14 Bands to Watch in 2016

Our picks for the local bands you should pay attention to in the new year

Ray Flanagan
Ray Flanagan Rustin McCann

Cleveland is a rock 'n' roll town. It's a hip-hop town, a blues town, a folk town. To be clear, it's a music town, and that's why we love it here.

Considering our annual criticisms of the Rock Hall and our regular grumbling over tour schedules that skip our fair city, we're very much the spoiled, angsty teens of the national music circuit. We want our music, and we want it now.

Thankfully, Cleveland is fertile ground for locals interested in picking up an instrument and making music on a stage somewhere. Across all genres, young kids and longtime vets alike are churning out incredible sets at venues all over town. We write about this stuff constantly, and yet we're always encountering local bands and artists that are new to our ears and awesome in every sense of the word.

With that, we turn your attention toward 14 local bands that we think are going to do fantastic things in the year ahead. We tried to capture the essence of several different scenes in Cleveland with this list, bringing together bands that you may have heard already and bands that you've never heard of. There are many more that we aren't highlighting here — and, hopefully, as you peruse this list and do your headphone homework, you'll greet them all in the bars and clubs that make Cleveland spin. It's a wonderful city out there. Go listen to it.

Archie and the Bunkers

A group that consists of teenage brothers Emmett and Cullen O'Connor on drums and keyboards respectively, Archie and the Bunkers has quickly picked up a buzz since forming in 2013. Initially, the duo didn't think it could generate enough sound. But after taking inspiration from the Screamers, an old L.A. punk band that had no guitars or bass guitars, the guys thought they could do it and began recording music in their basement where they cut their first two self-produced EPs. "We bought some mics and an interface and went with it," says Cullen when asked about the basement sessions. "Our computer was so old that it cut out midway through recording a song so we often had to record things over and over." Influences range from jazz organ greats like Jimmy Smith and Richard "Groove" Holmes to punk icons Dead Boys and the Stooges. Before releasing their full-length debut, which came out this year, the brothers sent demos to several labels, but the folks at the U.K.-based Dirty Water Records were the most excited about releasing the album. And so the duo recorded 12 songs at Ghetto Recorders in Detroit. Famed producer/engineer Jim Diamond (the White Stripes) captures their "Hi-Fi Organ Punk" sound that Emmett describes as "rock 'n' roll that's been peeled back to its raw foundation." In February, the band will headline two nights at the Golden Tiki in Las Vegas, and in May it's headed to Europe for a three-week tour that includes a few festival dates. The guys also were just in the studio recording tracks for several projects, including a 7-inch single expected out in late April. While the band played about 20 shows in town in 2015, it plans to play only a handful of local shows in 2016 and will instead focus on developing regionally, nationally and even internationally. (Jeff Niesel) archieandthebunkers.com

Case Bargè

Personal struggles aren't anything new to Cleveland's Case Bargè. He's managed to overcome adversities that ranged from homelessness to being robbed to having a hernia in his brain and subsequently learning to walk again. His music is conscious, passionate and determined and has drawn comparisons to contemporaries such as Andre 3000, Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar, among a few others. His previous project, Ghost, was received well, but it is Barge's latest work, Insanity, that's destined to take him over the top and be his most personal project yet. "I titled this project Insanity, mainly because of what I was feeling at the time," he says. "Insane and misunderstood, on top of everything going on in the world." Production on the album is handled by the likes of Phrazes, Blokhead Johnny, Will and Boca. He collaborated with Tezo on the single "Yax" and dropped a short film for "Affliction" prior to the album's release. "Before writing ['Affliction'], I was about to give up on everything," he says. "Just the feeling of neglect, not being appreciated, and being misunderstood can kill a soul. Throughout the process of creating and just my day-to-day, I've grown to learn more about myself and life in general. A lot of low times through the process of Insanity, but I feel like I had to go through it all to be where I am today and I appreciate every moment and soul involved." (Emanuel Wallace)

