What is the Savannah sound?

Let me start by saying that I know posts like this can be reductive — they can lead to over-generalization, sloppy thinking, and pointless argument. I submit this one not to give any sort of a definitive answer to questions about Savannah’s music scene, but to further discussion about it.

In a post last week, Savannah Red asked, “What Is The Savannah Sound?”

Reflecting on a recent experience with the live music scene in Nashville , he added:

So does Savannah have a sound? And if not, shouldn’t it–especially if gathering creative people here matters to increase the city’s entrepreneurship?

By comparison with cities like Nashville and Austin, Savannah’s live music scene seems “fragmented and diffuse”, according to Savannah Red. As pretty clear evidence, he even does a fascinating percentage breakdown of the various genres of live music listed by Connect Savannah for Saturday, August 4. Savannah Red mentions only Nashville and Austin, but we could add other cities — New Orleans, Brooklyn, Athens, Seattle, Portland, Baltimore, and so on — to the list for their signature scenes now or in the recent past.

So let me take a long, roundabout stab (if there is such a thing) at those two questions: Does Savannah have a sound? And if not, shouldn’t it?

Consider the acts I heard last Friday night.

I caught a great act from Lansing at The Sentient Bean — I already posted pics and wrote a little bit about that great set from Doug Mains & The City Folk in a previous post.

Sauna Heat at The Sentient Bean

The opener at the Bean that night was Sauna Heat, a summer side project of Michael Younker from Triathalon. Two other Triathalon regulars were on stage — Hunter Jayne and Chad Chilton — plus a woman with a saw. (Name, anyone?)

Michael has been experimenting with a lot of reverb in the vocals, so for this even more experimental short gig he sang through an old telephone handset. There were passages with similarities to Triathalon’s fabulous surf rock (listen here), which most music lovers in Savannah haven’t heard. The full band has played a couple of higher-profile shows, including opening for CUSSES at The Jinx and doing at great set at Locos during the 2012 Savannah Stopover. But half the members of Triathalon literally just turned 21, so they haven’t been old enough to immerse themselves in the live music scene as they should have been doing. They simply haven’t had legal access to the key venues. That’s a direct and predictable result of an unnecessary and counter-productive ordinance enacted by Savannah City Council a number of years ago under the illusion of crime control.

Corey Barhorst of Tonto at The Jinx

But back to Friday night. After a stop at my second home — American Legion Post #135 — I headed to The Jinx, where the opening band Tonto was playing their first announced public gig. A power trio with lead vocalist and guitarist Anders Thomsen (formerly of the alt-country The Ex-Husbands and now guitarist for the outlaw country of Damon and the Shitkickers), bassist Corey Barhorst (formerly with metal band Kylesa and now with Niche), and drummer Lee Vallier, who also plays “Southern/Heavy Rock” with Bear Fight. Tonto’s sound is a kind of straight ahead rock and roll that I hear pretty rarely in Savannah. Click here for “Jet Plane Jane”.

Jason Bible, Eric Dunn, and Ricardo Ochoa with The Train Wrecks at The Jinx

The Train Wrecks were up next — one of the city’s tightest, best known, and hardest working bands. On the band’s Facebook page, they bill themselves as “Americana, alt.country, Rockabilly, Rock”. They play sometimes as a six-piece, and were joined on stage Saturday by Ricardo Ochoa, a violinist with the defunct Savannah Symphony and the leader of the jazzy combo Velvet Caravan that has been playing regular gigs around town too.

I’ve gone into so much detail about those Friday night performances not because they were remarkable — and they were in some ways — but because they were so typical. We have many musicians in town who cross genres routinely, and do so with seeming ease.

Many of the city’s players are friends with each other too — a real community who support each other, no matter the genre. At least for those 21 and over.

In recent years, Savannah’s music scene has probably attracted the most national and international attention because of a cluster of standout metal bands. Metal continues to be really popular among some of the under-21 set, but as I noted above, that demographic is largely separated from the larger Savannah music community. There’s a strain of Americana that’s really popular here, plus there’s the ongoing popularity of a few big rock bands. We have excellent but limited blues too, and a few American songbook performers. We have some good performers that I consider indie rock for want of a better term.

As Savannah Red notes, there’s relatively little jazz to be found most nights, and even less hip hop — at least not in venues that I routinely hear about.

I could go on and on, and I apologize to acts — and even to genres — that haven’t been mentioned.

With so many musicians comfortable crossing genres and so many bands apparently thriving (artistically if not financially), is it a problem that Savannah lacks a clearly identifiable sound?

Savannah Red cites a Savannah Morning News column by the Creative Coast’s Jake Hodesh about Austin’s scene compared to Savannah’s. That’s definitely worth a visit and so is this great guest post on the Creative Coast blog last February by Savannah Stopover founder and CEO Kayne Lanahan: In Search Of A Music Scene. The first on Kayne’s top 10 list of “music market factors”:

A community of musicians and bands that support each other, often share members, and are proud to be “from” their city. In some markets like Baltimore and Brooklyn, this has resulted in a recognizable “sound” associated with the music scene.

Musicians are clustering together in Savannah and supporting each other, a key element for creating a stronger scene, which would seem inevitably to pull certain sounds together. And I guess you could say that we have a prevailing sound that’s somewhere between metal, southern rock, blues, and country. But that’s not saying much, is it?

And it gets clearer to me all the time that many Savannah fans have far narrower tastes than the players. I guess it’s not surprising that fans would balkanize themselves by genre and sometimes by venue, that they would retreat into their comfort zones so regularly, but the trend makes it hard to get the word out and even harder to get butts in the door. That’s especially true in a city the size of Savannah, which is much smaller than all the cities mentioned here.

I relish the sheer diversity of acts, but the diffuse nature of the scene would make it hard to establish a great indy label, which is another of the 10 elements that Kayne mentions in her post. It would also make it hard to ensure the success of the larger venue that many of us envision.

We don’t have much in the way of music blogs either –yet  another of the elements Kayne lists. The dearth is a constant surprise to me given the number of knowledgable music fans I know in this town. I think the Savannah Morning News and Connect Savannah both do strong work routinely in covering local and touring acts, but a casual visitor or a newly arrived resident might have an especially hard time combining so many disparate elements into a more cohesive whole. Pretty much all the venues could improve their messaging too.

I’m not suggesting that we try to limit the choices in the current scene, or try to streamline programming in any way.

Fans, music writers, musicians, music professionals, venue programmers, and municipal leaders — we all need to do a better job of making connections between the disparate elements that make up our current scene and sound.