You’re siting in a nosebleed seat at the Wachovia Center or, worse, in the section of Lincoln Financial Field generally reserved for upper-level goonery. You look down to see the headliner—a distant dot—and estimate that you may be one-quarter of a mile away, sitting in a plastic seat, holding a ticket stub that just set you back half a week’s salary.
Following are profiles of musicians who are the antithesis of the big, impersonal shows that often define contemporary music. They do not play to spectacle and pageantry. They are not famous, rich or ride in the cushy separateness of private aircraft. They sit on stools at festivals and churches and cafés. They light up our nights at seaside bars. They tour in cars. They sing songs with such intimacy, it feels as if they are directing their lyrics straight at you. They give us music we love, and when they perform, we share their air.
The diversity of music in Delaware is best defined not as a collective force but by contributions made by one artist at a time. These are their stories. (See the Web Exclusives portion of this site for additional profiles.)
The Instrument | Sharon Sable
She is bluesy yet coquettish, her phrasing and pitch perfect as she lacquers a Van Morrison tune with a voice of butter and whiskey. Stay with me, it implores.
I’ll take you somewhere. Sharon Sable’s journey was never intended to lead here, singing jazz at small clubs. She wanted stardom. But that doesn’t always prove to be the life you envisioned.
A student of voice, Sable performed in high school as part of a trio. During a showcase for Q102, the group, called Choice, caught the attention of people in the music industry. Then Sable and two replacements moved to Atlanta, where they worked with Grammy-winning producer-songwriter Babyface. Stardom seemed to be in reach.
But for the two years there, Sable felt as if she were living someone else’s dream. The music sounded contrived, formulaic. “I remember feeling, ‘How did this happen?’” she says. “I worked hard to get there, but once I was actually there, it never felt like any of it was mine. I was being pressured to be someone I was not.”
The producers eventually singled out one girl, Alecia Moore, who would achieve worldwide fame as the performer Pink. But by then, Sable had found a new love. She listened to Nina Simone, Chet Baker, the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim. She went to Italy to record background vocals for international pop artists. Everything melded—the music, her vocals, the hearts of the musicians she was getting to know. “I was in a place of healing after Choice ended,” Sable says. “The music had beaten me up, but through it I was able to find my true voice.”
Sable has begun to record an album in a modest studio in the Wilmington home of guitarist Shawn Qaissaunee. She also performs up to six times a week, playing with Qaissaunee and others at Deep Blue and Gallucio’s. “Jazz is knowing yourself, to be comfortable enough to think of your voice as just one instrument among many,” she says. “I’m in awe of the common thread heard between a singer, the drummer, the guitarist and the other musicians. There is so much baring of the soul, but in the end, the music gets to touch people.”
Page 2: The Jazz Man | Bruce Anthony
The Jazz Man | Bruce Anthony
Bruce Anthony’s fingers move across the neck of his acoustic guitar, as the other hand picks and strums. Slowly, a saxophone player and a drummer begin to fill in, then the trio takes off on some kind of hyper, wiry roundabout. Anthony’s dreadlocks, graying slightly, sway as he leans toward the microphone.
The important think about jazz improv is not where it is going, but how it takes over the players. Anthony is, at the moment, in another dimension.
Anthony learned to play when he was a child, but between 1980 and 1995, he never touched an instrument. He worked as a forklift operator, a busboy and, most recently, as a restaurant manager. After a long shift, he would return to his home in Dover and collapse on his couch. His wife told him he needed a hobby.
Days later he picked up an electric Ibanez Art Star at B&B Music and began to play. It had all come back. Everyone in the store stopped to listen. “This guy’s a jazz guitarist,” the owner said. “He’ll get old respectably.”
Anthony began playing open mic nights, coffee shops and gallery openings. Within a year, he had built a network of players and venues. Word of his talent spread. Before he knew it, other local jazz cats began sitting in. He visited Stockholm, Sweden, to see his brother Chuck, a working jazz man, and sat in with him. The once far-off notion of being a full-time musician suddenly seemed possible.
Anthony quit the restaurant job. For the past eight years, he has earned his living playing restaurants. There are no record deals or concert tours in his future. He is content as a local mainstay, which gives him freedom to be a craftsman, perfecting the art of playing and performing.
“My goal was to make a living as a musician, anonymously, and I’m doing it,” Anthony says. “When you burn really bright, you tend to burn out really fast. I want to be the musician who can grow old in Delaware, still playing well into old age, singing jazz standards.
“I want to live for a long time, and I want the music to go with me.”
Page 3: The Harmony | Onyxx 4
The Harmony | Onyxx 4
In the den of Tom Hairston’s home in Bear, microphone stands await a rehearsal for Onyxx 4. One by one, each man slips into place: Hairston, the baritone; tenors David Thomas and Donald Whitworth; and second tenor Reginald Starkey. They begin to sing The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and, suddenly, the air becomes sweeter.
To listen is to feel the essence of soul. The Onyxx 4 repertoire numbers well over 200 songs from Motown and Stax Records, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and others. But gospel hymns were each member’s introduction to music. “Every one of us sang in the choir as children,” Thomas says. “It’s then, even before you are able to read a note of music, that you first establish a sense of harmony, a continuity among voices.”