Cities and Coasts

Back in 2007, singer-guitarist Nathan Hedges was signed to a small Virginia label and released a solo album. As he started to put a backing band together, he recruited Welshly Arms' drummer Michael Gould who, in turn, helped him put a band together. Last year, they started recording as Cities & Coasts; the ever-rotating line-up continues to shift with each recording session, and that's by design. "I wanted it be a revolving cast," says Hedges, who cites old-school punk acts such as Bad Religion and Offspring as well as classic rock acts such as Beatles and the Who as influences. He's particularly happy with the current line-up, which includes many members of other local acts, including Jon Bryant and Bri Bryant, two sharp, soulful locals who have their own damn band, Jabtune. "The whole point is to embrace the scene. We have friends in different bands, and it's great to get out there and support each other. It keeps us on our toes, and people in the crowd can see different influences working their way into the live show. Jon and Bri Bryant are always with us and they add a huge depth and dynamics, and the sax adds another texture. It's a really fun group that we're playing with right now." After releasing its debut last year, the band had a busy summer. "We played a lot of shows and did a good job of promoting ourselves and doing the shameless self-promotion," says Hedges. "We got asked to do a lot of summer festivals and that helped us. We kept getting invited to do more and that exposure helped us grow our fan base. We are a relatively new band, but the amount we played helped us define our sound, which has really expanded." Earlier this year, the band released a new single, "Finer than Gold." With its husky vocals and a jangly guitar riff, the song sounds like vintage Springsteen. "We kept a retro vibe, but I would say it's got more a Motown vibe," explains Hedges. "There are Motown undertones on the first record. All of the influences that we define as our sound on the first record are still there." Hedges says that the forthcoming full-length will sound even more diverse than the music the band's made in the past. (Niesel) citiesandcoasts.com

Ray Flanagan and the Authorities

By now, Ray Flanagan seems ubiquitous on the local rock circuit. And he is. It's telling, however, that he and his band got together as recently as 2012 when they were living in Medina. Though he's overseen a handful of line-up changes since then, the original incarnation came together via a number of different high school bands. With Flanagan at the helm, they united and began to rock. Earlier this year, he released A Hard Shell to Break, a sophomore album that shows no signs of slump. "There just isn't any bullshit on it. I mean, we recorded it live, so what you hear is what we did," Flanagan says. He grew up playing Metallica and Pantera — heavy stuff — and later veered toward Springsteen and the Americana scene. And the blend of those influences certainly comes across clearly on this latest album: It's a fairly intense piece of rock 'n' roll, anchored by Flanagan's inventive riffs and his band's well-informed sense of dynamics. It's one of our favorite local albums from this past year. "I think if you want to hear a real, true rock 'n' roll album — guys sweatin' it out in a room together — that's that record," Flanagan says. Keep an eye out for various new forms of the band in 2016; Flanagan tells us he's considering dropping the "Authorities" moniker. There's always been an element of uncertainty in the line-up (i.e., people move away, coming and going) and, well, it's always tough to keep a band together. Beyond that, Flanagan is often playing shows as the Ray Flanagan Trio or solo outings with other musicians. He's also planning on hitting the road sometime next year, bringing his Cleveland vibe to more exotic locales. And, heads up: Flanagan's got another album on his mind as we flip the calendar to the next year. (Sandy) rayflanagan.net

FreshProduce

It was Christmas night in 2014 when DJ Red-I (Brittany Benton) and Playne Jayne (Samantha Flowers) joined forces to form the hip-hop duo, FreshProduce. What originally began as a few impromptu ciphers soon became the full-length album, We Are FreshProduce. The album is a blend of thought-provoking lyrics paired with lush, soulful beats. In 2015, they released their first single, "More Like You," and they soon thereafter released a video for "The Stroll." Playne Jayne cites Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill as two of her earliest influences on her decision to become an emcee. "At 11 years old, I went to the Lauryn Hill Miseducation concert and it felt like Lauryn spoke directly to me," she says. "What she talked about made so much sense, she looked like me and was so talented. After the concert, I got a T-shirt and a notebook and that's where I started as an emcee." DJ Red-I attributes her sound to the diverse genres of music she effortlessly spins on a regular basis. "Most of my experience comes from years of DJing and collecting different styles of music," she says. "I grew up listening to reggae, soul, jazz and hip-hop. The base of my production style comes from constantly blending these styles for the dance floor and making people move to the music." This year, the ladies rocked stages at Grog Shop, Mahall's and the Bop Stop. In 2016, FreshProduce has plans to embark upon a 20-date European tour and release their second project — tentatively titled Duce. (Wallace) wearefreshproduce.com

