How better to do a sound check on the Seaport’s burgeoning band scene than with a jam session? Photos by Geoff Johnson
When you invite a group of people who may or may not know each other, you always hope for that moment when things click—that ephemeral heartbeat when the alchemy of connection occurs, when the mix turns to magic and the party is less gathering and more reunion.
That moment arrives on a humid Wednesday night, on the corner stage at Service Brewing Co.
Singer-songwriter Nikko Raptoulis strums his guitar and belts out a heart-squeezing song of unrequited love. The words and music are spare, but hardly melancholy, as they meld with the notes of his collaborators.
Harpist Kristin King plucks mightily at her strings and Dope Sandwich hip-hop artist Basik Lee improvises a beat, using only his rich baritone voice as the instrument.
None of the three have ever played together before this night. But, in this shining moment, the open-invite jam session we’ve thrown together morphs into something peerless and captivating, like fireflies or bioluminescent tides.
“I’m hearing it—I’m not used to it—and I’m getting goose bumps,” Nikko later tells me, still floating even as artists pack up their strings and amps to head into the darkness. “It’s so amazing to hear something, as a musician, that you’ve never heard.”
The night is filled with many gifts: Jared Hall’s rollicking keyboard and Ira Miller’s thrashing percussion on Waits and Co.’s “Walkin’ Faithfully;” Payne Bridge’s ethereal voice blended with Rachael Shaner’s hop-scotching upright bass; Lee’s urgent rendition of the Box Tops’ “The Letter,” backed by Nicole Edge’s surfer drum riffs; the Hypnotics’ joyful garage band wail; Lyn Avenue’s paean to traditional country music.
“Just listen to her voice,” Tom Cooler, the soundman behind the Savannah Songwriters Series, tells me. He’s speaking of Lyn Avenue’s lead singer, Cc Witt. “It cuts—just cuts!”
And it does, sharp as Tammy Wynette’s paring knife.
Play That Swampy Music
When each of these parts—36 local musicians representing at least 14 different bands of varying genres—is taken as a whole, the totality of a Savannah sound begins to emerge.
Just as West Memphis married funk and blues, Muscle Shoals sifted soul with Southern rock, and Athens pushed the boundaries of alternative forms, a narrative thread runs through Savannah’s tapestry of punk and metal, hip hop, bluegrass and rockabilly, folk and Americana, jazz and indie rock.
But it’s hard to pick out that single thread without pulling the thing apart.
That sound is a brackish undercurrent—“swampy,” as guitarist Jon Waits muses—that mirrors the convergence of black rivers with salty tidal marshes and the wide, open ocean.
It takes something from everything it touches.
Rich in tannins, it’s where so much life and goodness spawn, where so many ancient relics lie buried, where secrets get carried away. Savannah’s music is as much a liquid crossroads as is her geography.
Papa Was a Stepping Stone
For decades, Savannah’s music scene seemed defined by the Great American Songbook, as constructed by native son Johnny Mercer—“Moon River,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “Fools Rush In.” It reflected the city’s surface conservatism, even as artists like Elvis Presley passed through town and shook, rattled and rolled their way to superstardom.
Then, DJs Barr Nobles and Skip Jennings began spinning the Beatles, the Byrds and outlaw country on local airwaves.
Homegrown bands like the Rogues, the Trebles, Kind Dog and Topaz started playing rock covers and original tunes in school gyms and neighborhood bars.
Some even toured with bigger names—a history only recently chronicled through Savannah Rocks, which continues today as a Facebook page managed by music veteran Roy Swindelle.
But Savannah’s star didn’t rise on the Southern rock horizon just yet. Not the way Jacksonville or Macon’s did, with their respective breakouts, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band.
In the 1980s, two things occurred that put a pushpin on our little dot on the musical map. Late bassist Ben Tucker taught a jazz appreciation course at Savannah State University that inspired the creation of the Coastal Jazz Society and the Savannah Jazz Festival. A few years later, the Savannah Music Festival—now one of Songline magazine’s Top 25 international festivals—was born.
Both of these initiatives brought national and international touring artists to a town they once bypassed by on their way to Atlanta or Miami. They also gave working musicians who made their home here the rare opportunity to open for and play with bigger acts.
