On another night, in another city, Joti Rockwell '97 takes the stage at The Point wearing a red Hiram t-shirt. The t-shirt's design parodies the College logo, with "Haverfunk" replacing "Haverford" beneath the Founders imprint; on the back is a list of all previous members of Hiram, including Rockwell, who took over the reins after Charlie Bonnell graduated in 1994.
Tonight, however, there will be no horn section, no percussionists, no bass player -- no one whose name appears on Rockwell's back; only his childhood buddy Nathan Hubbard and a couple of acoustic guitars. Together, they comprise Rockwell Church, and they've rolled in from New York to play two shows at the Point before heading north again to Boston for a gig the following night.
The Point, which sits across from the fire station on Lancaster Avenue in the middle of Bryn Mawr, is the reincarnation of the Main Point, the folk club that hosted the likes of Dylan and Springsteen in the 60s and 70s. The smoky intimacy of the old joint has given way to a pre-fab casualness straight out of Crate & Barrel; only a framed portion of the Main Point's "wall of fame," highlighted by the signature of Doc Watson, remains to remind the patrons of the club's earthy legacy.
But Rockwell Church is undaunted by the sanitary setting. The soundman's request that the audience step outside to smoke cigarettes "or anything else" elicits laughter and eases the crowd into the evening. The sound is good, and Rockwell's relaxed stage presence and banter lend the evening a casual, personal feel. A good share of the audience is comprised of students from Haverford and Bryn Mawr, many of whom seem well acquainted with the band's folk-pop repertoire. A smattering of applause greets the beginning of several songs.
Unlike the majority of striving musicians, Rockwell actually makes a living at it, and he has been touring and playing around the country since he graduated two summers ago. Signed to Nashville's Compass Records, Rockwell Church has released two albums and an E.P. and sold over 10,000 CDs. Last year, they were one of 120 acts nationwide who made it to the preliminary round of Grammy nominations in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category.
In a given month, they may play as many as twenty shows, traveling from town to town in a '94 Explorer packed with guitars and gear. "It's exhausting to travel constantly, and difficult to spend lots of time away from people you're close to," Rockwell says. "The perks are great, though. We never have to wear suits, and we get to play McDonald's Monopoly when it's in season. We have a laptop with cool video games, a car stereo that sometimes works, and a car that usually works."
The duo got its start when Rockwell and Hubbard (whose middle name is Church) started recording songs on a four-track while still in high school. When Hubbard got more serious about songwriting during his freshman year at Princeton, he visited Rockwell at Haverford and they put together a set of songs and started playing shows at their respective schools. The band's "big break" came when Hubbard played some songs for John Alagia, a producer who has worked with the Dave Matthews Band, among others.
Under Alagia's guidance, Rockwell Church recorded its first CD, Inches from the Ground, during the fall of their sophomore year (an effort, incidentally, which included Ben Folds on drums). Continued gigging over the following two years led to a second album, Through the Fall, which the duo recorded as college seniors. After graduating, they hit the road, booking their own shows at first and then signing on with a Nashville booking agency. Compass signed Rockwell Church last summer and re-released Through the Fall. "I was thrilled when we got signed," Rockwell recalls. "I still can't get over the fact that I actually get paid to play music."
Rockwell's surprise may stem from the fact that he's been playing music "for fun" since he can remember. He has played the violin since he was three, the piano since fifth grade or so, and the guitar since high school. His various bands during his high school years included everything from indie rock to Allman Brothers covers to a Spinal Tap tribute act. However, he recalls Hiram, for whom he played the keyboards, as "the ultimate rush." "It was music I'd enjoyed but hadn't had the opportunity to play," he recalls. "I felt like we had a band that could play anything."
A double-major in music and physics at Haverford, Rockwell will enter a Ph.D. program in music at the University of Chicago in September. Rockwell Church will, however, continue playing and touring. "Whenever you see me, I'll be doing music," says Rockwell. "That's my scene. I'll never make a lot of money at it, but it's why I'm here."
california killed my dragons,
mixing my left coast
with my right
mixing my left coast
with my right
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