Chad Hoffman

After gigging in bands around Columbus for a decade or so, singer-guitarist Chad Hoffman found himself wanting to strike out on his own and pursue work as a solo musician. Since then, he's spent time in Michigan and Cleveland, where he resides now and works full-time as a professional musician. "I quit the day job," he told us. "It's been a blessing." Nowadays, you can find Hoffman playing sets all over town, most nights of the week. We ran into him a while back at Rush Inn in Lakewood, strumming a fine blend of reinvented covers and enticing originals. The crowd, always actively engaging with Hoffman's music and wit, was completely into it. On top of his guitar, Hoffman has crafted some kit drums — little percussion instruments for his feet, which keep the music grounded and lively. He says that, as a solo musician, he's got complete creative control over his domain. That's the part he loves. But he's also putting his neck on the line every time his writes and performs alone. "I always try to squeeze in as many originals as I can get away with," he says, adding that, at the end of the day, a good deal of the audience base in Cleveland clamors for tunes they know and can dance to. "Even though it's not in my wheelhouse of musical inspiration, it's so much fun. Those songs really force me to be creative." With a song list of more than 300 covers, Hoffman finds himself able to stretch his legs on a lot of tunes. He'll dip into hip-hop — and pop singers like Lady Gaga and her hits — to put a twist on the Americana guitarist's vibe. As 2016 opens up, Hoffman is working on building a studio in his home, so do expect more material from him — both on the Internet and, of course, at a lovely little bar near you. (Sandy) chadsolo.com

Listen, Little Man

We last saw Listen, Little Man at the Euclid Tavern a few months ago. They showed up onstage well into the night and threw down an extremely energetic set. Frontman Xe La, hat pulled down low beyond his eyes, screamed and sang into the mic, casting eerie emotions across the band's engaging, often prog-based style of riffs and chord work. There's a great deal of '90s alt-rock and grunge DNA in their blood. "We definitely take stuff away from that," guitarist Jeffrey Hennies says. By the time they hit the stage or the studio, the band blends a variety of heavy influences into a hybrid of rhythms and dynamics. It's been a nice, quiet build for these guys; the band also includes drummer Kevin Patrick Suman and bassist Dylan Tracey. They've found a nice niche at some of the smaller venues around town — the holes in the wall that let people in for free and host a bill of regional bands. That style of gigging plays off Xe La's roster of open mics that he hosts around Northeast Ohio. A few years back now, Hennies ran into him down in Kent at one of those events. The band came together fairly quickly and soon began playing stages as a unit. "The last year or two here, we've been gigging a lot. I'd say we play Cleveland once a month — or at least somewhere in Northeast Ohio," Hennies says. The band pressed 500 CDs of their last album, and sold 'em all. Nowadays, they're working with Bad Racket to get some old and new material back into circulation. (Sandy) listenlittleman.bandcamp.com

Melladramatics

After a number of false starts and various line-up changes in other bands, Melladramatics came together a few years ago to pound out a nice take on punk rock sensibilities. We first caught up with them at an eastside gig this past fall, and their three-piece stylings certainly drew in our ears. Fast-forward to December, which has the band dropping a new album online and, in a good and just world, pulling in even more listeners. This crew has some excellent songwriting chops. The physical album can be found at Heights Music Shop, at 2174 Lee Rd. in Cleveland Heights. Diamond in the Rough, produced by Jim Wirt (of early Incubus renown), sees the band executing spacey punk tunes with self-aware lyrics. "Things," in particular, is a great distillation of Mella's crooning detachment. "It's not such a problem / when you really look at it / things just happen / when you're in the thick of it ... ." With the album circulating now, singer-guitarist Mella and the band are hoping to snag the attention of venue owners around Cleveland. They've been trucking along on the margins of the music scene here for some time, reminding us as concertgoers that there are tiers in this community and plenty of terrific bands throwing down thrilling sets in lesser known corners of the city. Looking ahead to 2016, Mella says there's plenty of new material to keep kicking around onstage and — perhaps — in the studio. (Sandy) facebook.com/melladramatics

