Imagine how boring it must be for rock stars who have to play the same hit songs at every concert to please their fans. Imagine how frustrating it must be for local bands to play the same string of other people's hit songs to please their fans.
Downtown is one of those bands, a five-man group that plays an assortment of Motown sounds in the Washington area. Its blues-tinged, four-part harmonies distinguish its members from journeymen rockers, and their bouncy instrumentation keeps the crowds dancing.
But the songs don't belong to them.
"We're all looking to make our next record," said drummer D.J. Plaksim. "We're not looking to do Smokey Robinson every night." But the crowds, composed mostly of baby boomers, want to hear Big Chill music. So Downtown, which has experimented with reggae and soul, is forced to sneak in a couple of originals between recycled Four Tops and Temptations material.
"We've burned ourselves out around here," said Plaksim. Although the band released its own album, "Band on a Budget," and was playing original selections before crowds of 1,200 at the Wax Museum, it lost momentum when the club closed.
Now, Downtown plays smaller clubs and beach resorts as the group's members bide their time until the fall, when they will journey to Los Angeles. There, they will test the big-time music scene and reunite with the band's chief songwriter and lead guitarist, Michael Jones, who recently married and moved to his wife's L.A. home. "She was going to live here until she saw downtown Springfield," Plaksim joked.
Mike Cavaliere has replaced Jones on lead guitar, but he is still learning the band's basic repertoire. When it performed recently at Club Soda on Connecticut Avenue, the group stuck to the old songs. "You are what you eat," said lead singer Jeff Watson. "And I grew up with soul music."
That's what Downtown's audiences grew up with, too, and that's what they want to hear. Of course, Downtown, which has been together for more than three years, is not playing in a vacuum. Everyone from Wham! to Huey Lewis and the News is reinventing those earlier sounds. "It takes them back to fond times," said Steve Hatfield, who plays keyboard.
Fond times are great, but Downtown would like to focus on the future. "We've got our sights set for bigger and better things," said Hatfield. The exploratory trip to Los Angeles is crucial. With all band members between the ages of 28 and 33 and two of them married, they must decide whether to plant themselves in the Washington club scene with their solid reputation or risk getting lost in the California music factory.
"I fully intend to move to California," said Watson. "Washington is a classic example of people not realizing a commodity in their own town."
"I really can't think of any band that really got their start by making a splash here," added bassist Rusty Cunningham. Watson blamed the media for failing to support the city's artists and musicians.
As the lead singer, Watson commands the crowd's attention with soulful vocals delivered in a style primarily associated with blacks. "It's usually black people who tell me I sound black," said Watson. "And from a black person, that is a great compliment."
At Club Soda, the audience was mostly white. The group is also white. Only the music is black. The sound was as clear and fresh as a can of Sprite, the lighting was perfectly timed and the vocals were alternately rough and sweet. As a performance band, Downtown is smooth but not slick, confident enough to cut its first and only album live.
By club standards, Downtown is an ultraprofessional band, the kind you can depend on to keep the customers dancing and drinking. It averages six dates a week, traveling through Maryland, Washington and Virginia. It is a success.
A mild success.
It plays the songs that make the whole world sing, but it doesn't write them.
And that's why it's moving on.
"I don't think any musician wants to be in a bar playing someone else's tunes for the rest of their lives," said Hatfield. "I'd be most happy playing our own material."