LAUNCH music conference & festival 2011
at the Lancaster County Convention Center, et al,
Lancaster, PA (21-23 April 2011)

I never should have walked into Annie Bailey's with that bag in my hand. People stared. Some smiled with obvious condescension. And I was marked, at least until I had a chance to get back to my car, as a new arrival.

On the first night of LAUNCH, I procured my media badge and goodie bag from an efficient registration staff at the event table, which was set up in the lobby of the Lancaster County Convention Center in Penn Square, Lancaster, Pa. I quickly learned, however, that toting the goodie bag in view was a no-no, a mark of shame for the just-arrived. There was no great need anyway; besides the all-important 2-disc package of featured music, the bag was primarily filled with schedules (which I'd already printed out from the website) and advertisements. Yawn.

Thursday was opening night of LAUNCH, a music festival and conference that features emerging artists among more established acts and draws heavily on regional musicians while still drawing performers from far afield. Now in its third year, the event boasts nearly 200 performers and events dotting venues in a four-block radius in downtown Lancaster.

On the first night, attendance was spotty; the big crowds were on Friday and Saturday. Even so, there is always at least a few performances going on somewhere in the vicinity, so no matter how many you get to see, you're missing even more. Decisions, decisions.

I quickly set off for my venue of the night, Annie Bailey's, an Irish pub in downtown Lancaster that has all the trappings -- good food, great beer selection, moody Irish decor (but rarely any Irish music) -- but it's a venue with little accommodation for music.

VoxologyKimberLiana, the solo songstress in the spotlight when I arrived, was shoved in the corner by the restroom stairs. She sang her heart out as waiters rushed by with trays and customers looked to relieve their bladders ... but no one seemed to mind the inconvenience too much. After all, the focus was on the singer, who presented sweet vocals, a big smile and an overall fey demeanor that won over the small but attentive audience. Her most loyal fans clung to the wall directly opposite her corner as everyone else squeezed past. KimberLiana, of Lancaster, wrapped up her set with a soulful, a cappella number called "Home" as, just a few feet away, a pair of start-up label reps discussed her possible future.

The duo Voxology, from Mechanicsburg, Pa., took over next, muscling through a few feedback issues with the house sound to put on an appealing, if brief, show. "We've got just a little bit of time here," singer/percussionist Les Vonderlin said. "We're going to do as much as we can."

Mike McMonagleTheir sound has strong folk appeal, with notes of bluegrass driven by Kevin Neidig's artful way with a guitar (or, on just one number, a banjo). Both have good voices, which are put to even better use in harmony. The duo's original music springs from unusual sources, such as Neidig's latent desire for NASA service and a tale from Stephen King. Vonderlin keeps a lively beat with a pair of snare brushes and what appears to be a cardboard box she got in the mail. All told, the performance was spirited and thoroughly polished, their music full of joy.

Mike McMonagle, also of Lancaster, followed. A lone singer with a guitar and harmonica, he quickly established himself as a front porch and moonshine kind of singer, percussing along with his music with a little old-fashioned foot-stomping.

"I'm going to play you some tunes," he said. "I got a half-hour to make you guys love me. ... OK, you don't have to love me, but I am very lovable." Loose-limbed and a little bit scruffy, McMonagle seemed jittery, perhaps over-caffeinated for the event, but his Dylanesque approach had definite folky class.

There was more music to come, but that was the end of the night for me. There was plenty more ahead.

* * *

It was a rainy Friday evening, and the first crack appeared in LAUNCH's seemingly flawless organization plan.

Several bands were scheduled to perform at Steinman Park, outside the Pressroom restaurant just a half-block from the convention center. But the inclement weather made that plan unworkable, and the bands were shunted to a convention center hallway.

That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, except for a couple of problems. One, the Pressroom staff didn't seem to know what was going on. Some employees weren't aware music had even been scheduled for the site, and others, including the hostess, were visibly annoyed by questions from LAUNCH attendees trying to find the new location.

Worse, the hall where those bands ended up faced two conference rooms, each hosting very loud rock and metal bands. Voxology, the acoustic duo from Annie Bailey's last night, started the hallway lineup, matching their unplugged sound against the highly amped cacophony of not one, but two rock outfits, even as the soulful pop sounds of Quebec artist Rose-Marie La Posta -- on my itinerary for another site on Saturday -- drifted down the hall from the convention center lobby.

