THE SECOND OF three free Weekend's Weekends summer concerts hosted by The Post and the Weekend section, featuring a variety of music from top local talent, is Friday. The concerts are at Carter Barron Amphitheatre in cooperation with the National Park Service/Rock Creek Park. Tonight's Rock Night will feature Duke University-bred but locally based acoustic rockers Kenin, power-pop singer-songwriter Niki Barr and modern-rockers Rotoglow.
Carter Barron Amphitheatre is at 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW. Free tickets for Weekend's Weekends will be available on the day of the show at the Carter Barron box office beginning at noon. Tickets also will be available starting at 8:30 a.m. at The Post, 1150 15th St. NW. There is no scheduled rain date. Picnic areas are available in the park around the amphitheater. For more information, call 202-334-4748.
Kenin's roots go back to the beginning of the new millennium and down to Durham, N.C., where Duke undergrads and fellow Kappa Sigmas Devin McGaughey and Sean Gaiser heard that each other played (Gaiser guitar, McGaughey hand drums) and got together "to mess around," McGaughey says. Eighteen months later, they began taking music seriously, even though, McGaughey says, "the scene down there is so strange. Durham is very Duke-centric, and while the rest of the town is fantastic, it has no music venues or music scene -- a tough environment to get a foothold in."
Odd since Chapel Hill, just down the road, is a hotbed of indie music. "That 15-minute drive totally eliminates any sort of music environment," McGaughey says, unable to explain. As a result, he and Gaiser drove "anywhere we could play -- as crazy as driving up and playing in New York and Boston, wherever we could get something. Maybe the dumbest business decisions, but the benefit from getting that experience was tremendous."
After graduating from Duke -- McGaughey a biology and economics double major, Gaiser a psychology major with a teaching certificate -- they tested their parents' love by moving into a house in Kensington to pursue music careers. "Our parents were very open to it," McGaughey says. "They had creative edges, played music when they were younger, so they had confidence we were going to do the right thing."
Bassist Tommy Bullough signed on in summer 2002, lead guitarist Mark Erickson in November 2003, recruited from a flier announcing his services. ("He was 19, never wanted to do anything except play music," laughs McGaughey.)
Kenin -- the name of an imaginary friend of a former band member -- has recorded six CDs, though McGaughey says only the last two, an EP and an album titled "Just Another Blast," are "more serious efforts. We have that acoustic guitar front so we're lumped into 'acoustic rock,' and to some degree that's fine. But that sometimes prevents you from going into the rock arena and being experimental in what you do, so the challenge for us is how to integrate that and go into [new directions]. The next album will be even more different structurally as we try and move into a little more creative songwriting and more of a lo-fi feeling."
Last week Niki Barr was with her band in Los Angeles showcasing for several major labels, and, she reports, "everybody who was in the audience said it was the best they've seen us yet. It's always such a good vibe when we come out here -- it was awesome."
Don't start missing her yet: "No," Barr laughs, "I'll always be an East Coast girl."
Barr is also shopping "Lush," recorded at producer-engineer Jim Ebert's Dragonfly Studios in Northern Virginia and mixed at Butch Walker's Ruby Red Studio in Atlanta; Walker also co-wrote a couple of songs with Barr.
"I'm at the point now where I think I'm ready to have a label behind me and pushing what I've created," Barr says. "The record's really strong, and we're doing a video for what I hope will be the first single, 'Wasted Time.' "
Barr hasn't wasted much time since she started performing at 15; by 17, she was recording with Ebert (Walker, Meredith Brooks) on demos that became Barr's debut EP, "The Other Side of Me." Now 21, the singer-guitarist started out as more of a pop rocker, but with a band that includes lead guitarist Michael Sauri (ex-Fighting Gravity), drummer Nate Brown (Everything) and bassist Andy Waldeck (Earth to Andy), Barr is a rock chick now.
"Eventually I'm going to look back and say thank God I didn't get signed when I was 15 because look how far I've come on my own," she says. "I think I've really found my sound, made that transition from the pop Niki Barr to the rock Niki Barr quite well. . . . A lot of it has to do with me just maturing and growing. When I was listening to Jewel and Sarah McLachlan at the time I thought it was cool. Later on I transformed into this rock thing and looking back, it feels so real on stage and like what I should be doing, and I think everybody notices it, too. But it takes a while to figure it out -- when you're 15, you're still finding yourself anyway."
That may be true of Barr's sound, but her charisma and confidence on stage have been there from the start. "I truly believe it's one of those things you're born with," she says, adding, "I've been doing dance since I was 3 years old. That was the first time I got on a stage in front of people, and even then, people just noticed me -- I stood out. Maybe it's because I love live audiences -- the thrill, the anxiety just before you go on and then being able to feed off an audience, to be an entertainer. I've just always loved it."
She recently called on some old moves while shooting the "Wasted Time" video with director Andrew Paul Bowser (Walker, Marvelous 3, SR-71). It's a conceptual piece that starts off with Barr playing a small club, dressed in her normal rock-chick style when a couple of record label "image consultant/enhancers" whisk her off stage to a room filled with pictures of pop tarts Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Ashlee Simpson; after circling "things about them that they're going to do to me 'cause that's going to sell records," Barr reports that she undergoes sordid transformations: "hair extensions . . . blue eye shadow . . . my skirt keeps getting shorter and there's more skin. And in the last stage, I don't even have a guitar, just a head mike, and I perform a dance thing. I had to make it up on the spot! Going back and watching it, it's ridiculous," she laughs. "Plus, I'm so used to performing with a guitar, and I guess you don't realize how it becomes a part of you."
There will be a happy ending, of course, on several fronts. "Lush" will be released on Barr's own label on July 28 (with a show at the State Theatre that night), along with a DVD with the "Wasted Time" video, commentaries by Barr and Bowser and deleted scenes. The single, by the way, has been holding firm in the Top 10 on the XM Unsigned Most Played List.
In the mid-'90s, guitarist-singer-songwriter Andrew Hellier fronted modern-rockers Modern Yesterday, which signed to Salt-N-Pepa's MCA-distributed label, Jireh. But top-level management shifts and label cutbacks led to the self-titled album being under-supported or promoted. Hellier says "it got some airplay at DC101 and some stations in Virginia Beach and Pennsylvania, but it never got any bigger than mid-Atlantic radio play, and eventually touring just wore out that band."
Five years ago, Hellier "picked up some new musicians I knew could play the parts" and thought about operating under the old name. But new songs written and performed with bassist Conrado Bokoles, lead guitarist John Kenney and drummer Dave Cannon convinced him a new band name was needed. They were just about to debut that name -- Custom -- on MHz, the independent public broadcasting television station serving the Washington area, when they found out a Virgin Records act owned the name.
"We had to come up with something fast, just as long as it wasn't 'The . . . somethings," Hellier recalls. "So we began to throw out words and glue them together . . . [eventually] rotor and glow, and they kind of gave out an energy and we hadn't heard it before. We were kind of forced to go with it, and it's worked ever since."
According to Hellier, Rotoglow's inspirations are classic: "Musically, it's lyrics from the '60s and early '70s, while the music is a blend of Led Zep and the Beatles, though we try not to let on to any of that." Rotoglow has recorded a six-song EP and last year's "Life Like a Lightswitch" album, as well as a series of three-song tapes it hands out to fans. "We're about three-quarters finished on a new album, and it's a little more wide open than 'Lightswitch,' with more space in the music and less layering," Hellier says. "The other album was recorded in four states while we were on the road. We've grown a lot as a band in the studio -- all the learning and lessons are coming to fruition now and this is probably the best thing we've done."