Thomas grew up in Smyrna. He would attend Motown revues in Wilmington. In high school in Newark, New Jersey, Starkey skipped class to sing doo-wop in the echo of a lavatory. Whitworth grew up in St. Louis listening to Ray Charles and gut-bucket blues. Hairston, a Wilmington kid, listened to soul on WDAS in Philadelphia.
In 1978, Hairston was singing with the record player at a party. Thomas introduced himself. “Do you know how to sing?” he asked. “I know I can sing,” Hairston replied.
During their first rehearsal, they found they could harmonize. Since then, Onyxx 4 has played from Ocean City, Maryland, and Baltimore to barbecues and churches. They did their 30th anniversary concert at Smyrna Opera House. They’ve sung the National Anthem at Veterans Stadium and performed at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre.
They also performed recently in a Delaware State University talent show. Most of the evening was given over to young rappers and hip-hoppers. So when Onyxx 4 took the stage, dressed in matching crimson jackets with black pants and turtlenecks, they were introduced as “old school” by the emcee. On Billy Stewart’s “Sitting in the Park,” Starkey took the lead. Whitworth, Hairston and Thomas harmonized in layered syncopation, and together, a quartet of middle-aged men singing in cool rhapsody blew the room away.
Page 4: The Architect | Marcus Watkins
The Architect | Marcus Watkins
The Groove Lounge at the East End Café in Newark has just begun, and hands of all colors float above a spray of laser beams. What’s happening onstage is not so much music as it is a throbbing mix chiseled from asphalt and audacity—a poetry reading set to the hardest beat imaginable. Since Marcus “Marchitect” Watkins formed The Lounge in 2000, it has helped hip-hop artists get their work out of their garages and onto a stage.
But it’s The 49ers, the band he shares with Jas Mace, that fills Watkins’ creative heart and soul. Since 1995, when he and Mace began performing across the country as members of the now-disbanded The Outfit, the duo has drawn lots of attention. They have since shared stages with the hottest names in hip-hop, including P. Diddy and Mary J. Blige. They starred in, and produced the soundtrack to, the award-winning documentary “Guilty or Innocent: Use of the N Word.”
Then they caught the attention of Goon Trax Records, a pioneering hip-hop record label based in Japan. In 2007 Goon Trax released “State of the Art,” The 49ers’ first album in Japan. In 2009 they released “The Ultrasound.” Watkins and Mace have toured Japan twice, playing to full houses and audiences who know every word to every song.
Even on the first listen to a 49ers track, it is clear that Watkins and Mace are not typical of the genre. Though hip-hop relies heavily on production and technology, Watkins’ lyrics demand attention. They avoid the clichés that bog down many hip-hop songs. The tunes are messages of hope and promise.
“My parents exposed me to a lot of writers when I was younger, so I grew up around books,” said Watkins, who mentions Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the group Public Enemy as influences on his writing. “It used to be that hip-hop would draw you into wanting to read those authors and leaders and want to know more about them. Hip-hop used to be about enlightenment. It used to mean something.”
Watkins’ music intends to get back to that time. “Our music is about balance,” he says. “If you listen to the entire song, by the end, you’ll understand that balance.”
Page 5: The Summer Band | Burnt Sienna
The Summer Band | Burnt Sienna
Less than 20 minutes before Burnt Sienna is scheduled to play only the second show at the brand-new Funkey Monkey in Wilmington, the club is still empty. Drummer Mike Intelisano worries that it’s too soon, that word hasn’t hit the streets yet. Then, all of a sudden, it happens.
People spill into the place, mostly crazed college kids home for Christmas. All 400 squeeze 10-deep against the stage as the band starts to pound the tar out of their instruments and empty their lungs.
With Mr. Greengenes, Kristen and the Noise, and Love Seed Mama Jump, Burnt Sienna has defined The Dewey Sound. Their covers not so much performed as torn open and played with like toys on Christmas.
The members are road warriors. A typical month’s tour calendar will take them from The Deer Park Tavern in Newark on Thursday to Philadelphia on Friday to Boston for the weekend. They play weddings in Virginia, halftime at Eagles’ home games and the Shamrock Fest at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
The band formed 12 years ago at UD and has changed ever since. Frontman Billy Gale, with the band four years, is the senior member. Pat Smith, Tony Mancuso, Chris Flood and Intelisano have been aboard only a few months. After many shows, the acoustic guitars, notebooks and pens come out, because for all of their power as performers, this Burnt Sienna is a band of writers. “We’re all feeding off the performances and putting it into writing songs on our own,” Gale says, “and the writing is amazing.”
This year, they say, is the year they hit a studio to record their originals. But for now, the art of writing exists with commerce, which means living under the safe canopy of Wildly Successful Cover Band. “Believe me, we’re not dissatisfied being in Burnt Sienna, but we’re not satisfied,” Mancuso says. “We want to go to the top.”
“But we want to make enough from Burnt Sienna to make our individual art a reality,” Gale says, “and that starts now.”