At Annapolis showcase, musicians have a night of their own
In a weekly series at the Austin Grill, musicians share their original material and a sense that local talent is deep
Local musicians Bryan Ewald, left, and Megan Murray have hosted SOMA, Showcase of Original Music in Annapolis, every Tuesday night since October at Austin Grill in the Annapolis Westfield Mall. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / May 7, 2011)
Then the Annapolis resident had the dream.
One night four years ago, he woke up suddenly, the lyrics to a new song pouring forth in his mind. He scribbled them down while strumming his guitar: I heard voices that claimed to be moral and righteous/Whose lies and deceit were all dark and contagious/I heard talk of a country that valued its freedom/ But when I protested I was arrested and beaten.
Before long he had completed "The Pendulum," a political screed he has been showcasing on national tours ever since.
"I went from being a person who couldn't care less [about politics] to someone who's all in" in the fight to preserve liberty in America, "and it totally changed my approach," he told an intimate audience at the Austin Grill in the Westfield mall on Tuesday night.
Page, 31, was one of two guest performers at last week's Showcase of Original Music in Annapolis, or SOMA, a weekly event at the restaurant where area performers are given the uncommon chance (and a few bucks) to perform a full set of their own material, uninterrupted.
"For those of us in the business, it can become a bit of a grind to play show after show of cover music," says Bryan Ewald, a veteran local guitarist who co-hosts the series. "This is a nice opportunity for artists to air out their stuff for an interested audience."
Not every new song, of course, heralds a political awakening. Last week's crowd was treated to the sounds of Jason Ager, a Baltimore-based singer-songwriter who served up a set of clever, scat-flavored alt-pop that left them laughing. The contrast reflected the diversity of the series and a breadth of local talent even long-timers find inspiring.
"We tell [the artists], 'Please come show us what you've got,'" says Meg Murray, Ewald's co-host and a vocalist who has fronted blues-, R&B- and folk-inflected groups in the area over the past 15 years. "We've had men and women, reggae, hip-hop, blues, rockabilly, folk. … Bryan and I have been on the scene for a long time, and every week we learn something new about who's doing what around here."
It has long been said that greater Annapolis plays host to more than its share of bars and clubs that host live music. That has attracted scads of professional players and spawned a scene some say rivals that of indie havens like the real Austin, Texas.
Dozens of those players are serious part-timers; some make it their sole job. One full-timer is Ewald, 39, an Arnold-based husband and dad whose guitar wizardry — "a blend of Clapton prowess and Harrison uniqueness," in the words of Bay Weekly reviewer Matthew Pugh — has made him "one of the best and most prolific players in the area."
Ewald plays at least 250 gigs a year in three different bands, and that inevitably means cranking out a lot of music made famous by more celebrated artists. "You might want to weave in more of your own stuff, but there's always that thing of paying the mortgage," he says.
Most serious players, Ewald says, have original material they'd love to play in public if they had the chance — a fact that opened an opportunity for Austin Grill manager Danielle Scott, who decided about a year ago to try to get the eatery on the region's crowded musical map.
She asked Ewald to use his contacts to get it going, and he and Murray, a longtime collaborator, have been running the show since October.
Meg & Bryan, as they're known locally, start each show with a 40-minute set of their own, in part to attract their established fan base. Then they cede the stage to two other acts in a show that generally ends by the family-friendly hour of 10. Bookings have featured once-popular bands that have cut back their schedules, breakthrough shows for younger artists or solos or acts just looking to network and have fun.
With free admission nearly most weeks, crowds have averaged between 40 and 50 — not bad, Ewald says, for a Tuesday night in a setting that seats 100 and sits far from the artsier climes of downtown.
The series has bridged old and new, showcasing the work of rockabilly veteran Dean Rosenthal of Annapolis; the ethereal, Baltimore-based folk-rock act Naked Blue, and Jill and Don Davolio of Millersville, whose high-energy rock band, Gingham Shmuz, spent a decade opening for the likes of Keb Mo, the Black Crowes and the Allman Brothers before family life intervened.
But Ewald and Murray have also booked a who's who of younger artists: Brandon Hardesty, 25, an Annapolis resident who fronts the Bumpin Uglies; the Carousel Rogues, indie rockers from Frederick; and others. On May 24, they trot out the progressive-acoustic Walking Sticks, a band featuring twin brothers (and College Park students) Max and Spencer Ernst of Silver Spring that has already won a following in the region.