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Record Store Day goes super local

Indie record shops foster homegrown talent

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Plug the words "Christ, Lord" into a Google search and more than 330,000 hits turn up. Only about four of them will lead you back to Atlanta's gypsy-esque art-pop outfit of the same name, though. Clearly, it's not the most search-friendly name a band could choose, particularly in an era when most people find new music via the Internet. But if the purpose of art is to jump-start imaginations while prodding the status quo, what could be more ambitious than a ramshackle pop group taking on the King of Kings? "That's when 'Christ, Lord' seems to be the most poignant, and serves a purpose that goes beyond just being a novelty kind of thing," says Christian Ballew, the group's singer and accordion player.

This David and Goliath scenario is precisely how Christ, Lord and fellow locals von Grey are shaking up Record Store Day 2013. The annual event, taking place Sat., April 20, draws throngs of music-obsessed fans into independently owned mom-and-pop record shops around the world for a daylong shopping frenzy. Since April 2008, RSD has raised awareness of the industry-wide plight of homegrown music retailers being pinched out of existence by corporate big-box stores and online music outlets such as Amazon.com and iTunes. Getting bodies through record store doors and generating face-to-face sales of good old-fashioned vinyl is the RSD mantra. The event's momentum has been kicked up several notches over the years as record labels great and small have released scores of limited-edition and RSD-exclusive titles that can only be purchased at participating independently owned shops.

Last year, a major-label co-opt seemed poised to suck the life out of RSD by peppering shelves with nonsense, cash-grab offerings, such as a 311 dubstep remix 12-inch or a Michael Bublé/Ray Charles "Georgia on My Mind" 7-inch. The offerings held little appeal to dedicated music buyers, and stood painfully apart from more compelling titles, such as Devo's Live in Seattle 1981 2xLP or the Feistodon — Mastodon/Feist — split 7-inch. In the modern musical economy, big-box stores and online outlets have created something of a dust bowl effect by exploiting music that already exists and making it cheaper and more accessible without replenishing its resources. Amazon, iTunes, Best Buy, and the like don't run their own labels, or dedicate a significant amount of their budgets to farming out new talent. But even if they did, chances are they wouldn't be looking at local music scenes for potential signees. It's this disconnect with local communities that's creating opportunities for independent record stores.

On Saturday, Criminal Records will release two live albums, Christ, Lord's Live at Criminal Records 09.29.12 and von Grey's Live at Criminal Records 01.01.13, each in a limited run of 500 copies. The albums' arrivals reflect a grassroots trend cropping up around the country of record stores self-releasing the music they'd like to see on their shelves. Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis has a Bobby Rush compilation LP titled Southern King of Blues Funk set to arrive on Record Store Day. Shake It Records in Cincinnati is self-releasing albums by the Greenhornes and Wussy Duo. Jackpot Records in Portland, Ore., has also channeled its energies into releasing a Jandek vinyl box set that includes three of the mysterious avant-garde guitar slinger's earliest albums. The mission is to cultivate music of local, regional, and otherwise below-the-radar significance, and build it from the ground up — acting as A&R at a time when most record labels simply can't afford to do it, and the box stores and online outlets just don't do it. "My store has had a relationship with Bobby Rush for 25 years, when he would send us his records by Greyhound bus from Mississippi," says Vintage Vinyl owner Tom "Papa" Ray. "So often, independent record stores will have a better idea of what to release than whatever label an artist might be with at the moment — after all, we're the collective memory for so much great music."

Shake It Records has been releasing small-run vanity pressings of local records for years, and was a key player in prompting local shops to start pressing more of their own records. Even Record Store Day co-founder and Criminal Records owner Eric Levin cites Shake It as his inspiration in getting behind Christ, Lord and von Grey.

"Creating something of your own for [Record Store Day] is what makes it really fun for us," says Shake It owner Darren Blase. "Whether it's been a vinyl reissue of a previously local CD-only release or a compilation of old Cincinnati blues from the 1920s and '30s, they've been among the most talked about and appreciated releases for our customers."

As progressive as it sounds, the movement is really a return to form, since the concept is as old as the craft of making records. The annals of music history are littered with stories of everyone from Elvis Presley to Master P making and hand-delivering their own early records. In Georgia, look no further than Atlanta's DB Records and its owner Danny Beard, who laid the groundwork for a distinct local music scene by releasing the first few albums and singles by Pylon, the B-52s, the Swimming Pool Q's, and dozens of other local and regional acts — all from the back of Wax 'n' Facts Records in Little 5 Points.

A return to records made by record stores has empowered the independent shops, allowing their roots to grow deeper while shifting the industry focus back to the community. "It's a powerful tool that fosters young talent while revitalizing interest in record stores and the role they play in the industry, and in our lives," Ballew says.

For von Grey, appearances on late-night television staples such as "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Conan" following a self-released EP have already garnered praise for the group's alt-folk songwriting. Christ, Lord, on the other hand, is still carving a path outside of Atlanta. After releasing only a few hundred handmade copies of its Magnalia Christi CD, followed by 11.11.11 : a live session (both of which are streaming via Bandcamp), the group has been sporadically touring throughout the South. With a current lineup that includes Ballew, along with Billy Mitchell (drums), Ryan Lamb (guitar), Adam Mincey (bass), Brandon Camarda (trumpet), Julian Hinshaw (tuba), and Maddy Davis (vibraphone), Christ, Lord's live album is the first of the Live at Criminal series, an ongoing collection of recordings made during the shop's various in-store performances over the years.

"They told us they were recording when we played there, but we didn't think anything would come of it," Ballew says. "After some correspondence, Eric said he was interested in putting it out. We went through the songs, and cleaned up some sound issues, but really, he made it work for us."

Levin says that he picked Christ, Lord and von Grey to launch the live series because they are two of his favorite local bands. "I think they're the cream of the local crop, and they're two acts that could resonate not only here in Atlanta, but nationally and overseas as well," Levin says.

The smoldering gypsy hoedown that drives "Apple," "Kill You While You Sleep," "Saraghina," and other songs throughout Christ, Lord's LP unfolds with rollicking cabaret-lounge flourishes. Ballew's fluid sing-speak swoon takes lead over a musical procession that draws on everything from New Orleans and Latin jazz to klezmer rock melodies, while balancing world-weary tales of excess and redemption. But underneath it all, each song is a celebration. "I try to make everything that I write pretty melodically appealing and minimalist in the way that pop songs work in general," Ballew says. "Nice structures that make people feel good and want to dance."

It's an approach that Levin found appealing for the Live at Criminal series, and one that he hopes to see flourish beyond Christ, Lord's hometown venues. "Best-case scenario is that one of these groups — Christ, Lord and von Grey both — become incredibly popular, either in Atlanta or elsewhere around the world," Levin says. "It would be cool to be able to say that we were able to help make that happen."

Perhaps then, one day soon, a Christ, Lord Google search will kick back more than a few links to the group's music.

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