Garage-band guru

When the lead guitarist and singer from the band Plate leaves the tiny stage mid-song - playing his red guitar in a blazing, thumping rasp - he strolls casually through the small crowd.

It's Saturday night at the Stoney Inn on Del Paso Boulevard, a venerable rock haven offering "StoneyPalooza," which is "10 Great Bands! 2 Great Nights! Only 4 bucks!" according to a flier posted at the door. Electronically linked to the amplifier on stage, the Plate guitarist walks near some battered tables and chairs, passing by a husky, man with a mustache in a colorful short-sleeve shirt, one foot tapping along with the guitar blasts.

Meet Ben Fuentes, one of the world's altruists, who decided to help young bands in Sacramento break out of rock 'n' roll's minor leagues.

More than 20 years ago Mr. Fuentes played at the Stoney Inn in such bands as Bandit and RPM. With long hair back then, a handlebar mustache, flared pants, and a bass guitar in his hands, he dreamed the rocker's dream of blasting away from Sacramento to become a rock 'n' roll comet streaking up the pop charts.

"Sometimes I miss playing," he says, and laughs the laugh of fond memories. "The one thing I really regret is that we didn't have a better chance to write original music. Basically if you wanted to play in the clubs here, you could only do the popular songs of the day."

No more. The bands here play mostly original work, and Fuentes is on a one-man mission to build wider audiences for the young musicians chasing the same dream.

To do this, Fuentes, who now owns a small construction company, created the Garage Band Network (GBN), a grass-roots, semi-professional video collection of performances at clubs by little-known local bands. For the last several years, the shows have been running on nine local access TV stations in and around Sacramento. There are plenty of rock fans to be found among the population of 1.6 million.

Promoting variety

Fuentes, along with other critics across the country, wants to create more access for bands that can't crack through the hold that commercial radio and record companies have over popular music, a hold, they say, that limits musical variety.

In every city across the United States, hundreds of bands shape and reshape themselves playing all types of music in dozens of small local clubs in anonymity. Most have Web sites, or are covered by local alternative newspapers, and are linked to other cities in a vast rock information underground.

"There's so much good music out there," says Fuentes, calling Plate a good band for its songs and driving energy. "I'm fed up with mainstream TV and media in general because they don't give attention to the rest of the good music that is out there," he says. "I really miss the old days of free-form radio when stations mixed what they played; now the jocks simply play the lists and often ignore local music."

Fuentes learned to play guitar during the Vietnam War as a gunner's mate in the Navy. "There were always new guys coming through," he says. "You'd learn country from one guy, blues from another, and rock from another. It was great."

When he launched the GBN on a shoestring with volunteer help four years ago, Fuentes's vision was a GBN in every city running 24 hours a day, or a cable channel of GBN. He wanted it to spotlight the same variety of music he heard in the Navy.

"And once a week GBN would have a conglomerate show with a band from each of the venues," he says.

"With a GBN in every city, and all of them contributing live performances, it could be incredible. And we'd also have a garage sale selling stuff, and show movies."

In the beginning Fuentes charged each band a modest $100, and he absorbed a lot of the costs and did all the editing, sometimes spending up to 40 hours on a tape. Because each performance was live, he soon learned that it was critical to select clubs with good sound systems, as each instrument had a separate microphone. Two cameras are trained on the performance, and the bands play as many as four songs. He still charges $100, and bands must provide their own sound equipment.

"Some bands are disciplined, others are very spontaneous," he says. "The ones that make it are disciplined in the business end of things. They are on time, promote themselves, and seek out people who promote them."

At the Stoney Inn, drummer Christopher Amato, who is also a promoter and has a day job with the state welfare department, says the Sacramento band scene is getting more intense.

"It's still friendly and less competitive than San Francisco," he says, "but we have local bands like Oleander, Deftones [who have a gold album], and Zoppi who have signed with major record companies."

Oleander, described by one critic as playing "crashing grunge rock," appeared on the GBN in l997. The band's 1998 album is currently on the Billboard 200 chart.

Such successes help spur the local unknowns to remain focused on the dream, like Casey Wells, the lead singer of Smarty, a power-groove-punk band that played at the Stoney Inn.

"Man, I think Smarty is going to go the distance," he says. "I got into rock for different reasons than what keeps me in it. You go through a phase when you want to be a rock star and make money, but then you grow to appreciate the songs or the instrument you play, and you discover you love it so much you just want to continue and be an old man playing somewhere."

Bands sign with major labels

It is this raw energy that comes through GBN performances, captured on tape by Fuentes, who hopes his efforts will lead to further development of GBN. "I'd love to carry this on," he says later, after leaving Stoney Inn, "but I don't have the money or any way of marketing it."

MTV once contacted Fuentes, and he sent them a tape of the Oleander performance. "They called back, asking me about bands with members under 18. They were developing a show that might team a young die-hard fan with a singer. I asked if they had looked at the tape of Oleander, and they said, well, no, we lost it. With that kind of an attitude, why should I get involved with them? And Oleander was signed by Universal Music Group and is touring nationally now."

Recently GBN collaborated with Digimag, a Sacramento online music magazine, to orchestrate a live performance of three bands over the Internet one night. To Fuentes, this might be the future for GBN and all the garage bands out there that want to be seen and heard.

"We got an ISDN line into the studio," says Fuentes, "and it was that easy to have the potential to broadcast to the whole world, not just Sacramento." ISDN stands for Integrated Services Digital Network, which is a system of digital phone connections.

At his home in Folsom, Calif., Fuentes takes a visitor into a basement workroom with a wall of old photos and posters, two TV sets, CD players, recorders, and other electronic equipment. He shows a GBN tape of Drop The House, a band with a lead singer whose voice echoes a blend of blues, rock, and country.

"Musicians today have a rich history of recent American music to draw from that we didn't have," Fuentes says. "That's what GBN has done so far, present a lot of bands that are adding to that legacy."

*The Garage Band Network can be reached at 916-985-2928 or e-mail www.bfuente@ns.net. The GBN Web site is www.garageband.net

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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