It was poor contingency planning, something I hope LAUNCH organizers address before next year's event.

Voxology didn't have a chance, but both musicians showed a lot of heart as their songs disappeared into a wall of ambient sound for an almost nonexistent audience. (The dismal crowd was no fault of their own; few people knew they were there, and most of those who stopped by quickly left, complaining of the noise.) For those who remained, Voxology had less volume but more art, and it was an excellent show.

Oceans in LoveEmily Yanek"Well, I can't hear anything," Neidig said between songs. Vonderlin grinned, and said, "For some reason, I feel compelled to mosh."

Once Voxology wrapped up their show, my entourage for the evening -- my wife, Katie, and daughter, Molly -- drifted into one of the conference rooms to catch the tail end of Oceans in Love, a Hanover-based rock band with some craft to their sound. Molly was impressed enough to implore her deafened dad for the band's CD, which she got. Then we headed up to the lobby to hear a few songs from Waitin' on a Train, a lively, old-timey band from York that was driving hard on their strings (mandolin, guitar and upright bass) and singing earnest story-songs in excellent harmony. It was an energetic sound I liked, but they, too, were on my plan for Saturday; for now, I was heading back to the hall for Emily Yanek. We were early, so we had a few minutes to spare for Harrisburg band Ducky & the Vintage, which I found to be mostly loud. Maybe if I hadn't already developed a headache, I'd have liked them more.

Yanek, a girl in black at a keyboard, looked like she might be a moody, angst-ridden singer, but her good cheer, constant smiles and lofty vocal range quickly dispelled that impression.

By this point, people were starting to figure out there was music in this corner of the convention center, and the gathering audience, if nothing else, provided a fleshy buffer between Yanek and the opposing two rooms, where Ducky & the Vintage and Modern Yesterday from Washington, D.C., were holding court. Yanek was up to the challenge, with her Broadway roots shining through as she belted out songs with titles like "Aviator," "Sad Magic," "Losing Steam" and "Please, Please, C'mon, C'mon."

Shannon Marsyada TrioYanek gave a good performance, as did the Beggar Folk, another folky vocal duo we heard only in passing as we left through the lobby en route to another LAUNCH venue. The duo, husband and wife Josh and Trista Lamb, gave good service with their Appalachian sound, with him adding guitar to the mix, her loving the microphone with a rootsy gusto and an unknown third person adding a touch of fiddle.

Alyson GreenfieldOur next stop was Isaac's Deli, where New York's Alyson Greenfield was wrapping up and Hazelton's Shannon Marsyada Trio was on deck. Dinner for us was inside, although the musicians were outside in the damp and chilly air; at least a roof over the deck kept them relatively dry. I can't say a lot about the music there, as the sound didn't penetrate the glass walls and I was frankly too tired, hungry and cold to spend much time outside. What I heard was good, and the food at Isaac's was, as always, tasty.

That was the end of my Friday LAUNCH experience. After taking my entourage home, I toyed with the idea of driving back downtown for a few tempting acts -- Chatham Street, Camela Widad Kraemer, Canyon and Andrea Nardello were among the lures -- but a migraine benched me for the night. My loss, I'm sure.

* * *

Besides plenty of music showcases, LAUNCH offers a series of panels and workshops for the working musician. A highlight of the weekend was Can You Handle the Truth? during which several recording professionals gave honest -- often brutal -- feedback to musicians. But that, my friends, is a whole 'nother story. Go take a look.

But now, back to the music.

On Saturday, we started our broadcast day at Marion Court, where classically trained singer Rose-Marie La Posta, just down from Montreal, interpreted pop songs and show tunes with jazz keyboardist Noah (sorry, she never said his last name at the show, and she doesn't list him on her website). Drawing on artists from Lady Gaga to Andrew Lloyd Weber, La Posta proved she has vocal chops; now, she needs to get away from the diverse covers and find her own sound.

