There's just enough room to jam. The dimly lighted studio on Franklintown Road is packed with instruments, microphones, metal chairs and amplifiers. Thick cords snake across the dingy carpet. Life-sized black-and-white posters of Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon adorn the red brick walls.
It's around 2 on a marrow-freezing Saturday afternoon. But the ice-slick streets don't deter Groove Stu from rehearsing. Pulling off coats and caps, the nine members file in - slapping fives, hugging and teasing one another. The talk is jive and profane but loving, familiar. All of it ceases as each member warms up his instrument.
Pretty soon, things get seriously funky in this cramped space.
Groove Stu is an urban soul group from Baltimore. For three years now, the band, which plays Fletcher's tonight, has been toiling away in a city with no fervent "scene" - a string of diverse venues or a cluster of recording studios where artists and producers work regularly.
And it's been that way for years. The Charm City has produced many talents: Billie Holiday, Maysa and Dru Hill are just a few. But to "make it," to snag recording contracts and other career opportunities, those artists left the city. Holiday was the toast of New York City throughout the '30s and '40s. Jazz-soul stylist Maysa, the former lead singer for the British band Incognito, is more celebrated overseas. And Dru Hill's multiplatinum success in the mid '90s still didn't bring much attention to B'more.
Groove Stu hopes to change that. With its music and unwavering allegiance to its hometown, the band wants to put the city on the musical map. "We wanna do what the Roots did for Philly," says group founder and bassist Myron Missouri. "In the '90s, [the hip-hop band] played around Philly with folks like Musiq, Jill Scott, Jaguar Wright. They produced D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. They pretty much made a scene in Philly. And when they broke, they took everybody with 'em. That's what we wanna do with Groove Stu: Bring some attention to the city, 'cause there's so much talent here."
The independent band released its debut, Authentic 4.10 Sessions, in September. A well-produced, nicely packaged set of urban love ballads and slick midtempo joints, the album has been popular on the Internet, and singles from the record - "I Don't Know" and "Cool With U" - have charted high on station lists in Belgium and Japan. Even with that success, the band receives almost zilch local support.
"There aren't as many venues that promote live music," says Omar Sharif, the band's co-founder and lead keyboardist. "And there aren't any black-owned venues here that would be open to the kind of music we do. Radio is also very hard to break into, because a lot of the major stations are owned by big corporate companies like Clear Channel. That makes it hard for local talent to get any play on these stations."
Fletcher's, Organic Soul Tuesday on West Saratoga Street and the Funk Box are basically the only local clubs where Groove Stu and similar bands find work. In trying to carve out a place within the narrow parameters of the city's music scene, where punk and house are the predominant styles, Groove Stu is certainly not alone.
"There's a lack of transient energy in Baltimore, and it's not a rich place, either," says local singer-musician Niela (pronounced Ny-EE-luh). The urban-rock artist has shared the stage with Groove Stu. "It's not a city that's open to different stuff. If you're not doing what's on the radio or some club stuff, it's seems that nobody is trying to hear you."
And as Groove Stu's rapper Jerrod Simpson says, "It's like crabs in a barrel, man. Everybody here who's making music is trying to be the first to break out, the first to make it out. So they're not trying to reach back and bring attention to the city. But Baltimore is my home. I'm probably one of the few who love it here."
Missouri chimes in, "We're gonna make it happen here. It hasn't been easy; it won't be easy. And it's not like we haven't talked about leaving. But none of us can just up and move."
The other members of the group are Earl Campbell (the energetic drummer with wiry hair), Ramel Nicholson (the second keyboardist; he doesn't talk much), Tony Love (the dreadlocked guitarist with intense eyes), Antiwan Decatur (the friendly percussionist), Jerrita Davis (sweet-voiced back-up singer) and Tiffany Countess (stylish lead vocalist).
