Last year, singer-songwriter Maura Rogers was so pleased with the progress she had made with her live band that she sought to document it in some way. The director who had helmed her previous music video was unavailable so she decided to bring in aspiring local director, Damien Campbell, to film some live footage.
Campbell and Regis Sedlock set up some six cameras throughout the club to capture the band playing four songs. They had a crew of Cleveland State film students in tow as well. The filming took an entire day and was a huge endeavor as Campbell went above and beyond the call of duty.
“We had to clean the stage off and hang lights and connect a projector to create an atmosphere,” says Rogers one afternoon with her fellow band mate, accordion player Meredith Pangrace, as the two sit in the office where Pangrace works as a freelance graphic designer.
Because Rogers says she and her band weren’t quite ready to record when they went to the studio last year for their most recent album, In Light, which they recorded with a new guitarist and two different drummers, they felt it was necessary to capture the band in its current state.
“We were never all together at the same time recording,” says Rogers. “As we played out more as a group, we realized how much energy we have and how that comes across when we’re all together.”
Over the past summer, the band played out regularly. Beachland co-owner Cindy Barber, a huge supporter, let them use her club for a day for the taping and the band members recruited about 50 “high-energy” fans and let the cameras roll. The sessions went so well, the band will release four live video clips on its website and it's even turned the performance into a live EP. They celebrate the release of the videos and the EP with a show on March 19 at the Beachland. On "Battle Cry," Rogers defiantly sings, "I'm doing the best that I can" over an Indigo Girls-like blend of folk and rock. With its catchy guitar riff, "Jailhouse with Jesus" comes off as free wheeling and playful, particularly when Pangrace launches into a mid-song accordion solo and Istvan Medgyesi follows her with a gritty guitar solo that's equally high-energy. The song's call-and-response vocals work particularly well too.
“We didn’t intend to put out a live EP, but the sound turned out really well,” says Pangrace.
Rogers, who studied theater, English and voice at Baldwin Wallace, initially worked for Great Lakes Theater Festival after college. She then moved to New York for a short spell. After returning to Northeast Ohio, she worked again for Great Lakes Theatre, devoting a good chunk of time to an Ohio history play based on stories told by people from across the state.
“I loved it,” she says of working for Great Lakes Theatre Festival. “The experience was fantastic. Working at the rehearsal spaces was great and working among artists was something I really fell in love with. I just loved being surrounded by artists.”
In June of 2010, she released her first solo album, Get Up Girl, which she recorded at SUMA Recording in Painesville.
“I was very fresh, I was very green, I was very new,” she says when asked about the release. “I had no idea what I was getting into. I had the support of the local folk crowd. It’s kind of funny because I felt like that shaped what I was doing. I hadn’t defined my sound yet. I hadn’t tested my voice yet. With the limited guitar skills I had at the time, I didn’t know what I could do to support the lyrics and vocals on my own. It was a good learning experience.”
She even embarked on a mini-tour that summer. Then, bassist Brent Stowe wrote her and asked if she wanted to work with a band. They met at the Barking Spider and assembled the first formation of her backing band, the Bellows.
Accordion player Meredith Pangrace came courtesy of a Craiglist ad that Rogers posted. She was the only person who responded to the request for an accordion player.
“I troll Craiglist all the time for anything accordion-related: repair people, what to buy,” says Pangrace. “It’s a niche so I have to try to find people somehow.”
In 2012, Rogers and the Bellows released A Good Heart Will Break.
“It was amazing,” says Rogers when asked about the recording sessions for the album. “I was in kidney failure. All bullshit was set aside. We just wanted to rally to get it done to the best of our abilities.”
Local producer Kevin Montgomery, who now runs his Standby Rolling studio out of his Cleveland Heights home, saw the band at the Barking Spider and offered to make their album. At the time, he was enrolled in Tri-C’s Recording Arts Technology program, so he had access to some first-rate production equipment. And it wouldn't cost a fortune to record the album.
“It was rushed but very positive,” says Rogers.
Two weeks later, Pangrace donated a kidney to Rogers.
“We didn’t even know if we would be alive,” says Pangrace with a laugh. “We could have both died or the kidney might not have worked.”
But the kidney did work, and the group has soldiered on. Last year’s In Light came out in May. The majority of the current lineup plays on the album, and Rogers says it might be the closest approximation to what the band’s true sound is.
“I think we’re getting closer to tapping into what our sound is,” she says. “We’re defining our roles better. The presence of Meredith in the songs is more pronounced. That’s what I wanted. I think what she does is integral to what I hear in my head. [Guitarist] Istvan Medgyesi has evolved into the sound of the band. Because it wasn’t recorded with us all together, it lacks that chemistry and energy that you hear when we’re in the same room together.”
The four songs on the band’s new EP suggest an evolving sound that compares favorably to indie folk rock acts such as the Decemberists and Neko Case.
“I think that’s something we’ve been working on a lot as a band in terms of bringing music to rehearsal and listening to songs and seeing how the different instruments work well together and support a female vocalist,” she says. “We’ve been listening to [alt-country singer-songwriter] Neko Case. I connect to her because she had a rock edge but then she pulls out a folk or country song and can make that work. She has created this musicianship around her so there’s a cohesive sound that showcases her voice and lyrics. That’s a lot of our approach. The vocal harmonies help too. I think of that as another instrument itself.”
Acts such as Troubadours of Divine Bliss, Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls serve as inspirations too.
“I think our duo stuff is very similar to the Troubadours of Divine Bliss,” says Pangrace. “That’s what I aspire to. I like how the fills compliment the melodies. If the accordion drives the song, you’re a polka band, and that’s not what we want to be. What they do with their harmonies is amazing.”
Polka comparisons notwithstanding, Rogers hopes to seamlessly incorporate the accordion into her music.
“I want to make the accordion fit into every song,” says Rogers. “As we get louder, it’s more challenging to have an acoustic instrument. I don’t think it has to be the dominant sound in every song but I think it should be a part of every song.”
Rogers says she has some songs that didn’t make the last studio album. She imagines they’ll appear on the next record, which she's anxious to record.
“We do have new material,” says Rogers, adding that she wants to take the band on tour to cities outside of Cleveland. “We have stuff that just wasn’t ready yet. We did the last album thanks to a Kickstarter. Our fans have been tremendously supportive. I think we’re going at it in a way we have never gone at it before. We’re approaching it more seriously. We have more visibility now than we've had in the past. I feel the freedom to give more to this than I have previously. I think the next goal is to capture that experience of us playing together somewhere — maybe a castle. Like Fleetwood Mac, but without the drama.”
Maura Rogers and the Bellows, Morgan Mecaskey, Noon, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 19, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $10 ADV, $12 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.
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]