hitting wet cardboard boxes: a dull thud. Either the room, or the PA, or the sound tech weren’t suited to rock and roll. At least not during Gladhands’ set.

The audience — about sixty people — was appreciative, but the lack of ambience and poor sound were detracting factors. Still, Gladhands earned and got a standing O, and suggested in their parting comments that we might be hearing more from them in the future. Let’s hope so.

The event was stage-managed rather, um, loosely: by the time the next act (solo guitarist Glen Burtnick) finally left the stage, the schedule was 90 minutes behind. The acts waiting in the wings (Jill Sobule and The Spongetones) took it all in stride, not registering the slightest complaint. I was frustrated for them, though. It’s no fun to start your act after you’re supposed to have finished. Especially on a rainy night.

But the lovely Jill Sobule trotted onstage with her groovy mini-guitar and wowed the audience with a fun, engaging set. Sobule is that kind of artist that those in the know get all angry on behalf of: “Why isn’t she massively popular?” She’s that good. Her storytelling songs are interesting, wry vignettes drawn (at least partially) from personal experience. She got huge laughs from her brief “Ritalin Kid” tune, and deftly navigated that tenuous path between humor, pathos and plain old crowd-pleasing. Her last big hit was fifteen years ago, and that’s just plain wrong. Jill played several tracks from her latest, California Years. That album is a groundbreaking study in artist financing, too.

Sobule “kindly” cut her  set short, making way for the Spongetones to finally get started. I say “kindly” because the earlier acts made no such concessions, and weren’t — as best as I could tell — asked to. A shame, that.

Charlotte‘s legendary Spongetones hit the stage after midnight, facing a weary and dwindling (yeah, now less than sixty-person) crowd. But those who remained got to see a great show. I discovered the Spongetones around the time of their debut; I bought the Beat Music LP debut in 1982. The ‘Tones approach was and is deceptively simple: write and perform wholly original songs, but deliver them in Beatles style. This they did and do well. Over the course of eight-plus albums, they’ve broadened and refined their approach some, but they still turn out clever, catchy songs. And while they’ve never gotten their due (though they did score inclusion on Rhino’s Children of Nuggets box set), they stay at it, delivering not just the goods, but the greats. Guitarist Jamie Hoover tells me they’re headed to Japan in October for a couple of shows. Good for them; they’ve paid their dues and deserve every break they get.

And so ended Friday night. Downsides: pouring rain, no signage or clues of any sort as to the venue’s location, bad sound (ok when solo artists performed), dispiriting attendance numbers. Upsides: the return of lost-in-the-wilderness Gladhands (even if it was a middling performance), Jill Sobule’s delightful set, two hours of Spongetones originals. And the candy dish in the Charlotte Area Atheists’ info booth was a nice touch.

* The original posting of this essay gave the erroneous impression that Gladhands were the evening’s first act. They were not; I missed several fine acts. I regret that, and the misconception my original post [now edited for clarity] may have fostered.

Coming soon: A report on Charlotte Pop Fest’s triumphant Saturday.