Midnight Passenger

Everyone in Midnight Passenger — except for singer Tony Zaro — went to school together, facilitating a number of band formations along the way, Zaro tells us. The chemistry, clear onstage now, has been hard-wired from an earlier time and place. Zaro came onboard a few years back (via a Cleveland.com message board, interestingly enough), making the past three years a very serious endeavor for Midnight Passenger. This past year, the band dropped their first full-length, Calypso, with local producer and figurehead Jim Stewart. It's a statement piece — and a concept album, in a sense — that stakes Midnight Passenger's claim in the local music scene. Both gentle and intense, the music on Calypso showcases a band brimming with ideas. "Beneath the Wolf's Den," for instance, begins with Zaro's full-bodied vocals coasting across a lilting melody. Flipping the song's dynamics, drummer Shane Zigler then leads the band into a wonderful collage of strings and percussion as the song progresses toward its climax. Beyond the bounds of the album, though, Midnight Passenger has certainly created a nice niche in the local music scene. They're buoyed by the mutual support of a number of bands around town, thanks to a shared heritage that criss-crosses the past 15 years or so. "I would say in the past two years or so, the collective efforts of all the bands in the Cleveland area — it's unbelievable how each band supports the rest," Zaro says. "It's an awesome time to be a band in Cleveland." (Sandy) midnightpassenger.net

One Days Notice

A common thread runs through One Days Notice's music: As noisy as their music might be, the guys have a real appreciation for melody. "We've all been huge fans of old-school punk music, Bad Religion and Offspring," says singer-guitarist Jesea Lee. "We're also into Beatles and the Who and Nirvana and Pearl Jam. We gravitate toward the heavier side, but we have a huge appreciate for pop. We strive to write catchy songs." The group actually wasn't certain it would carry on after its previous album, 2013's When Dinosaurs Get Drunk. But the group kept jamming and then started recording with locals such as Joel Grant and Lance Waste and their respective studios, Great White Bear and WSTLND. The resulting album, Blackout, comes out in early 2016. "We pieced it together from four different locations," says Lee when asked about the album. "We even recorded some of the vocals at my apartment." The artist friendly label Remember to Breathe Records will issue the album. Prior to its release, Substream Magazine and Idobi Radio will stream the album's first two singles. A solid pop-punk release, the album commences with the Offspring-like "All That I Know" and then delivers one hard rocking tune after another. High-pitched yelps distinguish "Riot," a tune that serves as a vibrant call-to-arms. "We wanted to go back to our pop punk roots," says Lee. "We went way poppier on our last album, which ended up become more Maroon 5 and less of the Offspring. We wanted to write songs that would be super fun to play live." (Niesel) facebook.com/onedaysnotice

Polars

Songwriters Justin Miller and Kurt Eyman started this terrific indie rock group last winter when Miller bought a house in Lakewood and started building a home studio. The two began collaborating on songwriting duties and then independently recorded the group's debut album, Into the Pines, which draws equally from folk, indie rock and pop. They've described the band as a "journey to share its unique blend of songs that embody the landscape, cultural identity and sound of the Great Lakes region." "Lyrically, a lot of things are inspired by the environment around us and the different emotions that brings from the region," explains Miller. "We try to play on that. Musically or instrumentally, I don't know if that applies as much. We're trying to develop what our sound will be, but I want to move toward more ambient music and more abstract and darker music that comes from the wintertime and how that shapes our thoughts." The band cites Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes as influences, and the music certainly has an atmospheric quality as in a song such "Indigo Kids," where the band puts earnest vocals up front in the mix while presenting a balance of acoustic guitars, vintage sounding keyboards and piano. "Laniakea" features a vibrant violin riff courtesy of Molly Connolly, who's collaborated with the like-minded local indie rock act the Lighthouse and the Whaler. Miller says fans should expect to hear more of the ambient textures the band explores on "Klop," a track that includes percolating synthesizers. "I want the sound to become more dynamic," he says. "We just added a trumpet player, and he knows some of the string and brass players in town." The band has started writing songs for a new album it hopes to put out in 2016. (Niesel) polarsmusic.com

