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Ten tales of success and excess from Northeast Ohio's music scenes

The decade was fruitful and fractured. From hip-hop to hardcore, Northeast Ohio's music scenes produced more than their share of creativity and controversy.

Major corporations retreated. The underground thrived. Labels launched, disappeared or plugged away. Deals were signed and torn up. Venture capital was burned. Paradigms shifted. Bands broke up, talked shit, lied about it and got back together. Bad people did well. Good people got burnt.

Read on for a look at the 10 biggest Cleveland-area music stories of the 2000s — rock stars, turf wars, collapsing clubs, heshing headbangers, a rising rapper, a failed festival and a crossover cover girl. These are the people and powers that changed the way you spend your weekends.

The Black Keys' big come up

The Black Keys are Northeast Ohio's top-selling musical act of the 2000s. Their rise has been steady and steep.

Drummer Patrick Carney started playing raw blues-rock with frontman-guitarist Dan Auerbach in 2001. L.A. indie label Alive Records signed the duo and released its full-length debut, The Big Come Up, in 2002. A year later, they'd inked a deal with blues-rock label Fat Possum. By then, they were on the rock cognoscenti's radar, earning raves from The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. In 2006, the Keys signed to Warner Brothers subsidiary Nonesuch.

A-list artists have been the band's biggest boosters. Beck championed the Keys early on. In 2006, Radiohead invited them on the road. The group's music has gradually permeated the mediascape, appearing in films, commercials and TV shows — the HBO dramedy Hung uses "I'll Be Your Man" as its theme.

Admirably, the Keys remained invested in their home scene. Carney launched the Audio Eagle label to showcase bands like Houseguest, Beaten Awake and Drummer, a Rubber City supergroup featuring him and local friends. Auerbach also produced local and regional acts like Jessica Lea Mayfield, who's just one of the hometown aces in his solo band.

The Keys' five albums and two EPs have moved 747,000 copies. Their solo and side projects have sold another 74,000, bringing their total sales to more than 821,000. A new album is due next year.

When Nonesuch signed the band, senior vice president David Bither told Scene, "I don't know exactly where they're going in the future, but it's limitless."

Speak in Tongues goes silent

From 1995 through 2001, the underground-rock clubhouse Speak in Tongues was DIY and BYOB. A collective of around 20 true believers created a social, cultural and musical hotbed known from Southern Ohio to Germany. Unofficial house band Viva Caramel actually lived at the venue, which welcomed national groups like Modest Mouse, Converge and Jimmy Eat World. And it wasn't just a rock club.

The memorial website, speakintongues.com, recalls the venue as "a social club, gathering place, residence, crash pad, rehearsal hall, group-therapy center, riot ground [and] support system ... There were movies, plays, happenings, meetings, parties and camaraderie (and fights, trash, disputes, arrests, raids, fires, floods and animals)."

As 2001 drew to a close, the building was sold to Gene Burnworth, who ran the Pit Cleveland club on an upper floor. He abruptly and unceremoniously gave the downstairs neighbors the boot. The city hasn't seen anything quite like it since.

"We formed a legitimate collective that culled many artists, bands and promoters in the area to work together," recalls collective member Brian Straw. "We found homes for pets and train-hoppers, and turned the basement into practice spaces. And it worked. The space paid for itself, and the energy was very positive. [It was] a meeting place that belonged to everyone."

Mushroomhead grows and grows

Mushroomhead started as a side project in 1993. Sixteen years later, they're still one of the area's biggest bands, though it would have been understandable if they'd quit long ago.

The group overcame a potentially crippling blow in 1999, when masked metal band Slipknot broke big with a remarkably similar visual shtick. In 2003, Mushroomhead signed with Universal Records, then the biggest label in the world. The XIII album crashed Billboard's album chart, landing at No. 40. Wearing camouflage fatigues, masks and face paint, the band toured the world, guested on MTV2's Headbanger's Ball and sold more 175,000 copies. That was good, but it didn't make enough to keep eight guys and a crew on the road in a tour bus. Over the next year, the band split with its label, management company and even popular frontman Jason "J Mann" Popson. But they soldiered on.

In 2005, the group signed a new deal with indie label Megaforce. Savior Sorrow from 2006 also cracked the Top 50. In 2007, Headbanger's Ball viewers voted "12 Hundred" Video of the Year. In 2008, the group's Volume 2 DVD reached No. 7 on Billboard's DVD Chart. Mushroomhead's six albums have sold 650,000 copies.

The assault squad has a new record nearly ready for release in 2010. And, as the rowdy crowd at this year's sold-out Halloween show at the Agora Theater testified, Mushroomhead is one of the few locally based bands whose shows feel like a Big Rock Concert.

