September 11, 2008
On the night of the whatzup Battle of the Bands V finals, a loyal local music fan was heard to comment, “They have the most spiritual energy of any band I’ve ever seen!” This glowing praise was aimed at none other than Fort Wayne’s underground rock institution, and eventual BotB V champions, The B-Sharps. Perhaps it was by some supernatural phenomenon that they were able to make the most dominant first-place finish in the five-year history of the event. Or maybe a little divine tinkering allowed them to draw 80 more audience votes than they drew for their epic semi-finals set only seven days prior. A more pious individual may agree with such theories, but the skeptic in me wouldn’t be able to agree. I would be forced to describe The B-Sharps’ onstage presence as intoxicatingly raw and unprocessed. I mean that in the most complimentary way imaginable.
I imagine seeing these young mavericks (the youngest member being 18, the oldest 21) in action today is what it must have been like to see The Kinks or The Who in their early, grittier heydays, before they were allotted the “benefit” of larger production budgets. How did this group of young ragamuffins, as unassuming a group of guys ever to play such authentic garage rock, become the local saviors of things raw and rowdy?
“Nick and I wanted to start a band called the Sexy Assassins,” says lead guitarist and backing vocalist, Mitch Frazier, “but we didn’t know how to play any instruments.” Mix equal parts Chuck Berry, Pete Townshend, Bill Murray and some Irish seasonings into a black cauldron and bring to a proper boil and Frazier would more than likely arise from the bubbling stew cracking wise and noodling on a left-handed, Gibson-model guitar. He slings an axe with the skill and confidence of a player twice his age, making his influences very proud in the process. “This was in 1999 or 2000, sixth grade.”
The Nick he is referring to is Nick Allison, bassist, vocalist and chief songwriter of The B-Sharps. One might even call him the silent leader of the group that seems, onstage anyway, to have little to no administrative infrastructure. But with a little careful observation you can witness him command the group through their set with a stuffed animal’s fist. “(My brother) Alex got a drum set and learned how to play, so Mitch and I actually learned an instrument. He got a guitar and I got a bass,” he states rather matter-of-factly, as if such a big decision was made without much thought as to what the future might hold for this group of friends.
Drummer and band treasurer, Alex Allison (the younger of the Allison brothers and the youngest in the band) completes the sibling-themed rhythm section of The B-Sharps. Anyone with a knowledge of popular music history would likely describe Alex’s percussive performances as a young man channeling Keith Moon ... or Animal from the Muppets. “I’m a rhythms enthusiast,” explains Alex when broached with the comparison to the legendary skinsman.
“Timmy would carry all our gear for us and watch all of our practices,” Frazier says of rhythm guitarist, backing vocalist and the most unpredictable member of The B-Sharps, Timmy Oberley. “He wanted to be in the band and would bring over these cheap Epiphone guitars and smash them at the end of nearly every practice. So we decided to make him a member.” Oberley is a sight to behold in a group that features such natural attention-grabbers. He’s often shirtless, surly yet low key and pulling off some oddly fitting hip-hop dance moves when he’s not needed to round out the quintet’s already robust sound.
“Our neighbor, Logan, was our first singer, but he bailed on us for the marching band,” explains Nick. It would not be until 2005 that current vocalist, Keith Owen, joined the group. “Keith was playing bass in this band called Thor, and I wanted him to sing in our band. So we decided whether or not he would quit Thor and join us over a game of NFL Blitz on Nintendo 64.” Allison won without much competition, leading to the acquisition of Owen. “Give me the 49ers on that game and you can just forget about it,” he boasts.
Owen is probably the quietest, least flamboyant and most mysterious frontman I’ve ever seen, that is until he gets a microphone in his hands. In performance, he will pull out all sorts of big rock moves, including, but not limited to: the helicopter; the maraca; the call and response; and the Roger Daltrey signature windmill. Put the microphone in his hand and he becomes a man possessed. A very Jekyll and Hyde, Popeye and spinach transformation occurs. The mic is also going to end up like that spinach can when the set is complete – crushed and nearly unrecognizable.
