Music News

A Show Less Ordinary

The last time the four young men in Mama's Root played before a well-connected, music-industry representative, they bombed. Miserably. Somehow or other the band cajoled the rep into attending a Mama's Root show last December at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale. The band had high hopes for the evening. After nearly 18 months of peddling its Creed-meets-Matchbox 20 power-pop tunes around the local club circuit and amassing a sizable following, the band sensed that perhaps it was on the verge of breaking into the ritzier realms of the rock 'n' roll universe. Unfortunately when the moment of truth came, Mama's Root's high hopes plummeted to earth with chilling and totally unforeseen celerity.

Here are the salient details of what occurred that evening: Mama's Root took the stage, the sound system promptly blew up, the band proceeded to crack under pressure, and basically, as Mama's Root bassist Michael Guinaugh recalls, "the show fell apart." All in all, the bigtime music-industry rep witnessed little more than a nightmarish farce of a show before finishing off his cocktail and slipping out the door without leaving his card.

Eight months later the members of Mama's Root can talk and even laugh about that show without feeling an overwhelming urge to hurl themselves from the roof of the nearest tall building. This is partly because, over the last several months, fate -- in the guise of Daryl Scott and Drake Sutton-Shearer, co-owners and operators of New York-based management company 2Tribe Entertainment -- has intervened quite nicely on the band's behalf.

On March 27 Scott and Sutton-Shearer, then operating 2Tribe out of Fort Lauderdale, showed up at FU*BAR for the release party of Mama's Root's eponymous debut CD. Duly impressed with the CD and the band's ability to rock the house into a marvelous feel-good frenzy that night, Scott and Sutton-Shearer agreed to shop the disc around to a select circle of major-label representatives in New York City with the understanding that, while 2Tribe would not manage the band, it would get a slice of the pie if Mama's Root got signed to a label through its efforts. Essentially Scott and Sutton-Shearer's end of the bargain amounted to getting at least one rep down to South Florida to see the band perform. And that, apparently, is exactly what they did.

Artists and repertoire (A&R) representatives are the people responsible for scouting and signing acts to record labels, as well as mentoring them through the early stages of their careers. At least two of these creatures are expected to attend the Mama's Root show at FU*BAR in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday night. Not Scott, Sutton-Shearer, or anyone from the band is willing to say which labels will be represented. This is standard operating procedure on everyone's part in the early stage of the scouting process. Among the majors there is an almost fanatic cloak-and-dagger aspect to the business of recruiting bands that can be explained only by the insanely competitive nature of the recording industry. Each label guards against publicly stating its interest in an unsigned band, because the last thing the label wants to do is to let a competitor in on a hot prospect. Aside from the possibility of losing that prospect, the label runs the risk of getting into a bidding war, which can get very expensive. As a rule bands and their agents do well to maintain a veil of silence when it comes to chatting with nosy media types about label interest.

Of course nothing, not even good behavior, guarantees a band anything in the way of getting signed. According to one major-label A&R rep in New York (who, even though her label has little, if any, interest in Mama's Root, wishes to remain anonymous), reps who fly out of town to see a band "generally take action on about half the bands they see.

"Action," she says, covers a variety of possibilities that range from immediately signing the band to earmarking it for close monitoring in the future. Of the bands that do get signed, "about one out of ten actually makes it." To "make it," she says, a band's first label release must go gold -- that is, sell at least 500,000 copies. As for the nine out of ten bands that don't meet the gold standard, well, those bands don't stay on the label long.

Despite the unlikely odds of not only getting signed but actually prospering at a major label, the rep adds, Mama's Root has an undeniably sweet opportunity lying before it. "Listen," she says, "if a label is going to spend money flying a rep down to Florida to see a band, then the band already has some credibility with the label. What these guys want to see now is what sort of image the band projects, how they dress, how they act, whether they have charisma. Labels are looking for the total package."

Except for drummer Patrick Calhoune, everyone in Mama's Root says he feels no pressure to impress the A&R reps scheduled to attend Saturday's gig. Doubtless that has much to do with last December's disaster at the Culture Room. "The pressure really got to us," Guinaugh recalls. "We realized then that we were our own worst enemies at this. So we're just gonna go out and play the best damn show we can play."

As the show looms ever closer, Guinaugh and the rest of Mama's Root -- Calhoune, guitarist Denny Siebert, and frontman-vocalist Todd Toler -- stand outside a large, subdivided warehouse in Hollywood, chatting amiably and drinking the Budweiser longnecks that Toler's wife, Chrisi, brought to tonight's rehearsal. For $320 a month plus electricity, the band rents a practice room here. It's familiar turf to the band, particularly to Calhoune, Siebert, and Toler, who from 1990 to 1994 accounted for three-fourths of Terraplane, a hard rock outfit that was voted "Best Heavy Metal Band of the Year" at the South Florida Rock Awards in 1993, only to disband a year later. Terraplane practiced six doors down from the black-lit, glitter-walled, 18-by-22-foot room in which Mama's Root currently hones its chops two to three times a week.

Three members of the band are 30 years old; Toler is 29. All of them have day jobs they would just as soon forsake. No one here is a kid anymore. By conventional standards this is a band that will soon be too old to play the kind of high-octane, shit-kicking music for which it's known, especially if it has to keep playing it for chump change.

The men in Mama's Root say they feel no pressure to impress anyone on Saturday night, and maybe they don't, but some of their recent actions indicate otherwise. For instance, at the suggestion of a top A&R honcho at RCA Records, the band has beefed up and somewhat renovated its slightly dated sound. Toler says that while Mama's Root will always be a power-rock band, it is now more attuned to what he calls "heavier, modern rock." At the request of Scott and Sutton-Shearer at 2Tribe, everyone has a stylish new haircut and new stage clothes. Toler says all of the changes "have been for the better" and scoffs at the notion that they've compromised the band's integrity.

"When you're younger," he reasons, "you play for yourself and you play what you want. When you're older and someone comes in and makes some suggestions, you learn to go with it sometimes, because a lot of times they're right."

The unspoken yet clear subtext of the revisions that Mama's Root has made to its sound and image is that they were calculated to increase the band's marketability, to get it signed. At a more elemental level, however, the band changed simply to survive. The alternative is just too grim to consider.

"I have to do this," Siebert says with the forceful intensity of an unrepentant hard-rock junkie. "It's just something I have to do to keep my sanity at this point. I need to keep this thing going. This is a dream I've had all my life. I couldn't stop if I wanted to. If I did, I think I would really lose it."

As for Toler, who sports a "Reckless Life" tattoo across his belly and seems honest almost to a fault, the stakes are somewhat grander. "I want to play in front of 20-, 30-, 40,000 people four or five days a week until I can't do it anymore. The money and all that -- ya know what? I can make money even if this doesn't happen…. But my dream is to be loved by millions of people, and I want to love millions of people. I want to have that many friends. I want to become very personal with everybody in the whole world."

Before Toler achieves any of those modest goals, he and his band are going to have to become very personal with at least one influential A&R representative on Saturday night. Beyond that immediate hurdle, the whole world waits.

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David Pulizzi