Welcome to the Garden
“You can’t really get into Florida without passing Savannah, and you can’t get out of Florida without going by here, too, so we’re a good place to take a day during the week,” says Gil Cruz, who books talent for the Jinx, Susanne Warnekros’ Congress Street temple to Savannah’s musical acolytes.
Seated on the patio at Foxy Loxy Café sporting a Black Tusk T-shirt and tatted arms, Gil recounts how, growing up in San Francisco’s Bay Area, he got swept up in ’80s skateboard culture and hardcore punk from the likes of D.C.’s Minor Threat. When he moved here in the early 2000s, it was natural for him to drift toward the Jinx, then the center of the local punk and rock universe, but he credits the underground scene as much as the club scene for nurturing the local heavy metal community.
Back then, he recalls, “There were always these kids in Savannah, throwing shows. Pat Mathis [who now runs Hyperrealist Records] had a lot of house shows. Big Gas Cycles. O’Connell’s [before it moved down Congress] … bands that are huge now started there.”
And the momentum continues.
“Right now is really awesome,” he says, “because you have three huge metal bands based out of Savannah—well, Baroness is now out of Philly, but they started here. Kylesa, huge. Black Tusk, they’re still doing it. They’re bringing in bands that they’ve worked with. They’ve turned the spotlight on Savannah. It just makes sense that it’s growing. For a small city, it’s big.”
Straight Outta Chatham
Indeed, being small may play largely in Savannah’s favor over the long haul. Over a round of drinks, Steven Baumgardner, Jared Hall, Kayne Lanahan, Jon Waits and I consider whether Savannah is about to hit the tipping point.
Kayne, the director of MusicFile Productions and the founder of both the Savannah Stopover Music Festival and Revival Fest, believes that some of the landmark music events elsewhere have grown beyond their purpose. “They’re ginormous—hundreds of thousands of people, and ticket prices are really high.”
“We were just talking about that very thing with [New Orleans’] Jazz Fest,” chimes in Jared, keyboardist for the vivacious gypsy-swing band Velvet Caravan and music director for the historic Trinity United Methodist Church.
“If you go to these bigger festivals,” Kayne says, “you could close your eyes and be anywhere. I think when that happens, when the trend gets pushed so far, there’s a natural bounce where people are searching for things that are smaller and more authentic, and more person-to-person. If you go to something in Savannah, you know you’re in Savannah.”
Jon, a Georgia-born singer-songwriter and photographer, laments growth for growth’s sake.
“It becomes more about the fact that you were there than experiencing the music.”
You Can Flow Your Own Way
Steven, who performs as Basik Lee, laughs about the time he and his Dope Sandwich crew went to a festival in Atlanta, where they attended forums to see what kind of advice could help them evolve.
“They kept telling us to attach ourselves to what bigger cities were doing.” He shakes his head. “Instead of latching on to something, try to find your own sound.”
“The whole original idea behind Stopover was to get a ton of bands in town all at once, bands that had never played here, to give them a different perspective of the city and give locals an opportunity to play with touring bands,” Kayne says. “All of the agents thought of Savannah as a C or D market; we were not on their radar. So, we felt like getting the bands to fall in love with the city—we knew they would—and letting them become the marketers for the city. You never have a band come through that has a bad time.”
That’s because of the local music community, says Steven, who also hosts a hip-hop night every Tuesday at the Jinx.
“Literally, everybody just helps each other out.”
Club owners, fellow troubadours and fans welcome artists into their homes, letting them crash on couches, loaning sound or light equipment when something’s busted or left behind, or throwing backyard barbecues so that they can take a break from the road.
“I’ve had friends and artists who have left here,” Steven says. “‘I’m going to Nashville; I’m going to Atlanta; I’m going to New York’—not realizing that everybody and their mother is going there. A lot of the acts I’ve had come here say, ‘It’s not like this where we come from.’”
The rub: Savannah’s musicians know one another well—across forms, across venues—but they’re so busy gigging, they rarely get to see one another’s shows.
