10/01/2004

VACO to GO

I caught the Virginia Coalition show last night downtown by City Hall. I didn't even know about the show until yesterday afternoon and I made last minute plans to see it instead of watching the debate. Vaco is a band that I never really gave a chance until recently. They would play houseparties at Cottage every year but I would avoid them due to their stereo-typical fan base consisting of the fraternity (what many DMB fans call "crash-head") types. I therefore dismissed their music and equated them with other DMB wannabe bands along with OAR, Guster, and Pat McGee Band. I have recently changed my mind about many of those bands.

Back to Vaco, the band released a new CD last Tuesday on independent record label Bluhammock Records (which apparently has some serious distribution power since my cousin was able to find the CD on the shelves in Virgin). This album has a slightly different feel to it, most likely related to the departure of guitarist Steve Dawson who also sings lead on quite a few of the band's older songs. The only other time I saw the band was in May at Cottage this year and in both shows it seems clear that the band is missing something. That isn't saying that the performance was lacking or that the band can't survive without Steve. However, stylistically, Dawson's vocal melodies and guitar stylings gave a distinctive country twang to the band's jazzy rock grooves and provided a very interesting blend of sounds. The band now avoids performing most songs where Dawson sings lead and on other songs that rely on Steve's guitar riffs, such as "Green and Grey," guitarist/vocalist Andrew Poliakoff and keyboardist Paul Ottinger are left scrambling to fill in. "Green and Grey" now has a very different sound to it, as do the band's other songs. Even the band's choice of cover songs have been affected by the linuep change. The band would often cover the song "Africa" by Toto, and introduce it as an 80s song. Last night they used the same introduction, but for The Clash's "Rock The Casbah" (which was very well done). The new album, OK to Go, features songs in which a second guitar part is added by Ottinger, and sometimes bassist Jarret Nicolay. These guitar parts are very different than Dawson's and give the new songs a more straightforward rock feel. On some songs it even seems like the parts aren't necessary. Poliakoff's guitar solos seem to be choppier than Dawson's, so it is no surprise that the new album doesn't feature Andrew's guitar playing.

Dispute the loss, Vaco is still going strong. Their live shows are exciting, energized experiences. The band often breaks into fun percussion jams and the inter-song banter is candid and funny. It is clear that this band makes their living on live performances (something that Pat McGee knows quite a bit about, and apparently Pat was at the show last night but I didn't see him). Some think that Vaco is destined to be a college act forever and will never be able to break free into the mainstream music scene. I don't know what the future has in store for this band (although I don't see many new bands breaking through these days thanks to the economy and the colossal failures of the music industry). It seems that Vaco has the right idea with touring, slowly building a fan base, mostly on the east coast. This approach has worked for Guster, a band that has finally made it into the public spotlight after a decade of touring and incremental progress in the music industry. These stories are rare, however, since most bands that do not make it big within their first few years often call it quits soon after. An example of this is the band Georgia Avenue, which I have seen at Princeton a couple times (Charter regulars). The band had generated some modest interest with the labels but would have been destined to be signed to a bad deal with a low-level A&R rep, which often spells doom for bands. The band chose to break up in 2004 and their guitarist has joined a new outfit (I saw them this summer at the Lion's Den but I forgot their name).

Another thing I like about Vaco's decision to go with Bluhammock is that the album was released relatively quickly. The band posted a message to their web site in the early summer (either late May or early June) with a large blowup of a cicada saying "Vaco seeks refuge from the cicadas, goes to LA to record new album." The album was released last Tuesday. That's a four month turnaround time, which is unprecedented in the music industry. Today, major labels delay albums for months, even years at a time. For example, Dave Matthews' solo debut, Some Devil, was recorded in the fall of 2002, yet wasn't released until September 2003. Pat McGee Band had been working on their followup to Shine for four years, as the label kept delaying the album release (although that's another story). The major record labels are massive bureaucracies that do not know how to manage talent, let alone find it. Yet to an unsigned band, the lure of one of the big five, with their massive marketing budgets, and their hands permanently installed in ClearChannel's pockets to ensure radio play is too tempting to pass up.

I wish Vaco all the best. I like the new album and hopefully it will sell well. It's already up on iTunes, as is their entire catalog. Definitely worth checking out, but more importantly is their live show. If you're still in college I recommend trying to get them to come to your school, since their college shows seem to be even more energetic.