Modern Merchant

Modern Merchant: restrained. (Adam Shapiro photo / February 26, 2013)

The Emerge Festival

Featuring, on Sat., March 2: Daphne Lee Martin, Elison Jackson, Fake Babies, Jose Oyola & the Astronauts, Little Ugly, Modern Merchant, and Sidewalk Dave

And on Sunday, March 3, 1974, Atrina, Bedroom Rehab Corporation, Oh, Cassius!, Ports Of Spain, and Sun Dagger

Arch Street Tavern, 85 Arch St., Hartford, (860) 246-7610, archstreettavern.com

 

Playing in a band is a little like joining a mutual-aid society. It's not exactly the Freemasons or the Rotarians, but kinda. (Secret handshakes, righteous hats and cool logos are an option.) You help other bands out. You go to each other's shows. You loan each other effects pedals. You maybe sing backing vocals for each other in the studio. You share bills with each other. You let other bands crash on your floor or on your couch. You might even help the other band move their enormous bass cabinet out of their van and up a narrow staircase to get it inside a club. Maybe you man their merch table while they're playing, and they do the same for you. Everyone wins. It's sort of like Christian charity, but with more creative facial hair and cowboy shirts.

That's how music scenes form and how they thrive: a bunch of like-minded musicians egg each other on and help draw attention to their creative efforts, and fans add to the fun. That's the general idea behind the Emerge Festival, a two-day event created to help spotlight Connecticut bands and to provide a little cash-flow goodwill directed toward three acts from the state as they prepare to make their way to the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas in March. A van burns a lot of gas getting from New England to the Lone Star State, and so funds are definitely needed. Thirteen Connecticut bands will play over two nights at Hartford's Arch Street tavern, to help fill the tanks of Daphne Lee Martin, Elison Jackson and Sidewalk Dave, all three of whom will be heading off to SXSW.

And as with the symbiotic relationship between bands, so too with the slightly wider world of bands and clubs and alternative newspapers. As it happens, a few of our colleagues are involved with the Emerge Festival. Chip McCabe — the marketing mastermind for the Advocate and for CT.com, the man behind the Connecticut Music Awards and a constant champion of the state's music scene — helped put this festival together (CT.com is a cosponsor of Emerge). And Mike Sembos — associate editor for our sister paper the Fairfield County Weekly, non-stop multi-instrumentalist sideman and active bandleader as well — plays bass in Sun Dagger, who are on the bill for Sunday night, March 3.

McCabe came up with the idea for the festival as a way to showcase local talent while also giving a needed assist to the artists making the trip to Texas. (All of the bands get paid, but the lion's share will go to the SXSW artists.) McCabe, a tireless CT-music booster, views it as a festival "for people who want to experience some really cool local bands." He aims to make it bigger next year, with more bands from all over the state, to draw increased attention to music made in Connecticut, maybe even turning the festival into a destination in itself.

In thinking about how Connecticut bands seem to like to help each other out, the Advocate spoke to Mike Skaggs, of the band Modern Merchant, also on the bill at the Emerge Festival. Skaggs, who lives in Oxford, is actually a displaced southerner (he's from Alabama), but he's worked with a bunch of bands from the region — as a sound man and as a prolific sideman (he played with Sidewalk Dave, also on the bill). Modern Merchant is made up of Connecticut musicians, though the bulk of the band has relocated to Brooklyn. (Jesse Stanford, formerly of Hartford's Heirlooms, plays synth in Modern Merchant.)

Modern Merchant has been gigging out for a little over a year, and the band is set to release its six-song EP, For the Fields, this month. The recording was made at Skaggs' house in Oxford, during Hurricane Sandy. "We shut ourselves in and knocked it out in three days," says Skaggs.

Maybe it was the storm, or maybe it was the spacious feel of the old house where they were working, but the material Modern Merchant recorded has a spartan exposed-beams quality to it. The music is sturdy, but you can clearly hear all of the parts that go into it. There's not a lot of fancy trim or excess flourishes.

"You don't need too much," says Skaggs. "Too much can be a bad thing."

On the track "Like-Minded," the drums are big, with the cymbals radiating out over the mix. The guitars echo with a sleek slinkiness. And singer John Parson's voice has a languid suavity to it. The whole thing is impressively slow, with an appealing slow-breathing tempo. This too is a kind of restraint that conveys its own force.

"Like-Minded," the song, seems to be about two people who are not in fact like-minded. The Emerge Festival will spotlight bands that may not sound much alike, but there will be a like-mindedness in that all of the bands come from the state or have ties here. And being from Connecticut, situated as it is between the thriving world-swallowing music scenes of places like Boston and New York, creates its own kind of connection for musicians. There may be fewer bands here, and there may be fewer opportunities for those bands to play at area clubs without saturating their audiences, but somehow there's a little less professional toxicity as well.

"That's one of the things I like about the New Haven area and Connecticut bands," says Skaggs, "there's no real cut-throatness."