Up-and-coming bands: Free Energy, Dum Dum Girls, Dam-Funk and the Soft Pack

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010

Less than three years ago, a New York band came to play a show in Washington with nothing more to its name than a CD-R that had been written about on a handful of music blogs. The concert was at the Red & the Black, the tiny H Street NE club with a performance area about the size of a living room, where a single staff member does double duty as bartender and soundman. If you showed up with $8, you got to see Vampire Weekend that Friday night. Fast forward to today: You'll be lucky to get a $40 ticket to see the preppy popsters' sold-out show at DAR Constitution Hall. With a capacity of 3,700, it's not exactly as intimate as the Red & the Black.

The benefits of seeing bands before they get big are obvious. It's not just cheaper. In a smaller venue, you get to see them before success goes to their heads. Plus you earn the right to say those magic words, "I saw them first." With plenty of potential stars of tomorrow on the road right now working their way to and from next week's Austin's SXSW music festival, we decided to highlight four acts we feel are on the verge of big things. See them now. Brag about it later.

The Soft Pack

Short description: Proof positive that chugging three-minute guitar rock songs delivered with an air of detached cool will never go out of style.

Kindred spirits: The Strokes, the Velvet Underground, the Replacements

Performing: March 27 at 9 p.m. Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. 202-667-4490. http://www.blackcatdc.com. $12.

Brian Hill wasn't going to miss his chance. The drummer for the Soft Pack had just finished pounding his way through a fiery version of "Answer to Yourself" on the biggest stage of his career, "Late Show With David Letterman." When the song was done he quickly jumped out from behind his kit to join his bandmates at the front of the stage. And then all four got to share a handshake with the late-night icon.

"I've known a couple people who got to do his show before, and they were like, 'Well, we didn't really get to meet him,' " Hill recalls. "So if you're a drummer in a band that's making a debut on his show, you really are like: 'I got to get that handshake!' "

Chances are good there will be another visit to the Ed Sullivan Theatre in his future. And not just because singer-guitarist Matt Lamkin dedicated the song to Warren Zevon, an old Letterman favorite. The San Diego quartet sticks to one of rock's oldest traditions: four dudes playing rock songs on guitar, bass and drums. Yet they manage to make it sound fresher than their contemporaries thanks to a knack for stinging guitars that perfectly mingle with a rough-and-tumble rhythm section. Picking a highlight from the Soft Pack's debut album is a tough task. Each of the 10 songs is concise yet fully formed, bursting with energy but never in an over-the-top manner, with Lamkin's husky voice and disaffected delivery setting the tone.

The band's lone D.C. gig, for about 30 people at DC9 in 2008, was memorable but for all the wrong reasons. "We were taking two cars, and one of the cars broke down. Then there was no drum set. So we had to get the people there to rent a drum set. It was kind of like an Abbott and Costello movie," Hill recalls.

Problems like those seem to be behind the band, which has gained experience on the big U.K. festival circuit. The bigger crowds have them excited but so does the chance to meet more heroes. An April date at California's massive Coachella festival could find them playing for tens of thousands of potential new fans. But for Hill, one of the big draws is getting to see reunited indie rock heroes Pavement.

"We're all big fans. I never got to see them; they broke up when I was 18 or 19. So we're all really excited for that."

Soon enough, those stargazing tables are likely to turn.

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