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By Chris Roberts
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A few miles away from a spanking-new cineplex, a Starbucks, a Borders, and other trap- pings of mainstream exurbia, Charlie's Spirits is one of the biggest music venues in Modesto. Which is to say it's damn small, holding only about a hundred patrons.
In the twilight, just before Charlie's opens its doors for the evening, kids stand around the small, gravel parking lot, muttering among themselves and pulling on cigarettes. The occasional roar of a distant motorcycle punctuates the hush.
Jason Lytle sits by himself in his pickup truck with a camper shell attached, swigging a beer. Friends walk up to say hello, and Lytle steps out wearing a rumor of a sandy-blond beard, a worn pair of pants, a thin gingham shirt, and a dusty orange foam-and-mesh baseball cap plugging Bank of America's Versateller ATM. He chats idly with them for a few moments, and another car pulls into the lot. A young fan steps out and walks up to Lytle.
"Where are the rest of the rock stars?" she asks.
That's only half a joke, if it's a joke at all. Lytle is the lead singer and sole songwriter for Grandaddy, which on this spring evening is headlining Charlie's. The Modesto quintet hasn't yet graced the cover of any national music magazine. It claims no hit songs. It can't boast of record sales in seven figures; indeed, with two full-length albums in wide release, the band's barely squeaked its way into six.
But among a growing legion of critics and fans, Grandaddy has become the sort of rare band that promises to be more than last week's hype. Its second album, The Sophtware Slump,has found a lot of critics falling all over themselves to dub the rustic yet spaced-out album one of the year's best. The band's record label, V2, is pushing the group hard, and while it doesn't see the band as a breakout superstar act, it does see a wise long-term investment in a group that grows bigger and better with each successive album.
Getting this far for Grandaddy meant a lot of typical hard work -- nearly a decade of it. Not unimportantly, it also involved a lot of two-hour drives to San Francisco. Grandaddy has played the city so often it's the band's second home; last month, Cafe Du Nord hosted the record release party for The Sophtware Slump, and Friday the band takes a prized opening slot at the Warfield, one of the city's biggest indoor venues.
People like Jason Lytle start bands like Grandaddy to get the hell out of Modesto, which is nobody's idea of a rock 'n' roll mecca. Lytle himself calls the agricultural community a "shithole," especially as a magnet for musicians. Conventional wisdom dictates that Grandaddy should soon be packing up and moving to the big city to further its career and work more closely with the established record industry.
But Grandaddy's staying put for the same reason a lot of Northern California bands are passing up on the lure of San Francisco: It's too damn expensive.
San Francisco isn't much of a magnet for emerging bands these days, thanks to a rental market that's become prohibitive of a bohemian lifestyle, squeezed out arts groups and concert venues, and increasingly disassembled the infrastructure necessary to start a band and keep it going. Because the living is cheap and there's no need to pay exploitation rates to pencil in rehearsal time, a band from Modesto has time to get its act together and refine its music. Grandaddy is well received by San Francisco audiences, but there's no reason to move into town. Instead, musicians can drive in to take advantage of concert venues and recording studios. When another Modesto band, Fiver, decided to record its new album, it went to Black Eyed Pig studios in Polk Gulch. Fiver lead singer Dave Woody admits to a bit of culture shock seeing the neighborhood's steady stream of drunks, prostitutes, and other shady characters. "And all the while we're underground playing these sweet love songs," he says.
More than ever before, record labels large and small are starting to understand that music scenes aren't restricted to the city limits. While they still keep an eye on cities, talent scouts say, they're not finding vibrant scenes from which they can cherry-pick new bands. The best new talent, they say, resides in the suburbs, exurbs, and cow towns. Nearly a decade ago, the record industry was looking for the next Seattle. Now it's looking for the next middle of nowhere.
In other words, one of the best and most promising bands in San Francisco's music scene hails from a shithole.
In 1912, the city of Modesto held a public contest to come up with a slogan for its small but proud farming town. The winning entry was "Nobody's Got Modesto's Goat." Wisely, the town elders opted instead for the second-place finisher, the jingly couplet "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health." That slogan graces an iron arch on the downtown corner of Ninth and I streets, not far from a strip of restaurants, stores, and a coffee shop that can make a latte just fine, thanks.