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Still catering to popular tastes after 40 years

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

April 4, 2008

According to a recent article on online indie music publication, Pitchfork Media, the radio industry has fundamentally changed since the heyday of English DJ, John Peel. Essentially, Peel felt that his mission was to educate and inform listeners in addition to entertaining them, exposing them to sounds and styles with which they might not be familiar.

Radio stations often face a dilemma between challenging listeners and pacifying them, the aural equivalent of offering either cough syrup or chocolates.

Brandeis’s ambitious radio station, WBRS, tends to stick to the latter category, exemplified by its slogan, “something for everyone.” Its 40th anniversary concert this Saturday in Chums was a testament to that populist philosophy. Ranging from alternative rock to hip-hop and ska, it drew a diverse crowd, if a lamentably small one.

The concert featured four bands that have had a close relationship with WBRS over the years, including the Diamond Mines, Djamaterra, Zullo and the Allstonians. The Diamond Mines’ lead singer is the son of a community DJ, Djamaterra includes Brandeis alumni, Zullo is comprised of current Brandeis students, and the Allstonians have played several times on the Joint as well as several years ago at a precursor to Springfest.

The concert opened with a rather subdued audience of about twenty-five people sitting around on couches. The Diamond Mines played an energetic mix of alternative rock, seventies soul and punk, including trumpet and saxophone.

Although self-described as “psych-soul-punk rock ‘n roll,” this probably only proves accurate if “psyched to be playing at Brandeis” counts as a genre. Splitting the difference between Elvis Costello and Dr. Dog, their well-crafted arrangements compensated for derivative songwriting.

Unfortunately, Djamaterra was less satisfying, sticking to a nineties alternative style that reminded me, more than anything, of several bands back home that used to practice in their parents’ basements. Their combination of acoustic strumming, funk-inflected bass lines and emo vocals sounded boring if accessible. No wonder only inebriated groupies seemed enthusiastic.

Zullo followed, forcing the crowd on their feet with spirited Roots-esque hip-hop. The seven-piece band coalesced into a rich and incisive ensemble sound, featuring two rapper vocalists, a trombone, and a beast of a twelve-string axe.

This was certainly the highlight of the night, not to mention the popular favorite. Zullo remains a staple of the Brandeis music scene, and I encourage anyone who hasn’t seen them to catch a show immediately.

Finally, the Allstonians kept the momentum going with their jaunty pop ska and reggae styling. By this time, the audience was grooving along to the music, dancing and applauding appreciatively. Although they weren’t as distinctive as the band that preceded them, the local group revealed their chops and jovial stage presence with great aplomb.

Overall, the concert’s strengths and weaknesses appeared emblematic of the station as a whole. While none of the music sounded particularly innovative, there were enough crowd-pleasers to make it a worthwhile Saturday night activity (if you couldn’t find a date to the Trisk/SEA dance). John Peel might have been disappointed, but Alan Freed surely would have approved.

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