With the current line-up locked into place, The B-Sharps have been gigging around town relentlessly for the past three years. Their stage show is unlike anything else in town. It’s loud, rough, rowdy (the bass has been thrown into the ceiling of The Brass Rail on more than one occasion), beautiful, ugly, sweaty and hairy, and it usually doesn’t last longer than 20 minutes. How could it without imploding? It’s funny how playing Chuck Berry tunes loud and fast, yet not quite punked-up, can seem edgy in this day and age. Yet with all the ridiculous antics that happen in that short amount of time, the band stays super tight and totally on their game. Pretty good for a band that “doesn’t practice enough.”
This year’s sold-out Down The Line show at The Embassy could probably be considered the band’s big coming-out party. They had been around for nearly six years at the time, and while many had probably heard their name, only a faithful handful had heard them live. Down The Line sees a select group of area bands and musicians covering classic influences. The B-Sharps performed a non-stop blistering assault of songs by The Who joined by a flu-ridden, yet still top-of-his-game, Kenny Taylor, delighting the capacity crowd. Nearly everyone I have talked to about that show points to The B-Sharps performance as their favorite.
“It was wicked awesome,” says Nick Allison of that night.
“I wish I could have seen myself playing,” jokes Alex Allison. “I like to look at me.”
Since then the group has been busy writing and recording. A scant few copies of their self-recorded EP Doobz On The Way To Keef’z remain for sale at Wooden Nickel, which is news to the band.
“Get ‘em while they last, I guess,” urges Alex. They are currently working on a new album, recording to tape in this digital world we live in. That particular medium suits their sound, and I can’t wait to hear the final product. Songs like “Gimme The Time” and the stellar “B Minor” should be included on the eventual release currently titled Cherchez Kahuna, though that might change (let’s hope it doesn’t).
“B Minor” is one of the finest locally produced songs I have had the pleasure to hear. It’s a story of young love gone right, bored, stale and rotten and a yearning to get back to that old feeling and “toast our drinks to the better times.” To borrow a phrase, it’s a real corker and one of a bundle of songs the band considers “album tracks” or songs they don’t like playing live because they feel they bring the energy down. Nothing could be further from the truth, and, thankfully, “B Minor” is always in their set and will be included on the Battle of the Bands winner’s compilation CD recorded at Digitracks Recording Studio.
The B-Sharps ascension through the rounds of this year’s Battle of the Bands was a true highlight of the summer. Each round the crowds got bigger and the stakes got higher, and the group tore down the back room at C-Street with each performance. But it was, in my and my fellow judges’ opinions, their semi-finals performance that was the best of the event as a whole.
The day of the round saw Frazier in a panic, as he had been car-jacked earlier that morning on the way home from recording. All of his equipment was in his trunk, and he thought all hope was lost. “I’m having the worst/best day ever,” he said at the time, because about midday the police had located his vehicle ditched behind a downtown gas station with his equipment untouched. “The moron didn’t even pop the trunk. He just stole my iPod.”
The band went on to give the loudest and tightest set I’ve ever seen them play, even throwing in a surprise cover of “Do You Love Me?” (The Contours) that didn’t feel gimmicky at all. In fact, all of the classic covers in their repertoire feel genuine in their capable hands. Every time they play “Johnny B. Goode” it brings the house down.
This is not to say that their set at the finals was bad, but you could sense the tension in the air with all four bands that night. “I didn’t know how tense I was until I changed into my white jumpsuit,” reveals Frazier, referring to the piece of wardrobe he dons for important events. The band went on in the final slot of the night, and the bar was packed from the stage to the moose in the back of the room. It was a massive crowd.
“The number of people was staggering. It was flattering to see everyone that came out to support us,” says Alex. “We’d like to thank all the fans and the people that voted for us, especially the ones that are there for every show regardless of it being Battle of the Bands.”
Owen adds, “My grandma came out. She was even dancing … to the music played after everyone was done performing.”
Where does the band go from here? They’ve arguably had the best, scratch that, most epic year of their deceptively long career: playing in front of a packed audience at the historic Embassy Theatre; winning the grand prize in the whatzup Battle of the Bands V; possibly releasing their first album proper sometime by the end of the year; and already being the most qualified band to earn my vote for the Performer of the Year award at the Whammies. What will they do now?
“We’d like to expand outside of Fort Wayne,” reveals Nick.
“…and tour a lot.” adds Frazier.