Growing up local

Hundreds of people packed into Potbelly Sandwich Works at 19th and L streets Feb. 19, but it wasn’t just for the free sandwiches. They were there for a special taste of live music.

The sandwich shop released its first-ever “Best of Local Music” CD, which features the top eight artists who competed in a Potbelly and WHFS-FM (99.1)-sponsored search for the best local unsigned bands in the Washington/Baltimore area. Each performer played for the crowd during the CD release.

After reviewing nearly 100 demo tapes, a panel of eight judges compiled their favorites. Joining the winners on the album were two longtime Potbelly performers, Mike Holden and Jon Kaplan, of Bicycle Thieves, who performed at GW’s 2003 Fall Fest. The winners included Chance Gardner, Rustic, Jeff Wool, Anousheh Khalili, Andy Gibson, Morris, K.O.E. and Zach Casebolt. All of the profits from the CD will benefit MusicFriends, a local nonprofit organization that helps fund music education.

These 10 performers frequent places like Velvet Lounge, the Black Cat, Staccato in Adams Morgan, Club Iota in Arlington, Va., and other small venues with casual atmospheres. Although they had trouble pinning their sounds to a particular genre, most of the artists described their music as somewhere along the lines of acoustic, indie or rock. However, the Baltimore natives K.O.E added a splash of funk to the performance, and solo instrumental artist Andy Gibson provided an international flavor with his papoose, a highly-pitched string instrument.

Ranging in age from early ’20s to mid-’40s, the featured local artists said they devote a lot of time to their music and that they are working hard to increase their audiences.

“My main goal is to gain fans at every show. We’re not trying to make money, we’re just trying to gain exposure,” said singer/songwriter Jeff Wool, who, in addition to offering free music downloads on his Web site, hands out free demo CDs to everyone at his shows and anyone else who requests a copy.

“It’s rough in the beginning. Like right now, where we’re at is the hardest, getting people’s attention and getting your music out,” Wool continued. “But once you get fans, (being a musician) is one of the easiest jobs in the world.

“I make no secret about it – I’d like to make some money out of this,” said Mark Mensel, a more mature local winner and lead singer of the band Chance Gardner. “It’s hard; you don’t get a lot of appreciation. Last night (at Potbelly) was one of the rare moments of recognition.”

The only female in the bunch, Anousheh Khalili, agreed that sometimes a musician’s job can be a bit difficult.

“The effect music has on society puts pressure on musicians to be innovative and to continuously write good songs,” she said. “But if being a musician is what you love to do, you sort of take the role upon yourself and hope you don’t screw up.”

Khalili, a solo artist, described her sound as “dark and emotional, classically inspired piano.” After listing to such inspirations as Tori Amos and Sarah McLaughlin, she said, “I do love being a local, but I admit, the ultimate goal is to make music for a living. I’m still just trying to play out as much as possible.”

Most of the bands on the CD have been together for less than five years, and several artists said they met their fellow band members through classified listings, either online or in the Washington City Paper. One such band is Morris, which has been together for about two years. But the dream began long before that.

Lead singer Mike Maloney said he knew he wanted to be a musician when he got a fortune cookie that read, “Creating is the greatest proof of being alive.”

Since then, Maloney said pursuing the art of creating has been easy.

“There is nothing difficult about rock ‘n’ roll,” Maloney said.

But tangible success may be a bit harder. While he enjoys being part of a local band, Maloney noted that “a national stage is always desirable.”

He described D.C.’s local scene as different from other areas because here, “musicians can be anything, (from) a distraction from the real world to a focus point for activism.”

But several of the Potbelly songwriters noted that personal issues are much easier for them to tackle through lyrics than broader issues or political commentary. They also said that often what they feel are their most personal songs are the ones most listeners can relate to.

Maloney said that genuine content is the key to success.

“To gain momentum, you have to play shows with heart and play songs that you believe in,” he said.

Maloney’s fellow band members described musicians as people who create a universal art that many people can identify with.

You can pick up the “Best of Local Music” CD at all Potbelly locations for $6. Although the proceeds will not benefit these artists financially, they see their involvement in the project as a good way to get their names out and ensure the livelihood of future generations of musicians.

“We provide an escape from reality for a little while,” Wool said. “I think when people hear certain songs, they can really relate to things that they’re not able to talk about. It’s kind of like having a friend.”

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