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More than ever, in an age of laptops as folk instruments, computer-driven music is the rule. It’s not a snub to acknowledge it, but it is partly what drove former Wilmingtonian Ivan Howard to think back in time–before the laptops, even before the four-track indie band mentality–when organic collaboration with a large group of skilled musicians could mean a big, celebratory, velvety, sexy sound.
Not long ago, in an attic in Richmond, Va., Howard and cohorts–complete with horn and string arrangements–hit the red button on a reel-to-reel tape machine and recorded sleek, funky music owing nothing noticeable to any indie rock conventions (memo: Howard is singer-guitarist of genre chieftains The Rosebuds) and everything to the broader musical ambition he’s pushed his whole career.
Under the name Howard Ivans, the group last month released a stylish first single to international acclaim and is now touring in support of it, with a stop booked this Friday in Wilmington. Doors at Bourgie Nights (a new events-space adjoining the restaurant Manna, at 127 Princess St.) will open at 9 p.m. With longtime local favorites Summer Set opening the bill, the cost is $10. (Tickets may be purchased online here)
Howard Ivans’ new single, “Red Face Boy,” is a body of nighttime music in a plush suit, a dance with Rick James sans the lunacy, a moody Marvin Gaye nervous about the gal he’s eyeing. It comes with flashy ribbons of horn playing, violin swoops and dotty guitar work riding on a minor C note. (Listen here)
The backing band is that of Virginia-based songwriter-producer Matthew E. White, which Howard calls “one of the best live bands in the world right now. So these shows are gonna be really grooving and fun. It’ll be somewhere between getting lost in the intro to ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin” by Michael Jackson and last-call on a party cruise.”
In an interview Monday, Howard discussed the quick and wide reach of the Howard Ivans sound–reviewed favorably last week by British daily newspaper The Guardian and prior by heavily eyed music site Pitchfork–but also his connection with the Port City, his former home.
“The friends I have here are amazing … and it just always feels good to come here and play,” Howard said of Wilmington. “The first time I ever picked up a guitar was in the dorm room at UNCW, and I get to see those friends every year when I go on tour all across the country, and we all have that bond of the supportive music community that we came up in [in Wilmington.]”
Since relocating (with The Rosebuds) to Raleigh several years ago, bouncing from city to city ever since and now based in Portland, Ore., Howard has been a frequent mention in pop music publications. Well known is his ability to craft songs that are essentially the supreme pizza of catchy indie-pop, which gave The Rosebuds a pretty clear road to notability. Signed to Chapel Hill’s Merge Records for a debut work that landed in 2003, they were able to win respect by successfully changing their sound album to album, a plan that’s gone disastrously for so many other bands. Howard’s songwriting always worked for fans and critics, and with every change (from sunny to dark, from woody to electronic) came a gold star.
His not-unpredictable move to urban strut could be compared to Greg Dulli’s guidance of Afghan Whigs, which rose with a messy alternative sound in the early 1990s and ended with an icy, dark R&B. The Rosebuds’ first album, 10 years ago, “Make Out,” was upbeat fun; its most recent, late last year, was a song-for-song cover of Sade’s 1992 record, “Love Deluxe.” Associated notes from the band acknowledge Sade’s contemporary R&B influence throughout Howard’s songwriting.
His participation is also noted in the soft-touch R&B of indie-supergroup Gayngs, which released a full-length in 2010 and performed the opening track live on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”
But Howard on Monday emphasized that the Howard Ivans sound, regardless of his own inclinations, is not a solo product.
“I wrote the songs and gave them [the backing band, called the Spacebomb Orchestra] a few references of songs and an era of music I wanted to reach and then gave the Spacebomb Orchestra free reign on what direction to push it,” he explained. “Then we molded it together. It just felt like the right thing to do. Music now seems to be all computer driving and no one really has a band playing together in a room any longer. But this project was recorded to reel-to-reel in [White's] attic with five guys building a feeling together.”
Howard Ivans will be releasing a full-length soon, Howard said Monday (and The Rosebuds’ next album will be out in spring 2014. In the meantime, fans can download a free copy of “Christmas Tree Island,” a Rosebuds album of all-original Christmas music with artwork by Wilmington’s Clay Johnson.)
Friday’s opening band, Summer Set–whose principal, Brian Weeks, is a former bandmate of Howard’s and has toured as a Rosebuds musician–is scheduled to take the stage at 10 p.m.
Summer Set formed in 2001 in Wilmington (Howard was on bass at the band’s first show) with a sound half Pavement, half later-period Beatles. Since, the songwriting has expanded with synthy ’80s pop influences. (Listen here)
Friday’s show will be a first for Bourgie Nights, the new extension of Manna, the Princess Street new-American cuisine spot owned by Billy Mellon. The room itself isn’t a stranger to live music–in past incarnations it was The Pour House and Bella Festa–but Mellon said this time around it won’t be a bands-every-night venue.
Three-quarters of the time it’ll be a lounge and overflow room for Manna patrons, but will be used as a special-events space as well, he said. Mellon, a longtime music promoter, said he wants Bourgie Nights’ music repertoire to be highbrow with acts on occasion rather than booked steadily. He called the Howard Ivans-Summer Set show a perfect start.