Just after Isaac Smith delivers a soulful solo, Crazy Man Crazy’s four-man dance-hall rockabilly set steams up the Service Brewing stage. Lead singer Sean “The Con Man” Conradson growls “Blue Suede Shoes” as guitarist Jeff “Lone Wolf” Neugebauer, the sound engineer for the Wormhole nightclub and bar in the Starland District, shreds his axe with the enthusiasm of Marty McFly in Back to the Future. “Mr. Palmer on Bass” is hardly in the doghouse. It’s a rousing segue into the final act of the night.
Kurtis Schumm takes the stage—just a man and his guitar. It’s a rare treat to see Kurtis play. He traded Nashville in for Savannah and chords for culinary cred 11 years ago. Locals know him best as the co-owner of Tybee Island Social Club, Fish Camp and Bó Biên Hut.
“I do cook-y things now,” he says, before sliding into an original composition, “How Much.”
“It’s more of a statement than a question,” he grins, just before launching into a pure-voiced and clear-noted song that surprises and uplifts the crowd.
More Than a Feeling
The year 2016 may prove a big one for local music.
The state’s Department of Economic Development has made music tourism the cornerstone of its annual marketing plan, based upon the healthy direct and indirect contributions of the music industry to the state’s economy. Music accounted for nearly $4 billion in revenues in 2011, the most recent report year.
Savannah Morning News columnist and blogger Bill Dawers will pen a piece about the city’s aforementioned swamp metal scene in the upcoming “Georgia Music” issue of Oxford American magazine.
Yet, even with all the progress that has been made, it still may be too early to call Savannah a “music city.”
All Along the Watchtower
Back in 2012, MusicFile Productions’ Kayne Lanahan contributed a post to The Creative Coast’s blog that outlined the 10 characteristics of a vibrant music scene:
- Supportive community of musicians
- Highly regarded independent radio station
- Respected independent record labels
- A DIY underground scene
- A broad and affordable infrastructure for teaching, practicing and recording
- At least one great music blog
- At least one prominent music festival
- A mid-sized venue for 400 to 500 seats to draw notable touring acts and fans
- A supportive municipal government
- Access to capital to fund musical endeavors
So, three years later, how are we doing? Of the first seven items on that list, most have been achieved. Especially with the addition of Graveface Records, Dollhouse Productions, The Garage Savannah, and Dawers’ Hissing Lawns blog, we have more outlets to support and promote our local musicians than ever before.
Lawyers, Fans and Money
Of the final three items, the most critical and immediate to address is city government. “Rational public policy” regarding alcohol and sound would “help a lot,” says Dawers, who has followed the city’s progress on both issues closely.
“Little things like that would tell the creative community, especially musicians, that we are not prejudiced against them.”
Competing cities, like Charleston, Athens and Jacksonville—all with strong music scenes—allow at least 18-year-olds entry into venues that serve alcohol. Some even allow all-ages shows.
“Bands are coming through and looking at how many people they can put in a club,” Dawers explains. “You don’t create this artificial division between people over and under 21.”
As more hotels are built and condo conversions occur within the downtown and near-downtown districts, more bars and nightclubs will also have to contend with noise volume complaints, which has quashed musical offerings at places like Moon River Brewing Co., Hang Fire and the Wormhole.
“[City spokesperson] Brett Bell pledged at the Emergent Savannah meeting that [the city] was going to initiate a process for revising the city’s sound ordinance,” says Dawers. “But the city has been working on a revision to the ‘chicken and beekeeping’ ordinance for four years and still hasn’t passed it. They’ve been working on a revision to the alcohol ordinance since January 2013 and still haven’t passed it. I would be shocked if we saw a draft of a sound ordinance before 2017.”
Dawers’ observation is a common complaint in all sectors of Savannah’s musical community. And the belief is that until those two items can be addressed, access to capital and a mid-size venue will remain out of reach.
Fight for Your Right
To Kayne’s list, we would add No. 11: a community that values its local musicians by filling seats, paying cover charges, and following them on social media.
“The best way to support live music is to show up,” says Tom Cooler of the Savannah Songwriters Series, a monthly showcase of local and regional talent.
“The tourism market is great,” says musician Jon Waits, “but it’s not a long-term picture for local musicians” because it has led to a unique dynamic where few establishments charge cover charges as patrons walk from place to place with go cups.
“What you’re basically saying,” Kayne observes, “is, ‘The music doesn’t matter; it’s a giveaway.’”
