Saturday, September 27, 2008

Buzz Poets

buzz poets
from Buzz

In 1997, a flashy, trashy band of rockers hit the Pittsburgh scene with a high energy, alt-rock style that was a cross of ska, rap, pop, and punk rolled into one fireball.

Area fans looking for something different from the usual classic rock/R&B sound that the city thrived on embraced the group. They were the Buzz Poets.

Ron "Tripper" Garrison (guitar & vocals), a Texas transplant, hooked up with locals Phil MacDowell (guitar), Todd Demont (bass, guitar, keyboard) and Dave Robertson (drums) to form the band.

They thought their material was cutting edge enough to name themselves after the avant garde beatnik generation of the 1950's, although in truth their early tunes were more noted for scatology than lyric content and their live shows featured crotch rocking antics on stage, ala Mick Jagger.

The plural at the end of the name was intentional, because the band collaborated on their songs as a whole, not depending on a single writer as so many other groups did, although Garrison and MacDowell did the heavy lifting.

And oddly, to a man, the group cited the clean-cut Beatles as their musical muse.

In 1998, they made their move to break out when they won the Graffiti Rock Challenge, and were a mid-Atlantic semifinalist in the Discmakers Music World Series. The performances created a surging positive buzz for the band.

After selling 1,000 copies of their first self-released album, "Planet Buzz," they spent their prize money on a second pressing, changing one song, and recording some new material to jump start future projects at McKeesport's Soundscape Studio.

In January of 1999, they won the Ernie Ball Music Man Battle of the Bands. Some 5,000 groups competed in the guitar string maker's national bash, seeking their fame and fortune.

The contest finale was held at the Los Angeles Hard Rock Cafe during the music industry convention, and everybody who mattered was there. Ahmet and Dweezil Zappa were judges, along with a panel of music biz suits.

The shows put their act in front of dozens of A&R reps from indie & major labels and big-time booking agents, showcased them for management companies and gave them a face for the local and national media. Drinking tequila and horsing around backstage before the gig, the Poets put on the performance of their life in LA.

MacDowell recalled that "Everything went right. I think it was one of the best shows so far in our career." But like the tale of so many Pittsburgh acts, the sizzle never turned into steak, even as they opened for groups like Weird Al, 311 and Blink 182.

Gaber tried to both manage and play, and between what they were looking for in creative control and having no one to represent them full-time to the industry, it never happened. It didn't help that they drew from a number of musical genres, and never established a distinct pigeon hole that the suits look for in a band.

The Buzz Poets were a hard-working and popular road act, and often played 200 or more gigs a year. It's hard to fault Gaber when most of his time was spent just booking dates.

They instead took a stab at the underground route to success, pushing their music through college & FM radio, P2P and file downloads, plus word-of-mouth from their live shows. It got them a name, some play, and a reputation, but not a contract.

The Poets cut more LP's and EP's, adding "Alcohol Abuse Live," (1999) "Pretzel Sex," (2000) "Buzz Poets" (2001) and "Two Sides" (2003) to their discography.

Their last two efforts showed a more mature side of the band after releasing what was basically rowdy and sexually loaded frat house stuff in their earlier CD's. The Poets also released four music vids.

The band had remarkably few personnel changes over its eight year run as Pittsburgh's top alt-rock group.

Tripper was a spike-haired songwriter, a former violinist and son of born-again Christians whose stage persona was anything but righteous. If his mom ever caught his act, she would have surely taken some soap to his mouth to wash it clean, hehe.

MacDowell was his songwriting sidekick and came from a family with roots to composer Edward MacDowell, who wrote the Tin Pan Alley standard "To a Wild Rose," still popular fare for marching bands.

Tim Gaber, of Brownie Mary fame, was the Poet's manager until original bassist and founding father Demont left for personal reasons. Gaber ended up filling both roles.

