Akron: The Liverpool of the Midwest?

The city that brought you The Black Keys and the staggering combination of talent and sweat equity that is LeBron James, is serving up some well-forged acts appearing in all kinds of clubs and bars every day of the week.
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What's next after Nashville or Austin?

Akron, Ohio -- Imagine a great night to go out to hear music and great city to do it in. Were you thinking Monday Nights in Akron, Ohio?

You may be surprised to learn that some of the most accomplished musicians and songwriters coming up in the growing Americana movement are emerging these days from Akron, with bands like The Speedbumps, who bring a recognizable Rust Belt spin unique to the region, blending hard-earned craft with an unadorned, authentic style.

The city that brought you The Black Keys and the staggering combination of talent and sweat equity that is LeBron James, is serving up some well-forged acts appearing in all kinds of clubs and bars every day of the week.

Akron, the former Rust Belt casualty, has been springing back to life, with repurposed industrial architecture, a thriving arts community, inventive cooking and a culture that's always favored hard work and earned success. The music scene here parallels that broader movement of stubbornly overcoming adversity by upcycling the obstacles and detritus of the past into art.

On Monday nights, the club to visit is Baxter's on Main Street in downtown Akron. Baxters is a jewel of a spot with a warm atmosphere and an inviting open sidewalk cafe.

The room is long and somewhat narrow, with a good deal of brick, wood and mirror, giving the sound a natural reverb that adds liveliness and fullness to acoustic solo performers and small ensembles. The music is free and the local craft beers are hoppy and well chosen.

But the main lure is the quality of players who come, thanks to the leader of the Monday Open Mic, Erik Urycki, who is also the singer of the ascendant local band, The Speedbumps.

If you haven't yet heard them, The Speedbumps are recent winners of the American Music Award for songwriting and tour nationally. Their brand of Americana, with its spare tuneful melodies and precise string-heavy accompaniment makes them contenders for a significant national presence. Urycki's voice has a bit of the breathy soulfulness of John Mayer, but with a fuller, more rounded tone.

According to regular patrons, Urycki draws some of the top talent in the region and often brings out their best performances, by setting a high bar with his own strong, nuanced vocals and guitar playing in the first set. He is often joined singer Abby Luri, with whom he writes songs and plays with in The Speedbumps.

Urycki says he started the Open Mic in 2012 to foster a community of singer-songwriters. "When I started out, open mic was a gateway into the music world. A chance to iron out what you do. Learn how to be comfortable on stage," he said. Urycki used to go to Cafe Lomas on Grant Street, where Bob Wood was the host.

"Back then I said if I were ever a full time songwriter, I would try to run an open mic and help others to do it. And here I am."

On a recent Monday, Chuck Auerbach, father of Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, sat on the patio, listening to the musicians. Auerbach senior is a songwriter himself who has sold songs to Nashville artists. He was chatting with Eric Oswalt, a local artist who wears a red bandanna on his head in the Willie Nelson fashion. Oswalt is a seasoned pro, who writes his own material in addition to reworking melodic Beatles, Elvis and Stones material.

"I go around to different open mics, I usually last for about three weeks, then I move on," Oswalt said. "This one I've stayed with because the musicians and the people are great here -- also I like the flat bread pizza."

Frank Laury, the bartender on Monday nights, may be the biggest advocate for Baxter's Open Mic Night. Even though Monday is universally known as the worst night to make a living as a bartender, Laury has chosen to work Monday's for over a year.

He says he enjoys the people and the close-knit group that has developed around the Open Mic Night. Laury is also a singer and guitar player, who will on occasion take to the mic to interpret American songbook standards in the vein of Dean Martin, Sinatra and Michael Buble.

"People come from all over. Even the people who struggle a bit here are better than average," Laury said. "And Erik gives everyone freedom. He'll always let you play another song if you're feeling it. Amazing guy, amazing artist. We're blessed to have him here."

Brian James Feltner is an Akron resident and a Monday night regular. "This is the most beautiful bar in downtown Akron. The aesthetics, the acoustics are amazing," he said. "You can hear even the quietest instrument all the way in the back."

Feltner, who plays in a band called The Help!, said that almost everyone who comes out is a great performer. Many are professional musicians, who chose to come out and play for free to spend time with their peers and cultivate a network of musicians and friends.

Feltner, like Urycki, thinks there are some important emerging bands in the region -- besides his own of course. He mentioned The Featured Players with Nick Wilkinson, Tall Tales and Anchor the Moon.

"Akron is the Liverpool of the Midwest," he said. "I'm proud to be part of the Northeast Ohio scene. We have no trouble when we travel. The caliber of musicians is so high here, that when we travel we can play anywhere and people respond."

Nick Wilkinson is another regular who has been coming since the Open Mic started in 2012.
"The staff is just really cool here. They're really involved in meeting and introducing everyone," he said.

Wilkinson said that what's special about Baxter's and about Akron in general is that
everybody does what they want to do musically. He added with a sheepish grin, "and it's not a huge city with a million things going on -- so people stay home and practice. You can hear that."

Wilkinson's band, The Featured Players, play what he describes as a Garage Folk Rock. He is a fan of local acts like Winslow, Angie Haze, Josh Hill and Mo Mojo.

Of the community that's emerged from Baxter's, Wilkinson said "We've all become really good friends. We all come every Monday and hang out. And when new people come they become part of the family."

Holding on to Akron Roots

Urycki said he's been encouraged by many in the industry to move to Nashville, where his management team and artist like the Black Keys, Eric Church and Jack White are based, but he says he plans to stay and build his fan base in Akron.

"I think that's what makes Rust Belt Americana special -- the connection to the family, friends and roots we have where we grew up -- and I think our music would lose that if I left," he said. "

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