As captain/drummer Steve "Skinny" Felton told Scene in 2006, "If it weren't for Cleveland, we wouldn't have been able to do shit. We're not going away. What the fuck else can we do?'

House of Blues and Live Nation, go to war, end up married

House of Blues entered Cleveland in 2003 as the only significant competition for Cleveland's largest concert promoter, the corporate behemoth now known as Live Nation (formerly Clear Channel, which bought out the local Belkin Productions empire — founded by brothers Jules and Mike Belkin in 1966 — in 2001). In the end, it only made the giant bigger.

When it arrived in Cleveland, House of Blues was the country's second-largest concert promoter. The chain owned a dozen clubs and ran a half-dozen big venues like Blossom Music Center. The city granted it a sweetheart deal on a site at East 4th Street for a combination restaurant-nightclub, and before long, House of Blues dominated the small-show market. It hosted up to 35 shows a month in its 1,200-capacity concert hall and cozier Cambridge Room. Even though Live Nation's 900-capacity Odeon nightclub was a more intimate venue with cheaper tickets, its traffic sputtered. Live Nation shuttered the Odeon in early 2006.

Later that year, Live Nation and House of Blues surprised the entertainment world with the news that they were merging. Locally, the merger affected where you see shows and how much it costs. With House of Blues booking its concerts, the Pavilion at Nautica had competed with Live Nation's Time Warner Cable Amphitheater at Tower City. Since the merger, Live Nation has barely used Nautica. House of Blues now hosts the big-ticket shows that played the Odeon. HOB shows are pricier than the Odeon's were, but the room's cleaner. And thanks to the Cajun menu, it smells great.

Rock Hall CMJ Fest RIP

In 2005, the Rock Hall teamed up with the storied College Music Journal to create the CMJ Rock Hall Festival. The fest aspired to be a national destination event for music fans, like Austin's South by Southwest festival or New York City's annual CMJ bonanza. Over two summers, the CMJ Rock Hall fest created a couple cool weekends. And then it was done. Why didn't it succeed?

Location worked against the fest. Unlike NYC and Austin, Cleveland doesn't have a central area populated with many concert venues. Music fans had to rush from the Flats to Coventry. And the lineups usually weren't worth the long drive, much less a plane ticket. In 2005, the fest landed two shows by the Pixies, who were on the tail end of a reunion tour. But the talent quickly dwindled to B- and C-list groups like the Futureheads and Orgy.

The next year, the fest was held the same weekend as Bonnaroo, the big destination music festival in Tennessee. Cleveland was left with C-list bands like Margot & the Nuclear So and Sos. Matisyahu and the Fray played sold-out sets the fest, but they were touring the country, and fans could see them anywhere. Across town, singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo drew less than 400 fans to the Beachland.

"It was too much for the Rock Hall to do, and CMJ is in New York," says Beachland co-owner Cindy Barber. "The smaller venues weren't the coordinating entities. We really needed a staff person, and that position needed to be funded. The [Rock Hall] Foundation and the powers that be in the city of Cleveland didn't seem to be willing to fund that particular event."

Akron stays in the game ... barely

Over the decade, Akron rock clubs came and went, but the Rubber City always bounced back.

Starting in 2000, downtown Akron's Lime Spider was like a Southern outpost of the Beachland or Grog Shop. The club drew national acts like Guided by Voices, the Devil Wears Prada and whatever Dischord band was in the area. But by '07, the financial ups and downs were too much for owner Danny Basone, who turned the club into the Lockview restaurant.

Others entrepreneurs tried to tap Akron's small but loyal mix of music-loving locals and college students. Ron's Crossroads, once a nationally respected hard-rock bar, became the Voodoo in 2003. Run by a group of investors including Shawn Hackel, frontman of alt-rock also-rans Cyde, it quickly turned stagnant. Hackel also tried to launch the cavernous AMP in the downtown location that was previously the Vault and the Bank. It lasted one show. The nearby Double Down also quickly fizzled. The Orange Street hosted poorly attended emo shows.

Downtown coffeehouse Musica stepped up its game and has come the closest to matching the Spider's success. With a capacity around 300, it hosts several shows a week, from local singers-songwriters like David Ullman to sold-out stars like Dinosaur Jr. and Mayday Parade.

Chimaira keep climbing

Chimaira haven't matched Mushroomhead's sales, but they get around. This year, Cleveland's metal ambassadors played Dubai and they leave for Australia in early January.

The band formed in 1998, and Slayer guitarist Kerry King was a vocal supporter before the band hit its stride. The band's second LP, 2003's The Impossibility of Reason, sold more than 100,000 copies.