Musician and restaurateur Kurtis Schumm agrees.
“Cover charges would up the ante for Savannah,” he predicts. “There’s are a lot of great musicians here … and they’re relegated to background music. If the city were to move to a cover charge, I think the music scene could grow that much more. It’s a shared responsibility.”
In the Air Tonight
For now, at our Service Brewing Co. jam session, local talents of all types gather around the stage, bobbing their heads in time with a newly discovered harmony. A few are snapping selfies together and trading business cards—fresh collaborations in the offing.
It’s hard to pinpoint whether Savannah is at the beginning—or in the middle of its beginning—as an emerging music city.
But, in this moment, it feels as if we’ve gotten the sound just right.
Our Music Teachers
Steven, who performs as Basik Lee, just celebrated the tenth anniversary of Dope Sandwich Records and Tapes, the hometown label he founded with fellow hip-hop artists he met at SCAD. His latest LP is Crazy Shit.
Veteran session musician, Jared is the keyboardist for the vivacious gypsy swing band Velvet Caravan and music director for the historic Trinity United Methodist Church, whose Thursday Night Opry is making sound waves city wide.
Kayne is the director of MusicFile Productions and the founder of both the Savannah Stopover Music Festival and Revival Fest, which have put our city on the music map. She relocated to Savannah five years ago after more than 25 years in media, advertising and marketing for the music and entertainment industries.
Jon is an award-winning singer-songwriter and professional photographer from Atlanta, who found his literal and musical home in Savannah four years ago. A professional musician for more than 25 years, he now fronts the alt-country trio Waits and Co. with Markus Kuhlmann and John Pizzichemi.
Nearly every day of the week, established, up-and-coming and visiting artists perform live shows in Savannah and Tybee Island’s restaurants, bars and clubs. Check out the events calendars at dosavannah.com and connectsavannah.com for weekly listings. Consult hissinglawns.com for in-depth coverage of local bands. Preview some of Savannah’s best music makers at artlabsavannah.com. And don’t forget to support local and live music by attending shows. Here are just a few happenings where you are welcome to listen in:
6-7:30 p.m., first Sunday of the month
Johnny Harris Restaurant, 1651 E. Victory Drive
The Tongue: Open Mouth and Music Show
7-10 p.m., first and third Tuesday of the month
Savannah Coffee Roasters, 215 W. Liberty St.
Singer/Songwriter in Concert Series
6-8 p.m., first Saturday of the month (beginning in January)
Wicked Cakes, 38 Whitaker St.
Historic Trinity United Methodist Church,
225 W. President St.
The Festival Circuit
March 10-12, 2016
March 24-April 9, 2016
September 17, 2016
Late September/Early October
A Standing Ovation
Many thanks to Service Brewing Co. for the space to create a magical evening and Screamin’ Mimi’s Pizza for feeding our bodies and souls.
Applause to all of the artists who shared the stage and came out to support one another:
Alexis Ambrose, Black Water Choir
Steven Baumgardner aka Basik Lee, Dope Sandwich Records
Sean Conradson, Crazy Man Crazy
Tom Cooler, Savannah Songwriters Series
Eric Dunn, Velvet Caravan
Nicole Edge, Wave Slaves
Patrick Ellington, Lyn Avenue
Jared Hall, Velvet Caravan
Jeremy Hammons, Train Wrecks
Austin Harris, Crazy Man Crazy
Andrew Hartzell, Sweet Thunder Strolling Band
Larry Jones, Lyn Avenue
Kristin King, New Arts Ensembles and Uncommon Collective
Marcus Kuhlman, Waits and Co., Clouds and Satellites
Ray Lundy, Bottle ‘n’ Cans
Ira David Miller
Ford Natirboff, Hypnotics
Jeff Neugebauer, Crazy Man Crazy
Thomas Oliver, Savannah Songwriter Series
Stephen Palmer, Crazy Man Crazy
John Pizzichemi, Waits and Co.
Greg Rettig, Wave Slaves
Jeremiah Stuard, Co-Eds
Ryan Sylvester, Hypnotics
Ty Thompson, Hypnotics
Jon Waits, Waits and Co.
Tim Warren, Clouds and Satellites
Cc Witt, Lyn Avenue