Spreading the Jams
Promoter Ed Walsh says that until recently, when he and partner Rick Smartt organized concerts they didn’t really see them as business ventures. “We wanted to put on really good parties for our friends,” he says. “Our community has a mind-set that if you take x number of people and everybody chips in, then you have a party. A lot of our friends don’t see it as them paying us for tickets to go to a show, but that they’re chipping in for their own party.”
The community Walsh is referring to is the jam-band scene, and more specifically fans of the groove-oriented end of the spectrum as represented by funky jazz and jazzy funk acts like Karl Denson, Galactic, and Medeski, Martin & Wood. Walsh and Smartt operate as Silver Wrapper Productions, and have been promoting this strain of music in Chicago for about a year and a half.
Both Walsh, 29, and Smartt, 33, are sometime Deadheads who began exploring jazz because it was a key inspiration for their favorite band, and gravitated naturally toward groups like San Diego’s Greyboy Allstars, who began sticking Dead-style space jams into jazz-oriented material in the mid-90s. As Deadheads are wont to be, Walsh is an obsessive music collector, and in the spring of ’99, when he was approached to DJ a going-away party for an employee at Alive One–a now-defunct Lincoln Park watering hole that featured only live recordings on its CD jukebox–he leaped at the opportunity. He nagged the bar’s owners to let him do it again, and then again, more or less once a month for the next year.
“I’d get a group of friends to come check it out, maybe 100 people,” says Walsh. “I saw this audience that appreciated the improv and the free-form stuff of the jam band scene, so I just gave them some really cool funk from, like, 1965 to 1975. It became like a dance party. People just ate it up. I was on my hands and knees under the bar with a five-disc changer and a flashlight in my mouth trying to make sure I caught the ends of songs.” In early 2000 Walsh and a friend, Sam Burick, were mulling over ways to make the parties bigger and more regular, when an acquaintance in Madison approached them about setting up a show for guitarist Melvin Sparks.
Neither Walsh, a corporate software salesman by day, nor Burick had ever booked live music before, so they had to learn by trial and error. “It was completely blind, a charging-ahead kind of a thing,” says Walsh. “We had no idea how to deal with money, who to pay, how to negotiate. Early on my girlfriend and another friend called every club in town to find out what it would take to put it on and to find out if people would even want to do something like that.” Eventually Subterranean agreed to let them use their space. When the show broke even, Walsh was hooked.
In September Burick had to leave Chicago for his job, but Smartt–who’d met Walsh at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that spring–eagerly took his place, becoming an equal financial partner. Since then the pair has produced more than a dozen concerts at a variety of local venues–from the Park West and the Double Door to the Boulevard Cafe and Logan Square Auditorium–with artists like Afrobeat revivalists Antibalas and the neo-boogaloo outfit Sugarman Three, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, New Orleans jazz quartet the Astral Project, former Herbie Hancock drummer Mike Clark, and Seattle jazz-funk trio Living Daylights. They’ve yet to lose money on a show. “We make some money,” says Smartt, who earns his living as an options clerk on the floor of the Mercantile Exchange. “But I’m not about to quit my day job.”
Although the Silver Wrapper E-mail list goes out to only about 450 addresses, Smartt says it’s been their most effective marketing tool, noting that their audience has been very loyal. They’ve also got about 15 volunteers who help make and distribute flyers and run the Web site, www.silverwrapper.com. Most of the shows are taped by fans, as is the custom in Dead and post-Dead circles, and many can be downloaded from the site.
Last week Smartt and Walsh put on their most ambitious event yet, a string of six shows under the rubric Chicago Festival of Funk & Groove. Although they did publicity for only two of the shows–the Funky Meters and Soulive at House of Blues and Robert Walter’s 20th Congress at Metro–the total production costs were four times what they were for the company’s most expensive previous presenta-tion, the Mike Clark show at the Park West. “My friends have been going to New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, and Colorado for the last five years, traveling to see music,” says Walsh. “I wanted people to come to Chicago to see music, for the kind of stuff that we’re into.”
That’s why they planned their festival the same weekend as the Chicago Jazz Festival and the African Festival of the Arts. “When you go to Jazz Fest in New Orleans, it takes place during the day,” explains Walsh. “But you’ve got a town full of music lovers, so there’s a lot of nighttime events too. That’s what we’re going for.” Thursday’s torrential downpour kept the crowd small for a Logan Square Auditorium gig with the Fareed Haque Group, but a jam session at the same venue on Saturday, featuring George Porter of the Meters and young New York jazz pianist James Hurt and paying homage to Les McCann and Eddie Harris, pulled in about 250 people, and Sunday’s double bill at the Park West, which paired the Dirty Dozen Brass Band with the Rebirth Brass Band, did 500.
Silver Wrapper’s next show, this Saturday, September 8, at Martyrs’, is another envelope pusher: Bachir and Mustapha Attar, members of Morocco’s Master Musicians of Jajouka, will collaborate with the insufferably self-indulgent Seattle jam band Critters Buggin. (See Spot Check for details.) “Our focus will always include a jazz element, a funk element, and an improvisational-psychedelic element,” says Walsh. “We like to stay inside those three bubbles, but we’re not afraid to go outside sometimes.”
Drummer Pat Samson has left U.S. Maple due to good old “irreconcilable differences.” Thymme Jones of Cheer-Accident will fill in for the band’s performances at the Sonic Youth-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Los Angeles next month, but Samson’s permanent replacement will be Adam Vida, who’s on tour with Edith Frost through the end of September. Vida also plays guitar in Central Falls and is a fixture on the local improvised-music scene.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.