The Static TreesWe hurried next to Isaac's, where the weather now encouraged outdoor seating. The Static Trees were up, with a very stylized look -- top hat, big sunglasses, green velvet pants and a really wide white tie on him, with an early '70s vibe and blue suede boots to die for on her. He (Dylan Whitlow) provides guitar and harmonica while she (Nikki Barber) adds hand percussion. Both sing, and well -- not so much vocal harmonies as layered melodies.

This artful Gettysburg duo has a Tom Petty meets June Carter Cash kind of sound, and I mean that in a truly complimentary way. They quickly drew a nice-sized crowd to the open-air venue on a pleasantly cool spring night, and even a broken string didn't stop Whitlow from rocking out at the end, sixth string flapping.

Waitin' on a TrainThis is a duo I want to hear again.

Then, again, with the choices. Waitin' on a Train was up next, and we were held in our seats by their Appalachian breakdown -- original music steeped in centuries of tradition. This trio's vocal harmonies drip 'shine, and the string work is excellent all around. It helps that they can accelerate to a breakneck pace, particularly on mandolin.

Waitin' on a Train is Tony Staub, Paul Wykowski and Adam Sullivan from York County. Talented all, Staub really hit me with a "wow" moment, high up on the mando's E string, in "The Rocks & the Sticks & the Snakes & the Bones," a longwinded title but a track that was worth the whole weekend right there.

Man, I hated to leave, but I forced myself to hurry down past Lancaster's gorgeous Central Market to the Millersville University-Lancaster building (formerly the Pennsylvania Academy of Music, itself a sad tale of financial over-reaching and hubris that killed a mighty musical resource for the region) for a few moments of Lancaster's own Loretta Bilieux, then a second round with KimberLiana in the main lobby.

KimberLianaKimberLiana -- nee Kimberly Narcisi (see interview with the artist here) has a delicate vocal touch, which she put to good use on songs like "Cereal King," "Fireflies," "Falling" and "Rain, Rain," the latter of which was just written that day.

Leticia Joy, also from Lancaster, followed with a porcelain voice and a backup band featuring guitar, drums and upright bass.

A gifted singer-songwriter with her first CD in the works, she sounds a bit like Edie Brickell without the Texas twang. She has a dreamy mien, but still can belt out an emotive chorus.

She's definitely another artist I want to hear more from.

Then it was back to Annie Bailey's, where the festival -- for me, at least -- began. The pub was much more crowded than it was on Thursday, with a long line of non-LAUNCH tagholders waiting forlornly at the door to get it. Inside, it was elbow-to-elbow crowded.

Dana AlexandraThis time, I packed in by the stairs to hear Dana Alexandra, a Stewartstown singer who rocked the panel at Can You Handle the Truth? (although she apparently wasn't present to hear their rare burst of praise). Tonight, Alexander started her show with a shot of whiskey -- whether Irish or Kentucky, I didn't ask, but it quickly endeared me to her. Accompanied by a guitarist and drummer, she easily pierced the din of the crowd with well-oiled vocals. She didn't even blink when a pair of burly furniture movers hauled a couple of chairs right past her nose.

Poised and self-assured, she presented infectious pop-driven melodies and toe-tapping beats, mixing original material with a few covers (including Kesha's "Your Love is My Drug," which for my money exceeded the original).

And then, for me, it was over. Sure, there were still a few more acts here and there in the city before the festival officially closed for another year, but I certainly had ample music to digest for my first LAUNCH event.

The verdict? Well, it was awesome. A few planning and sound hitches aside, the conference and festival came together fairly neatly.

My only suggestion: more variety. Oh, yes, there was tons of diversity in sounds and styles, but the festival was dominated, top to bottom, by rock, metal and punk, with a smattering of folk and country acts included for good measure. Many of the acoustic performers I spoke to were a little overwhelmed by the bombast of the bigger, louder acts. But, while many festivals focus on specific styles, LAUNCH has the potential to be a truly cross-genre music festival. They just need to make a little more room for the folk performers, squeeze a little more country and bluegrass into the mix, and maybe consider a spot of jazz here and there.

Only three years old, LAUNCH has plenty of time to grow and a welcoming city to spread its roots. More venues, more choices, and a national -- even international -- profile can only make it better for musicians and patrons alike.

They're certainly off to a great start.

by Tom Knapp
14 May 2011

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