In 2005, Chimaira's self-titled album drew positive notices from The New York Times and sold 70,000 copies — an impressive number, but not enough to make them a top priority for label Roadrunner, whose roster included Slipknot and Nickelback. In 2006, the band split with Roadrunner and signed to big indie Ferret.

Since then, Chimaira has released two well-received records and opened arena tours for Korn. Released in April 2009, The Infection earned the band its highest chart appearance yet, peaking at No. 30. The band's five albums have moved a combined 425,000 copies. They'll wrap the decade with the Chimaira Christmas X concert, which they'll film for a DVD.

"They've really never made the same album twice," says Axl Rosenberg, co-editor of website metalsucks.com. "And they're a lot heavier than most of the metalcore bands that they seem to get lumped in with. And I think that consequently they draw a somewhat more zealous crowd."

Kate Voegele gets signed, lands on TV show

If any Cleveland artist has a shot at being America's next sweetheart, it's Kate Voegele. The singer-songwriter-actress is the bestselling local solo artist of the decade.

By the time she was 16, the little girl with a big voice had a publicist and a manager whose clients included John Mellencamp. Voegele wrote much of her first album, 2007's Don't Look Away, in her dorm room at Miami University. She signed to fledgling MySpace Records, entering a deal that would "upstream" her to major-label Interscope if she sold more than 75,000 copies of her record. She did.

In early 2008, Voegele and her music made their first appearance on the CW drama One Tree Hill. The album took off and ultimately moved 240,000 copies. Its follow-up, 2009's A Fine Mess, was produced by Mike Elizondo, who has worked with Maroon 5, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor and Pink. Voegele's two albums have sold a total of 350,000 copies

In January, she'll release an album of unplugged versions of A Fine Mess songs. Later next year, she'll be featured in a worldwide ad campaign for Oakley sunglasses.

"She's really down to earth," Elizondo told Scene last fall. "That's where you'll see the longevity factor with her career."

The Jigsaw adds pieces, falls apart

From late 2007 to early 2009, a Parma tavern was briefly a rising star on Cleveland's club scene. Then a quake hit, and the aftershocks are still reverberating.

The Jigsaw Saloon had been a Parma landmark for decades. In 2005, its owners turned an adjacent bowling alley into a concert club. In late 2007, they sold it to Phil Lara, a burly fast-talker. Lara was the salesman half of a team that had made money in the medical field. The charismatic pitchman made the rounds of Cleveland clubs, espousing his new vision of a regional empire of venues that would compete with Live Nation.

Over the next year, Lara and his partner bought into the Hi-Fi Concert Club (now the Breakfast Club), Peabody's and the Agora. But within months, Lara was failing to fulfill promises or make payments. Amid his endless excuses, the clubs broke away one at a time.

The low point came in January 2009, when Lara bounced a $50,000 check to the Black Keys after two sold-out shows at the Agora. The band sued the Agora, Lara and his partner, Terry Buckwalter. Buckwalter and LoConti have since settled with the Keys. The Keys still haven't been paid in full and say they'll never play the Agora again. LoConti sued Buckwalter and Lara and has been awarded summary judgment.

The Jigsaw closed in March, shutting its doors on a long line of unpaid creditors, including employees, vendors and government agencies. Peabody's and the Hi-Fi emerged intact, but the episode left a permanent scar on the Agora's reputation.

"[Lara] made a lot of poor judgments," says LoConti, who declined to say how much money the partnership cost him. "The part I'll never know is what was on [his] mind."

Kid Cudi shoots for the moon

One of pop's brightest stars personally invited Cleveland's biggest rap act of the decade to the show.

Cudi was born Scott Ramon Seguro Mescudi. He graduated from Solon High School, and — like Kanye West — soon became a college dropout. He relocated to New York City, where his A Kid Named Cudi mixtape caught West's ear. West signed Cudi to his G.O.O.D. Music label, a subsidiary of Universal Motown.

In September '09, the 25-year-old Cudi appeared on Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 and dropped his debut, a concept album called Man on the Moon: The End of Day. It moved more than 100,000 its first week, landing at No. 4 on Billboard's album chart. The single "Day 'n' Nite" reached No. 7. Entertainment Weekly just named it the best rap album of the year. So far, he's sold 216,000 albums and 2.44 million digital tracks.

Cudi is poised to emerge as a crossover star. He's landed a role in the upcoming HBO comedy How to Make It in America, which will be produced by Mark Wahlberg and his partners from the Entourage series.

You can catch Cudi at the Agora Theater on January 15.

dferris@clevescene.com

More by D.X. Ferris

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