Mobtown Studios, Baltimore, MD
March 10, 2011
Mobtown Studios has a good thing going for the microshows. The shows are free by first-come, first-reserved, and about 20 people can bring their own beer and cram into the living room of a Baltimore rowhouse. At any given microshow, three or four of those people are likely to be the band. We sit on pillows on the floor. The knees of the front man are likely to be about 20 inches from your eye level. A guitar amp might be 20 inches from your left ear.
If this sounds uncomfortable to you, there are a few chairs in the back of the room. But I think using them would be missing the point. The shows are meant to be intimate.
Engineer Mat Leffler-Schulman records all the microshows and archives them at the studio’s website, releasing an album’s worth of live material for free streaming almost every month. The unusual distribution method earned them a “Best of Baltimore” award from the City Paper for being a label, even though Leffler-Schulman never intended Mobtown to be such.
June Star, an alt-country band that can at times swell to a seven-piece guitar and piano orchestra, stripped down (if you can call shedding three members stripping down) to acoustic guitar (frontman Andrew Grimm), pedal steel (David Hadley), electric guitar (Burke Sampson), and piano (Michael Ward). Before the show, the band took requests from a catalog that stretches back a decade. There were some unusual picks, including two unreleased tracks, and one request from Grimm’s former roommate for a song that has probably never been performed in public. There were some leftover requests that could not be fit into a 70-minute set list, so Grimm and Hadley holed up in a basement home studio and recorded an entire disc worth of acoustic-and-pedal-steel alternate takes. They sold these as tour fundraising products.
Mobtown likes the shows to have a unique element. For instance, The Manly Deeds, whose microshow I saw last year, decided to go with “A Ghetto Home Companion” old time radio show. To fulfill this requirement, Grimm decided to vary his stage banter. To highlight the differences, I’ve created the following chart:
- Usual Grimm banter
This is a song about love . . . [song here] . . . Thank you.
- Mobtown Microshow stage banter
This is a song about [what it’s about] . . . [song here] . . . You’re so sweet
The most intriguing part of this performance was that, despite the presence of two sizable amps, there was no amplification on Grimm’s vocals. Although he’s a strong singer, he’s hardly a blues shouter. But the band’s command of their dynamics throughout the night was exceptional. In many ways, the need to float under Grimm’s singing during the verses and choruses made the hooks and guitar solos that much more powerful.
Having seen June Star several times as a full band, this was a welcome change for me and gave me a new appreciation for the songwriting. In fact, I preferred what I heard from this string-and-keys combo to the orchestration on their recently-released Lower Your Arms, where the energetic county rock sometimes buries Grimm’s strong lyrical content.
Grimm and Hadley are on their way to SXSW as I write this, and will be heading back home through Georgia and North Carolina as this goes online, playing shows throughout and using the money from the fundraiser CDs to “sample fine southern U.S. pork barbeque products.”
—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)
[Editorial note: Listen to the whole show here: http://mobtownstudios.com/june-star-microshow]