THERE ARE SOME local artists who perform with such frequency around town that they become part of the landscape. It's easy to take their shows for granted. I look at the club listings and see certain names over and over again and I say to myself, "I should check them out." The months roll past, and still I don't go see them.
Pam Bricker has been on my list. After finally seeing her several times over the last few weeks, I'm here to tell you: Go hear her sing. Bricker is (to use the parlance of the biz) a singer's singer. Her voice is her instrument, rather than just something that pleasantly puts across a melody. "I've never thought of myself as just a singer," says Bricker, who grew up in New Jersey and did some time in Massachusetts before landingin Washington in 1981. "My musical training was as an instrumentalist. I started on piano when I was 4, then clarinet when I was 9, and I was a serious student of clarinet all through high school."
You can still hear something of the reed player in her vocal phrasing and breathing, in the dead-accurate intervals, as if she's got a valve in her windpipe controlling her perfect pitch. When she tackles the jazz standards that make up the bulk of her current live repertoire, you can hear her subtly manipulate the familiar melodies just enough to keep them challenging. A frequent musical partner, guitarist Chuck Underwood, says you can't ever coast when playing with Bricker: "She'll sing a verse likes it's a horn solo, and she's counting on you to work with her. You have to react to her voice like it's another instrument on the bandstand. To me, she's Washington's own Betty Carter."
And while area listeners have gotten used to Bricker's jazzier performances, she is quick to point out that her vocal roots are in the folk/rock of singers like Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. "I just flipped when I first heard Joni Mitchell," Bricker says, "and of course I had to learn acoustic guitar." That led to years on the coffeehouse circuit as a singer-songwriter, then a couple of rock bands, then "I just melted down and took two years off," she says.
"When I landed in Northern Virginia, I started singing jazz, because I was attracted by the sophistication of the material, and I was lucky to be accepted by the jazz community in Washington. I've learned so much from the players in town." She's released four compact discs under her name (including a well-received disc of Dave Frishberg songs), and appears as guest vocalist on several other albums by area musicians. Her prolific performance schedule has recently gotten even busier, so you have fewer excuses to miss her.
For nearly four years, Bricker has performed every Sunday night at U-topia (1418 U St. NW; 202/483-7669) with pianist Wayne Wilentz and drummer Jim West. On Tuesdays, you'll find her at Bailey's (1100 Wayne Ave., Silver Spring; 301/495-4994) with saxophonist Marshall Keys and pianist Dan Reynolds, and two Thursdays a month (including this week) Bricker plays at Lewie's (6845 Reed St., Bethesda; 301/652-1600) along with guitarist Underwood and acoustic bassist Steve Zerlin. And on June 5, Bricker and Underwood play their monthly gig at Bullfeathers in Gaithersburg (9120 Rothbury Dr., 301/947-3734), where they showcase more pop material, including some of Bricker's original compositions.
"These are all small groups," says Bricker, "and it's always a challenge to make exciting presentations of the songs." She's comparing her three combos with Odyssey, a 10-piece variety band she sings with that gets booked at galas and weddings and helps pay the bills. "But no matter what kind of material I'm working with, I learn something about the music or about myself every single night I sing," says Bricker. "I'm always stretching the limits of what I think I can do with the music, and I'm still having a great time doing it."
Dave Pasternak, the current holder of the title "Geekus Musicus Maximus," defended his crown two weeks ago and thinks he made "a respectable showing. Whether I won or not, that's another story." The Springfield resident won his crown a year ago, defeating 1,200 music trivia freaks from around the country in the first annual Rhino Records Musical Aptitude Test. Last year, taking the test on his home computer, Pasternak correctly answered two-thirds of the 350 multiple-choice questions on rock, pop, jazz, blues, soul and country. For his efforts, he won a CD jukebox and 200 CDs from Rhino's catalogue.
How did our reigning champion find this year's test? "I would say, overall, it was a little easier than last year's, though it was still very difficult." The winner won't be announced for another week or two, but Pasternak's not stressing over whether he's delivered back-to-back victories: "If I win, fine. If not, that's okay, too," says Pasternak, "I already got the jukebox."
There's another national contest winner in our midst: Esmirelda, the local songstress known for her sharp irreverence and punk attitude. Her song "Teenage Romance Makes Me Sick" has just been named the best rock song in Billboard Magazine's eighth annual Song Contest.
"I've been entering that contest for years," says Esmirelda, who prefers just the one name. "I enter all the songwriting contests I can, and usually all I win is a letter saying `Thanks for entering, you did not win.' " Things turned out very differently this year, as Esmirelda found out a couple of weeks ago. "I'd entered the contest in October, so I'd almost forgotten about it, and I got a call from the contest director who asked if I'd entered a song called `Teenage Romance Makes Me Sick.' When I told him I had, he told me I'd better sit down."
When she heard she'd won first place in the rock category, Esmirelda "cried for an hour. It was pretty crazy." She gets a Gibson Les Paul guitar, some audio gear, $1,000 cash and some other miscellaneous stuff that can help her get connected with the music industry. "With the money, I'll actually be able to make CDs. I've just about finished with recording, and I want to get it out soon."
Esmirelda, who has just returned to performing live after taking a year off to raise her young son Noah, says she's particularly proud of winning with this song: "I'm really, really happy with the fact that it was one of my serious songs that won, because I'm known more for my more over-the-top stuff [she's been known to perform while seated on a toilet], and despite this song's title, it's not a novelty song." * To hear a free Sound Bite from Esmirelda, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8112. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
Spin magazine and GeoCities Web site recently announced the winners of their "1997 Unsigned Band Contest." Local musician Mike Shupp placed second in the rock category. Shupp's submission -- his 1997 self-released CD, "October Sun" -- beat out all but one of 300 entries. Look for Shupp and his band to be playing June dates at the Velvet Lounge and the Metro Cafe.
And speaking of contests, the 18th annual "Fastest Bartender" contest is underway at Lulu's New Orleans Cafe (1217 22nd St. NW; 202/861-5858), with 50 area barkeepers being judged on speed and accuracy over the course of six nights. With elimination rounds over and done, the cream of the bartender crop (around 18 of them) will battle it out for the title on Sunday beginning around 9 p.m. There's no cover charge, and a portion of the money raised will go to area charities.