Mother Earth Blues

Conservation groups plug in at the Beachland

Mentioning what musicians do as their "day job" sometimes seems like a subtle way of suggesting that they're not all that serious about their music. But some of them are fortunate enough to have day jobs that blend easily with their "night job." And musicians and environmental advocacy seem to have a special affinity.

Singer-songwriter Pete McDonald, who has been performing for nearly a decade in configurations ranging from traditional acoustic folk to aggressive rootsy rock, works for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy as director of stewardship. He's the sparkplug behind the third-annual Conservation Rocks!, a concert to benefit the conservancy. It takes place at 7 p.m. Friday at the Beachland Ballroom (15711 Waterloo Rd.). The bill includes Pete McDonald & the Black Oaks; a pair of bluesy rock bands — He-Chaw Frunk from Lakewood and the Swamp Rattlers out of Chardon; and acoustic singer-songwriter Steve Madewell, who left his job as executive director at Lake Metroparks earlier this year to become executive director of the Toledo Metroparks. Tickets are $10 in advance, $13 at the door.

"I take music wherever I go," says McDonald, who grew up on a farm in Geauga County. "When I started work at the conservancy, I came up with the idea of doing this show."

For the first show, he brought in Jason White, who'd built a strong Northeast Ohio fan base during his run with the Janglers from 1986-1993, prior to moving to Nashville. For the second year, he came up with the idea of recruiting musicians who also worked in the fields of conservation and the environment. He's continued with that concept this year.

"Because all the bands come from conservation organizations, we're spreading the word through our many different networks,' says McDonald. "We want to get everyone who works in the field to our concert, but also the general public."

There'll be some very brief speeches about the work that conservation organizations do here in Northeast Ohio, and the organizations have been invited to set up informational tables in the lobby.

"But really, it's just a fun night," says McDonald.

How to Rock Vol. 1

Many young musicians — and not so young — have unrealistic ideas about their band's potential for stardom. As the owners of Cleveland-based Gorilla Music, which puts together shows, festivals, and battles of the bands for local artists in markets around the country, Dan Cull and John Michalak have heard all the "We want somebody to make us rich and famous" stories. When they started to do band coaching sessions, advising bands on how to build their fan bases, they heard even more inflated expectations.

As an adjunct to their coaching work, they decided to put their advice into a book — a collection of tips about how to bring people to gigs, how to write and record songs, and how to get people to listen to them. It's called Rock Your City: 5 Steps to Becoming the Biggest Band in Town. To tie in with its release, Cull and Michalak are hosting a seminar for musicians and other interested parties at downtown's Hilton Garden Inn from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, followed by networking and socializing from 4 to 5. Tickets are $20, and books will be available too.

"We knew this book would help not just this scene, but all the scenes we do business with," says Cull. "It's one thing to tell people all the work they have to do; it's another to hand them a book. It has more credibility. I took on more of the workload at Gorilla, and we made John [work on the book] 40 hours a week."

Despite the implosion of major labels, which now sign few acts that don't come with a built-in story such as a TV talent-show appearance, they still hear "How do I get signed?" from musicians who think it's the magic ticket. But what's the actual, not-very-magic ticket?

"Work," says Cull. "It's really what makes dreams reality."

Hitless and Loving It

Back in the '90s, Cleveland was overrun with talented pop-rock bands who figured they'd be getting a record deal just as soon as Cleveland became the next Seattle. That was still a possibility then, and they had the example of Watershed, who frequently made the trip up I-71 from Columbus to play shows at clubs like the old Grog Shop at Coventry and Mayfield.

Watershed managed to grab the major-label brass ring, signing with Epic Records in the mid-'90s. And stardom did not follow. One of the band's founders, bassist/vocalist Joe Oestreich, has just published Hitless Wonder: A Life in the Minor Leagues of Rock and Roll. Like Cull's and Michalak's book, it's another dash of cold water in the face of rock and roll dreams, describing vividly how the band continued to struggle after their supposedly career-making label contract.

The book is organized around short tours the band did five years ago to keep their momentum going. The shows included a gig at the Beachland Tavern, where they played with a group featuring guitarist Bill Stone, whose bands Medicine Show and Paranoid Lovesick were among those likable '90s Cleveland bands whose careers didn't quite pan out.

"Looking at Bill onstage with his new group, I'm happy he hasn't stopped playing," writes Oestreich, who is now a professional writer and college creative writing teacher. "But damn. They look old up there under the lights with their skinny arms and thick middles."

A reader of Hitless Wonder might guess that Watershed packed it in after that difficult, disastrous tour that disrupted their jobs and relationships. But they didn't. They've got a new CD, Brick and Mortar, out this week, and they've hit the road again. They'll be back at the Beachland (15711 Waterloo Rd.) at 8 p.m. Sunday. Stone hasn't hung it up either. His current project, Skydragster, which reunites three of Medicine Show's four members, opens the show. Tickets are $8.

Now That's Fun

Head to Now That's Class (11211 Detroit Ave.) from 2-9 p.m. this Saturday for the Happy Endings Block Party. You'll find food trucks, crafts vendors, a 28-foot waterslide, a pizza-eating contest, an outdoor bar, and of course, a diverse bunch of noisy local bands: the Hiram Rapids Stumblers, Party Plates, Early Girl, the Safeties, How to Breathe Underwater, and THK Peenerson & His Weinermen. DJ Besto spins between sets. The party will take place in the club, the back parking lot, and three backyards adjoining the club, where some of the most agreeable neighbors in existence must live. Admission is free.

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