Musicians know the feeling: Out of nowhere, the first time you make music with someone, even if they’ve been a stranger up until that point, it can just plain click. You feel like you’ve known the person for a lifetime. And suddenly, whatever was missing from your musical project previously becomes just a memory.
Guitarist Tyler Wright and drummer John Harrington, both students at SUNY Fredonia State, had been playing together beneath the moniker Cut Short since 2011. The two eventually added singer Brad Martynowicz, and began developing a raw blend of post-blues and hard rock with a garage edge. Bassist Zenon Maciejewski soon came on board, but something still wasn’t clicking. A gig known as “Rockin’ the Commons,” held on the Fredonia campus, would prove to be singer Martynowicz’s final performance with the band.
However, instead of falling apart, the band was actually about to get a major shot in the arm. Lucy Bell, part of the staff of the Fredonia campus radio station responsible for organizing the “Rocking the Commons” event, was out front during Dollar Diplomacy’s set.
“During Dollar Diplomacy’s set, I heard the singer announce that this was going to be his last gig,” Bell told me this weekend. “I thought, ‘I haven’t sung with a band for a few years – why not ask them if I can join?’ I already knew Tyler pretty well, so I sent him a message on Facebook later that night. And the rest is history.”
Within a few weeks of Bell’s arrival, the band took top honors during the first round of the Hard Rock Café’s annual regional “Hard Rock Rising Battle of the Bands,” grabbing itself five hours of recording time at Mark Studios in Clarence as a prize, but then lost the next round last week – “by one point, to Fiona Corrine, but she was great, and she deserved it,” according to Bell.
A few days later, I caught Dollar Diplomacy at the Tudor Lounge on Franklin Street and was blown away by the group’s raw power – a blend of sultry garage rock, a la the White Stripes and Black Keys, with an urgency and heaviness that suggested the sturm und drang of one of Jack White’s many side projects, the Dead Weather.
Above all of this, Bell brought aspects of Janis Joplin and a young Robert Plant to the table, commanding the stage with a ferocious energy and nailing a broad range of notes with a primal but controlled intensity.
Dollar Diplomacy had clearly found its missing piece.
“That’s what makes the band so good for me, the fact that we share the same influences, from the White Stripes to Led Zeppelin,” Bell said. “We agreed right away on how the music should sound and how we should approach songwriting. We had a common place to start from, and then almost immediately started branching out with our writing style, so that we couldn’t get stuck in a spot where everything sounded too ‘Zeppelin-y’.”
During the band’s Tudor Lounge set, the Zeppelin influence was certainly there, most predominantly in Wright’s guitar playing – heavily redolent of Jimmy Page, circa “Led Zeppelin II” – and Bell’s throaty wail. But the inspiration of the initial wave of British neo-blues bands like the Yardbirds, Cream and the Pretty Things was tempered by a searching quality in the original material, which has clearly assimilated the offhand brutality and irreverent spirit of both garage rock and indie. There’s blues at the core, but it’s a decidedly modern take on the form, as only a band of young musicians in the throes of discovering its collective power could conjure.
Fredonia – my alma mater, by way of full disclosure – has a long history as a breeding ground for vibrant young bands. Artists like the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev can trace some of their earliest recording sessions to the school’s on-campus recording studio, and to the sound recording program that allows them to gain hands-on experience in a professional environment. Dave Fridman, one of the most renowned record producers of the past 25 years, cut his teeth recording bands at Fredonia, and the Lips and Mercury Rev numbered among his projects. Dollar Diplomacy plans to follow suit.
“We take advantage of the sound recording program there, and they’ve been great to us,” said Bell, and the results can be heard on “Burned Bridge,” a fiery mélange of Yardbirds strut and swamp-blues smolder that can be heard via the band’s Bandcamp site.
Bell feels that the multiple influences each band member brings to the party will allow the collective to grow as a songwriting force. Her eclectic tastes span vibrant music from the ’50s to the present day, and include everything from rootsy Americana to indie and art-rock. It’s a startling array of musical interests that belies her youth.
“Recently, I haven’t been able to stop listening to Jeff the Brotherhood’s most recent album, ‘Wasted on the Dream,’ ” she said. “Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull is on a track and does a kick as flute solo! And there’s a new Death Grips album out that samples Bjork’s songs. It’s brilliant. I’ve been listening to Olivia Jean’s album, ‘Bathtub Love Killings,’ as well as Phantograham, early White Stripes, and a lot of blues, especially Blind Willie McTell. And Jerry Lee Lewis. Always Jerry Lee Lewis! I would take him over Elvis any day. Hands down.”
Dollar Diplomacy plays Mohawk Place on May 18.