A self-contained band is a throwback of sorts in modern R&B.; The genre is mostly producer-driven these days. Back in the '70s, though, the charts were crowded with groups that often produced, wrote and performed its own material: the Commodores, the Bar-Kays, Con Funk Shun, Brass Construction. Groove Stu, whose members are in their mid to late 20s, extends the spirit of those bands.
Sort of. Like the R&B; units of yesterday, Groove Stu blends various styles. In the mix, you find hip-hop, smooth jazz, reggae, R&B.; But unlike some of those legendary bands, the Baltimore group doesn't have a gimmick, a look that would snatch your attention right away. No flashy costumes, no elaborate stage makeup. Just a group of clean-cut black folks making solid music. Because the group is so concentrated on concocting a sound, the members haven't given much thought to a marketing strategy, an overall image.
"Everybody within the group sorta has their own style," Davis says. "It's a group, but everybody's pretty individual."
"We're putting together a sound that's, like, our own," Missouri says. "Before we got together, we noticed everybody doing the same stuff, you know?"
Missouri and Sharif, who have known each other for more than a decade, formed Groove Stu in 2000. Missouri knew Love, and Sharif brought in Nicholson. When the budding band decided to add a pronounced hip-hop element to the mix, they found Simpson, a bald, broad dude with an aggressive flow. Several drummers passed through before Campbell came in about three months ago. Decatur and Davis are also recent recruits.
"We chose the name Groove Stu to describe our sound," Sharif says. "We built our sound in a way similar to how grandma would take leftover ingredients and make the most delicious stew."
Once the elements were in place, the group performed locally - at birthday parties, private gatherings, picnics, wherever it could find work. In May 2000, the group secured a weekly gig at the Five Seasons on Charles Street, where the guys met Countess. She sat in with the band one night, impressing the guys with her fluid soprano.
"It's about different influences with us," Missouri says. "We all grew up listening to all kinds of music - Sarah Vaughan, Dizzie Gillespie, rap, all types of stuff. We want to show those different influences in our music."
On Authentic 4.10 Sessions (the numbers in the title make up Baltimore's area code), the band offers a muscular modern sound with tasteful old-school flourishes that retain an organic feel throughout. The album, which was funded and executive-produced by the group, is sharply recorded and polished. Although the lyrics can be a tad corny("If you should find that my heart is true/then let me cool with you"), the vocal performances by Sharif and Countess are consistently inspired.
The members, each formally trained, have an unwavering passion for music. They have to, because being a nine-piece independent band means the funds are extremely tight.
"We carefully select the dates we play outside of Baltimore," says Groove Stu manager Demitri McDaniel. "Our biggest competition in this region are DJs. Promoters would rather pay $250 for a DJ than $1,500 for a band. And whenever we're traveling, we got to make sure that the money and everything is right."
The band performs mostly on the weekends, and each player, save for Earl, has a day job: a maintenance technician (Love), a youth counselor (Missouri), an elementary school counselor (Davis), a forklift operator and part-time real estate loan officer (Decatur), a customer service manager (Countess), a corporate sales representative (Sharif), a health-care benefit specialist (Simpson) and a Fed Ex courier (Nicholson).
Although Groove Stu plays the occasional date outside the Baltimore-D.C. area (it regularly gigs in Atlanta), the band can't easily uproot itself the way other local acts have.
Sharif says, "The thing that has kept us here is that, one, our families are based here and, two, we wanted to try and show that Baltimore has just as much talent as NYC or LA."
The band isn't actively pursuing a major-label deal right now. But if a chance to sign with a big company comes along, "We will be able to have more control artistically and financially [because of our independent success]," Sharif says. "More artists than I care to mention have made millions of dollars for record companies and either die broke or live lifestyles that don't coincide with their success," he says. "We want Groove Stu to be an exception to that rule."
Love says, "We just want to take Baltimore to another level we haven't seen anybody else do."
Who: Baltimore urban soul band Groove Stu opens for acid jazz siren Julie Dexter
Where: Fletcher's Bar & Grill, 701 South Bond St.
Time: 8 p.m.