Robertson was was replaced behind the kit by Ron Lavella, who played in PUSH and Too Tall Jones. The Robertson split was brought on by the dreaded "creative difference" syndrome.

He wanted the band to take a heavier metal direction, while the group was more comfortable in its alt-rock niche. The Poets said it was an amicable split, although there were rumors that it was causing some dissension in the ranks.

Justin Sarra, a DJ, joined the Buzz Poets and added his turntable, keyboard and special effects board to the group's repertoire.

The thrashy alt-rock band called it a day after a farewell show at Nick's Fat City on Friday, July 23, 2004. The ultimate blow was delivered when Garrison went back home to Texas to get married, where he now runs a video production company (and wears a tie and has a short haircut).

For nearly a decade, the Buzz Poets were Pittsburgh's top alt band, and a wildly successful live act. And they'll be forever remembered as another member of the long list of shoulda-been City hitmakers. It's a tough town to break out of in the music industry's eyes.

And guess what - they're back. Three original members (Phil MacDowell, Tim Gaber and Justin Sarra) plus guitarist-singer Zig (The Delaneys) and drummer Matt Gray (Dirty Black Horses) reformed the Buzz Poets in 2009. Missing are Tripper and Lavella, who now plays the kit for Vertical Horizon. So even if you missed the nineties, you'll still be able to catch their act once again.

"Lemonade" live at Club Laga (and if four letter words offend you, pass on this vid!)


Jess said...

Man, I really really miss the Buzz Poets. They provided me with many great memories of my 20's! I had the best time getting drunk with my friends dancing my butt off to the Buzz Poets.
My favorite show of theirs ever was when they opened up for Shaggy at Banana Joes.
I busted out my cds last week and have been listening to them on repeat!

Ron Ieraci said...

Jess - glad to hear you're spinning the old tunes and recalling the old times.
That's why I put this together - there are a few of us musical dinos that cut our teeth on the soul and doowop acts of the 50's and 60's and associate the good times with the songs of that era, and I've gotten shout outs for the G-Force, Floors, House Rockers, and other groups from the more recent past that have the same effect for the younger generation.
They say music is timeless, and a good song should evoke memories of a place, a time, a person; otherwise it's just a bunch of notes.
Anyway, I'm just being long-winded saying thanks; if a post brings back a memory or three, Old Mon is happy doing his thing.

Mark said...

I used to see and listen to these guys a lot back in the late 90s. I have a couple of there CDs and remember distinctly when the won the Ernie Ball contest. I remember seeing them at the IC Light Amphitheater at Station Square and talking to the bass player letting him know how good they were. I believe they spent some time on the Warped Tour. They were a fresh change in the music scene for Pittsburgh. I moved to San Jose, CA in 2001, and I always wondered what happened to those guys. Thanks for the recap!

Ron Ieraci said...

Hey Mark, thanks for the note. The BPs could play, and their career was too short. But hey, they'll be glad to know their fan base goes from coast to coast!

Mark said...

These posts got me interested in the BPs again, and some of the other Pittsburgh bands I used to listen to (the Clarks!). I just dug up my BPs "Alcohol Abuse Live!" CD, and I forgot that I had it autographed by all of the band members. Just an interesting side note for you!

Tim Gaber said...

Wow Ron I couldn't have said it better myself! I think I even learned a thing or 2 about my own band... Well done. One update for you. The extremely talented Juan Vasquez from the band Sauce has joined the Buzz Poets for the rare appearances that we make these days while Zig has his hands full with his many other projects.
I now own and operate the Pittsburgh Winery, and urban winery/music venue in the heart of the Strip District.

Kane the killer said...

In Feb/March of 2001 I was in Pittsburgh for a couple months for contract work. I local waitress that worked at the Fridays(I think) in Monroeville invited me to go see the Poets at Fat City. Never having been to P-burgh before I had never heard of the band. I was fucking blown away with how good they were. They medley of cover tunes that included NIN was awesome. I really wanted to drag them to back home to Dallas.