The Village Bicycle

Guitarist Liz Kelly and her band share a vision — namely, to keep writing and performing badass music among friends. Keyboard player Karah Vance concurs: "[Liz's] lyrics touch on parts of us that we love," referring to shared interests in politics, feminism and the general meanderings of life in our 20s and 30s. They certainly achieve that — tapping the vein of polyrhythmic punk rock and energetic live performances — based on the shows we've caught this past year. Drummer Debbie Randazzo, who drives the songs toward incredible feats of turn-on-a-dime shifts in rhythm, joined the band after jamming with them at their West 96th Street practice space a while back. "She blew my mind," Kelly says. After picking up some experience as a band, they display a very strong foundation in musical harmony and the technical side of songwriting. Listen, they're a team — greater than a sum of their parts — and they maintain a commitment to working together. "We're just really ready to have this recorded," Kelly says of the new material, a forthcoming collection of tunes that we insist you keep an eye out for. Also watch out for upcoming shows, as we expect the band to continue making a big splash around town. "I think Cleveland is one of the most supportive cities," Kelly says. We totally agree. (Sandy) thevillagebicycle.bandcamp.com

Wanyama

We've called them Cleveland's "best party band" before, and that moniker still holds up quite nicely as we coast into 2016. They're equal parts jam, funk and hip-hop, with dashes of more esoteric ingredients thrown in for good measure. "The jam scene in Cleveland is unique to itself because it seems more like a giant group of friends," the band members tell Scene. "Every concert is like a party or get together where you're guaranteed to see someone you know. Wanyama — originally the Cleveland Zoo — is an idea or concept of bringing members with diverse musical influences together to create a brand of music with no 'genre' or 'style' boundaries." With none other than Cookie Lowry spitting rapid-fire lyrics alongside sax man Charles Wilson, and the rest of the band throwing down a collage of funk melodies, Wanyama shines onstage as a beacon of soulful dance grooves. "2016 will be our busiest year yet," the guys continue. "We're currently getting ready to go back into the studio; we have a brand new set of songs we can't wait to get out to people. This album will have a completely different feel than our last one, Cleveland Zoo, focusing on a driving beat and a more intense experience." Check them out at the Funk Nasty New Year's Eve show at the Grog Shop. (Sandy) wanyamaband.com

Marcus Alan Ward

A proudly self-taught multi-instrumentalist and singer, Marcus Alan Ward issued a pair of EP's under the Freeze-Tag name before issuing his debut full-length album, Last Night I Grew Tentacles, in 2014 on his own Long Division Recordings. Regarding the name change, Ward says, "it really draws distinction to the fact that I'm a one-man composer and that it's just me, it's more honest." Ward has gradually gained traction throughout the region. An ambitious effort that draws from soul, hip-hop, electronica and jazz, Last Night I Grew Tentacles features Ward's distinctive falsetto and dense layers of synthetic and organic instrumentation. "I wanted to get back to that feeling when most R&B is not dominating the female. I wanted to say I'm shy and just be vulnerable," Ward explained in an interview with Scene when the album was first released. The struggle between personal growth and deviation from societal norms plays a pivotal role in Ward's declaration of individuality. "I know my place in music history and I know where I want to be," he says. "And of course you compare yourself to other black artists who've done this before and you want to differentiate yourself. So, I don't know many black artists who are making music like what I'm making. And I know my place in that and I know my place in mainstream black music. I have a lineage that I am driven to carry on the tradition of." Ward has just released the EP Marcus in Wonderland, featuring his soulful take on tunes such as Santana's "Black Magic Woman" and Sade's "Kiss of Life." Now that he has a booking agent, Ward plans to tour the region more frequently. He launches a Midwest tour Jan. 6 in Chicago and performs Jan. 10 at Mahall's as part of the 12-day Capricorn Tour. (Niesel)marcusalanward.com

About The Authors

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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